Charlie Chaplin, in anything, is b.o., and in “Modern Times,” his first self-starring production in five years, it’s box office with a capital B. The picture is grand fun and sound entertainment, though silent. It’s the old Chaplin at his best, looking at his best–young, pathetic and a very funny guy. He remains the world’s No. 1 pantomimist, and the greatest panto artist since the Frenchman Severin.
Whatever sociological meanings some will elect to read into “Modern Times,” there’s no denying that as a cinematic entertainment it’s wholesomely funny. Every whimsy, every humorous turn, every comicality is born of a legitimate situation.
The pathos of the machine worker who suffers temporary derangement, as he tightens the bolts on a factory treadmill to a clocklike tempo, gives way to a series of similarly winning situations. In each the victim of circumstance meets temporary frustration, almost inevitably resulting in a ride in Black Maria. He makes this free hop to the hoosegow three or four times.
The merriment that was Chaplin’s in “The Rink” is resurrected for some convulsive roller skating nonsense in a department store. The slapstick artistry of Chaplin as a bungling waiter, is revived in another sequence where he’s, this time, the singing waiter. It’s in this concluding episode that Chaplin breaks his silence with a silly doggerel to an old Spanish fandango tune titled “Titina.” Incidentally, Chaplin here discloses a surprisingly good voice.
When finally achieving what promises to be a semblance of economic security the menace, in the form of the law, enters to arrest Paulette Goddard as a refugee vagrant. Their ultimate escape, in a brief chase scene, irises out on an open-road, hand-in-hand fade-out, another throwback to the old Chaplin technique.
“Modern Times” is as 100% a one-man picture as probably is possible. Produced, starring, authored, composed (special music) and directed by Chaplin, the pantomimist stands or falls by his two years’ work as it unreels. Not only does he not falter but Chaplin perhaps scales new heights in maintaining a barrage of guffaws that is the more remarkable considering the advanced comedy efforts that have hit the screen since the advent of sound.
With Chaplin it’s not just sound and panto. Dialog is almost negligible, coming through a recorded advertising sales spiel or through a televisor as the president of the steel company barks his orders to accelerate the gait of the machine shop. Chaplin, however, has mainly capitalized sound through the medium of his music. An excellently conceived musical setting, batoned by Alfred Newman, is well nigh as eloquent as language. When the music is inadequate Chaplin frankly recourses to plain titles.
Some of the titles are extraneous and the new school of film fans may even be startled, along with their elders, at this seeming crudity after being steeped in dialog for so long. But every Chaplin feint and fall, gesture and gesticulation, movement and mummery sometimes speaks more eloquently than phraseology. If nothing else, the pantomimic novelty of the Chaplin school of comedy–let alone the artistry–should find favorable b.o. reaction.
His bunglings aren’t slapstick-stilted in the crude sense. Each manifestation of boobery is the gesture of a hapless, pathetic little figure (in his world-famous baggy pants, skimpy coat, moustache and cane) who sets into motion as astounding series of complications.
The fun in a department store (when Chaplin almost miraculously inherits a night watchman’s job) would formerly have served as enough meat for an entire twin-reeler. Here’s it’s just a hindsight along with the shipyard hokum; the grand clowning with Chester Conklin in the mill; that socko comedy sequence in the forepart with the automatic feeding machine which well nigh wilts the auditor with the barrage of laughs; the business with the “joy powder” planted by an imprisoned “snow bird”; the luxury in the jail as an accidental hero, etc.
Paulette Goddard, a winsome waif attired almost throughout in short, ragged dress and bare legs above the knees, is naturally introduced. She registers handily. Chaplin’s old standbys, notably Henry Bergman (also Boniface of Henry’s Hollywood restaurant, and an assistant director on this picture), Chester Conklin, Hank Mann and Allan Garcia, contribute nicely.
This is Chaplin’s first picture in five years. In February of 1931, almost to the day, his “City Lights” then, as now, defied the advent of sound and dialog and refused to deviate from the Chaplin silent formula. Five years later the compromise is almost as unswerving except for the highly interpretive musical setting, the brief off-screen dialog effects and his one song. This is a hokum interlude, born of a frantic situation when he sings off the cuff, on which Miss Goddard had scribbled the words of the song. Forced to improvise to “Titina,” it’s a lampoonery of a lyric rather than a straight comedy attempt.
Film has been two years in actual work and Chaplin should today find as wide a world-wide market as in yesteryears.