Friday, August 3, 2012

Masterpieces Classics: Modern Times (1936)

Note: This is for a film essay project for

Modern Times: A film for the 99%.
By Sean Wu.

In an episode of the popular American TV show, The Office, secretary Pam Beasley dresses up like the Little Tramp for Halloween. She makes a reference saying she can’t take off the iconic bowler cap, for she would look like Hitler. Watching that clip, I was curious if American audiences would understand her dress-up. I think they would.

The Little Tramp is debatably the greatest characters to grace the screen, surpassing the likes of Indiana Jones, and Hannibal Lecter. What defines this character, in my opinion, is not the hat, moustache, or the cane. It’s the smile, which is always shown. In all of the films that feature The Little Tramp, I do not recall a tear shed.

In all of the Little Tramp features, City Lights, The Circus, debatably The Gold Rush, and Modern Times, The Tramp is always smitten by a leading lady (usually a woman that Chaplin was smitten with off the screen), and tries to impress her. In the first three, those are really his main conflicts. In Modern Times, that conflict is secondary, compared to his struggle to live well.

Modern Times, as the titles states, is a film for the 99%. It is always relevant, and always will be. It, lightheartedly or not, depicts an economic era, where The Tramp gets and loses multiple jobs. Along the way comes a gamine girl, played by Paulette Godard. She’s trying to make ends meet like the Tramp. In one scene, she steals some bread, but is saved by the Tramp by saying he was the thief.

Throughout the film, I stated that the Tramp obtains and loses many jobs, always comically. In one sequence, the Tramp is hired to be the night watch at a department store. Instead, he invites the gamine, possibly to lighten the darkness in his tunnel of loneliness. When the store has a break in, the thieves are his former co-workers at a factory. Small world, I guess. The Tramp and the thieves talk about their lives and how the Great Depression has affected their lives. The Tramp gets drunk, and falls asleep on the job.

When I first saw Modern Times, I was 8 years old. I did not understand the economical layer of the film, but saw it more so as a comedy. It was my first silent film, and it’s still my favorite. I consider it has Chaplin’s best, and as the Tramp’s last hurrah.

I read on IMDb’s trivia page that all coherent vocal sound comes from electronic technology. Loudspeakers, TV’s, the new gadgets. Even though the Tramp SINGS at the end, it is not coherent. It is gibberish, comedic, but universal. Most of the words are from a TV which a factory boss says. He is testing new technology, and the Tramp is selected to try it. Chaos ensues.

Overall, Modern Times, is successfully conveys comedy, but its underlying tones of recession, great depression, and technological innovation are far too important to ignore.

I imagine seeing the film 50 years from now. Its age well over 100 at that time, I can imagine thinking to myself on how realistic this film is.

Sean Wu is a self-proclaimed junior film critic. His studies in film are recent, and he expects his knowledge and understanding of film to improve. You can see his other writings at

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