Thursday, December 18, 2014

AFI Top 100: #78 "Modern Times"

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

Nowadays, silent films are a hard sell for audiences. There tends to be an anticipation of boredom associated, so many people just write them off. I've been guilty of this myself. I love heavy dialogue and witty scripts, and silent films usually lean more towards the physical to tell the story. But over the years, I've grown an appreciation for artists like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and the star of this week's AFI Top 100 film, #78 Modern Times: the incomparable Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin's characters were often derelicts, drunks, wayfarers, or--his most famous--tramps. The Tramp character became iconic, first in his early short films, and then were the center focus of films like The Kid, The Circus, and #11 on the AFI list, City Lights. He was always a kind-hearted, but accident prone, buffoon, and his appearance as The Factory Worker (again, as his Tramp persona) in Modern Times is no different.

The story is set in a not-so-distant future (a future for 1936, anyways), where Chaplin is employed at a factory where he does monotonous labor day in and day out. He consistently can't catch a break, and mucks up the works at the factory, and eventually finds himself accidentally leading a socialist union strike. Over and over again, he gets tossed in jail for some absurd misunderstanding, only to get out and cause ruckus all over again.

At the same time, The Gamin (played by Paulette Goddard)--by very definition of her name--a street urchin, is having troubles of her own. She has no qualms stealing food for her family, but dreams of a home of her own. Chaplin and Goddard's characters cross paths, and romance blossoms oh-so-suddenly, like it does in movies like this. Like children, they innocently play house and the Tramp goes off to find work, but they just might not be cut out for these modern times (get it?)

The most famous and iconic part of this film is the beginning. The imagery of the giant machinery cogs, and Chaplin's hapless body being pulled through the inner-workings. The massive and elaborate sets that are so impressively conceived, I hope they're still intact in a studio backlot somewhere, salvaged from the now non-existent United Artists studio. It would be a travesty to have scrapped it.

Chaplin's physicality is perfectly suited for this opening sequence. The sped up film is frenetic and his mannerisms capture the spastic energy of factory work. The 'machines are taking over' concept is most visible here, and for such a memorable sequence, it's a shockingly small part of the movie. It's also the most successful part.

Even though I'd seen the movie before, I had forgotten that there is quite a bit of talking surrounding the silent-up-until-now Chaplin. For the first time on film, Chaplin "speaks" his first cinematic words in the form of a 'gibberish' Italian song he sings in the very memorable restaurant scene. And while the movie is normally considered a full silent film, it came out at a time when talkies weren't just a new fad, but the norm! In 1936, it's a testament to Chaplin's appeal that this film was still such a hit.

There are plenty of gags and stunts littered throughout the picture (like the blindfolded rollerskating 'stunt', which is really an elaborate illusion) to keep the energy of the first act from fizzling out, but the story and themes begin to fall apart at a certain point. Modern Times has a real Forrest Gump thing about it, albeit less focused. Our Tramp finds himself in situations, both good and bad, that he didn't choose, and has an inadvertent impact on society that are completely beyond him. I love the idea, but no matter how endearing that lovable tramp is, I can't help but start to lose interest.

Sometimes, it comes down to focus, and Modern Times starts with one really, really wonderful concept, but essentially forgets about it halfway through. That being said, it's still one of my favorite full length Chaplin films, and it's just the first of three on our epic AFI journey.

Are you a Chaplin fan? Or are you like me, and prefer the stylings of Mr. Buster Keaton instead? ;)

Rating:  ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next week for #77, All the President's Men  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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