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Although Charlie Chaplin has re-released the best of his movies, don't hold your breath in anticipation, because it will be six months before the entire series is shown. I would guess that this second look at his movies, armed as critics are now with the desperate desire not to let a great film go unnoticed, especially a lowbrow film, will reveal a great deal of autobiography--Chaplin's own autobiography as he imaginatively reconstructs it in several of these films, and the autobiography of Hollywood during the war years.
Modern Times now is playing for a few more weeks at Brookline Village, and it may well be the most autobiographical of all the films. This Depression fable (1936) concerns the adventures of a mentally imbalanced factory worker whose continual ups and downs produce a great deal of whimsy as an antidote to the cruelty around him. Chaplin's spirit is the only element tying the entire film together; otherwise it is a hodgepodge of styles and aims. It is nearly the last silent to come out of Hollywood, but has some dialogue. It combines pathos, slapstick, leftist social critique, and very personal whimsy on Chaplin's part.
The poor factory worker he plays, after months on the assembly line, and after confronting the hilarious monster of the Automatic Eating Machine, finally goes loony, throws every switch in the factory out of whack, and goes on an oil-spurting spree. As Chaplin gets himself mistakenly arrested as a communist leader (and that one has to be seen to be believed), a poor street gamine (Paulette Goddarde) steals bananas. On the dry hot streets of Los Angeles in the middle of the depression the gamine is nearly arrested, until the gallant Chaplin recently released from jail, takes the rap. Chaplin takes us to jail with him, but only for the immortal nose-power scene is which the poor convict comes across a bit of cocaine and begins a series of pirouettes. Eventually, Chaplin encounters the gamine again in a paddy wagon from which they blissfully escape together.
At this point, the film moves from left to right, as domestic sentiment takes over from hifalutin political ideas. Later episodes take Chaplin and his girlfriend into a department store at night, where the tramp blithely roller-skates blind-folded. On the brink of disaster, he is blissfully unaware of a stairwell until the minute he takes his blindfold off, at which point he cannot help but fall in. The movie contains several similar gems of poetic understanding of human predicaments. Chaplin, forced to work as a singing waiter, loses the words to his song, and is forced to sing in multi-lingual gibberish, thus marking the debut of Chaplin's voice in films. By the film's end, the tramp and the gamine walk off in the sunset, no doubt looking for other great movies.
Not only is the film a mixture of sentiment and politics, but also a mixture of silent and sound. One large gag based on sound--gurgling stomachs embarrassed Chaplin and a minister's wife when they are forced into close quarters--falls on its face. Chaplin's use of the camera is downright unimaginative, as are the sets. The one famous exception is the factory, and its expressionistic construction of cogs upon cogs and wheels within wheels. When the factory worker slides headlong down the conveyor belt into the bowels of the factory, the image of a human being slithering through the cogs graphically fixes an image of machinery's devastating psychological effects. The machine becomes a vast abstraction, fueling itself with people.
The real secret of the movie's appeal now lies in its confrontation and revelation of Chaplin's self. It should more properly be titled My Times than Modern Times, for it's nothing less than a disguised autobiography of Chaplin the slumdweller child from London who finds himself confronted with the appalling luxury of America. The music hall entertainer, who arrived along with a troupe called the "Wow-Wows," found himself surrounded with fame and riches, but remained a loner. Chaplin poetically objectifies his situation in the image of a tramp night-watchman in a department store. All the luxuries which normally belong to the public, are his for one evening. He can dress his gamine in the finest furs; he can even make love to her on a plush bed, but it is all a Cinderella story. In addition, Chaplin at the times of the movie's filming, was carrying on a relationship with Paulette Goddarde not unlike his poetic objectification in the film--they were two lonely people who found each other quite by accident and lived together for several years, and it was Goddarde's gamine quality that convinced Chaplin to cast her in Modern Times. Their relationship slowly altered, however, and by the time Chaplin filmed The Great Dictator, the two were more like father and daughter--a not dissimilar relationship depicted in that movie.
In the context of the rags to riches Cinderella theme, Chaplin also deals with his artistic personality. When the beleaguered factory worker finally breaks down, he does not collapse, but dances a ballet-mime. And near the end of the film, when Chaplin must sing before a crowd and loses his words he improvises a song much better than the original. In each case, Chaplin arrives at a moment of extreme tension and reacts not by anger, but by artistic creation--a rather extraordinary effort at transcendence. And in the image of the singing waiter, Chaplin confronts the threat of the talkies, and invents his idiosyncratic answer. It is this entirely personal quality that Chaplin, as writer, director, and star of Modern Times puts across to his audience by confronting and revealing himself at every turn--finding beauty in the most painful situations--even when in jail he is up on nose powder, and even when he breaks down he dances.
The film deals with much more provocative material than it possibly can cover in an hour and a half. The depression, socialist labor movements, a consumer oriented society, Chaplin's life, Paulette Goddarde--Modern Times covers all this ground, but as a newsreel might, quickly, and superficially. Certain images remain provocative, certain moments captivating, but the variety of subject matter indicates that the film is a transition from the sentimental to the political, and so leaves the audience at once satisfied and perplexed.
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