Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking at Charlie — Modern Times (An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin)

Charlie Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889. To honor the old boy, we herewith present Alan Vanneman’s witty discussion of one of Charlie’s masterpieces, originally published in Bright Lights in November 2009. (Since then, newly restored versions of Modern Times, and indeed all of Chaplin’s work, including the early Keystones, have become available.)

* * *

“Buck up! Never say die! We’ll get along!”

The massive success of City Lights (1931) ended Charlie Chaplin’s worries about his position as Hollywood’s reigning comedy star. There were surely people who would never forgive him for his mistreatment of his second wife, Lita Grey, but, for the most part, Chaplin’s image, and his bank account, were as secure as ever.

Both to promote City Lights and to celebrate its completion, Chaplin embarked on a world tour that would eventually stretch for a year and a half. Clearly, Charlie felt he had earned himself a vacation.

Not too surprisingly, Chaplin discovered, as Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson would learn in their turn, it’s not easy for a superstar to hang out with people he can’t fire. Everywhere Chaplin went, people wanted a piece of him, and Charlie was seldom in the giving mood. Throughout his travels, he left a trail of broken engagements, hurt feelings, and paid-off women.

Chaplin’s first stop was naturally England. He hadn’t been “home” since 1921, his tour following the release of The Kid. Charlie did want something from England — a knighthood would be nice — but England wanted something in return: for Charlie to come back home and start making movies where the home government could tax them. It would be such a shot in the arm for the British film industry to have someone making films that people actually wanted to see.

Chaplin was clearly nostalgic for the England of his childhood, but every time he went back he was reminded of the reasons why he left — pre-eminently, the class system, which effortlessly defined you by every syllable you spoke. After pissing off just about everyone he met, Charlie split for France, visiting his brother Syd on the Riviera.1

Syd, happily retired, had always been good at going with the flow, and the flow on the Riviera, well, it was swell. Syd had a cute wife, Minnie, and a very cute mistress, May Reeves, on the side. Minnie knew about May, but Syd had the bankroll, and a variety of perks and privileges that come with being a celebrity — the famous brother of the most famous man in the world — so Minnie was content — content enough — to let things coast.

Then Charlie showed up. A lot of Syd’s perks came through the local bigshot, Frank Jay Gould, who owned a casino and a string of hotels. Frank gave Charlie a lavish suite at his Majestic Hotel for free, with the understanding that Charlie would hang with the Goulds and their chi-chi friends, which he did, in the company of May Reeves. He’d somehow hired May “to take care of correspondence,” falling in love with her without knowing that brother Syd had been screwing her. Charlie took May everywhere — much to the irritation of Syd and Minnie, but even more so to Mrs. Gould, because the stunning May was well known around the Riviera.

Mrs. Gould appears to have been a seriously old- school broad, because she wanted May out of her salon more than she wanted Charlie in. Eventually, she handed Charlie a pair of diamond-encrusted, platinum cufflinks2 and announced that they were his “going-away present.” Chaplin, amazingly, took the hint, and the cufflinks, and May, and split for Algeria.

Chaplin was getting pretty serious about May, but ultimately the word was passed to him about her affair with Syd, and that tore it. He traveled back to England, without May, hanging with Gandhi, among others, before traveling to San Moritz, where he caught up with Douglas Fairbanks, in the process of divorcing Mary Pickford and marrying “Lady” Sylvia Ashley, a former lingerie model living the life May Reeves aspired to, marrying two lords, Doug, and then Clark Gable.

Ultimately, Charlie pushed on to the Far East, taking brother Syd with him, stopping at Bali and then going on to Japan, which he found far too “modern” and westernized. Chaplin was scheduled to meet with Japanese Premier Ki Tsuyoshi Inukai, but the day before their meeting the premier was assassinated by one of the militaristic sects that would eventually seize complete control of Japanese policy. Chaplin sailed for the U.S. shortly thereafter, spending a good part of his trip developing plans for a socialistic new world order that would bring peace and prosperity to all nations.3

When he got back to Hollywood in 1932, however, Chaplin found something more tangible than the dream of world socialism to occupy his time — Goldwyn Girl Paulette Goddard. Chaplin met her on the set of the Eddie Cantor film The Kid From Spain4 and she made it clear to Charlie that she was ready to do absolutely anything and everything to make him happy. Chaplin, who had a weakness for both presumption and innocence, was intrigued.

Goddard was a complete package, beautiful, poised, and smart. Jean Cocteau, a connoisseur of such things, described her as “a little lioness, with her mane and her superb claws.” Her very early days had been right out of a movie: she had been a shill for a card shark working the ocean liners crossing the Atlantic from New York to England. But she had set her sights on more than a quick score with Charlie. She was going to take him in hand and marry him, which she did, pretty much.

She made Charlie realize that as a forty-something divorced dad with two young sons and far more money than he could ever spend, it was time to stop living entirely inside his own head. She served as a stepmom/big sister to young Syd and Charles and even got Charlie to spend some time with them, too. It took a while, but in a year or so Chaplin was willing to let it be said that he and Paulette were married. No, they didn’t have a big wedding. They had gotten married in Mexico. Or was it China? One of those countries where they don’t speak English.

But Charlie hadn’t forgotten about the Depression. He had long been friends with socialist author Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle, an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry,5 had prompted the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair, who had forsaken Chicago for the Golden State, was running in the Democratic Primary for Governor in 1934, pushing his “End Poverty in California” (“EPIC”) program, which terrified the Right. Chaplin, who loved to talk about left-wing politics but tended to be all show and no go in public, surprised everyone by publicly supporting Sinclair — renting a hall for a fundraiser and delivering a passionate speech on his behalf. Once Sinclair won the primary, Chaplin lapsed into silence for the general election, which Sinclair lost.

At the same time that he was dabbling in politics, Chaplin was reviving an old idea he had had of making a political film, which might be called The Masses, in salute to the famous socialist magazine edited by Charlie’s friend Max Eastman prior to World War I. But however daring Charlie might be in private, in public it was his popularity that came first. The film that finally emerged, Modern Times, was a severe disappointment to anyone expecting Charlie to strike a blow for the revolution. Although the theme of industrial conflict appears frequently in the film, Chaplin has no “answer,” and, in fact, no position.6

It’s hard to say if Modern Times lacks focus because Chaplin compromised his vision or because he never had one to begin with. Whatever the cause, Modern Times lacks the emotional impact that Chaplin achieved in his previous features. The Kid and City Lightsmay have been contrived and mawkishly sentimental, but Chaplin bared his heart, successfully, in both. Modern Times isn’t much more than a string of gags.

Luckily for Chaplin, he was still funny. Even though he repeats himself quite a bit in Modern Times, sampling his earlier work in The FloorwalkerThe Rink, and Easy Street, among others, the gags still work. Most of all, he’s still Charlie, the man with the extra-human dexterity and grace, his every gesture a miracle of meaning and economy.7

Modern Times is distinctly unmodern in that it was the last commercial silent film ever made. Chaplin couldn’t quite bring himself to abandon the freedom to rearrange reality that silent film gave him, but he did make a variety of compromises, finally “speaking” (or at least singing) at the end of the film.

Modern Times begins more aggressively than other Chaplin films, with a stark shot of a clock face, accompanied by a jagged, ominous, uncompromising soundtrack — as if to warn us that the times have changed, and so has Chaplin. No more Victorian sentimentality! No more blind, beautiful flower girls! No more humanity!

Once the opening credits are done, we switch to shots of workers streaming to the massive “Electro Steel” plant, followed by shots of massive pieces of streamlined industrial equipment — the notion of technology as abstract sculpture, which was pervasive throughout the thirties.

Everything in the opening — the clock, the industrial army, the massive, “inhuman” machinery —  is taken directly from Fritz Lang’s classic, Metropolis.8 It’s very hard to believe that Chaplin didn’t do a little “borrowing” here.9

When the camera takes us inside the president’s office, we discover that life at the top isn’t that strenuous. Bossman Allan Garcia, looking much older than he did as the ringmaster in The Circus almost a decade earlier, first plays with a jigsaw puzzle and then reads the funny papers.10 Once he’s finished Tarzan, well, there’s just nothing left to do but fuck with the workers. Using a live video feed, invented by Chaplin to allow speech in a silent film, he gives the word to shirtless Sammy Stein11 to speed up the line. Strongman Sammy, operating in an art deco boiler room similar to the one in which Fred Astaire would perform “Slap That Bass” in Shall We Dance two years later, adds a curious touch of beefcake to the proceedings. When the word comes down from the boss, he starts pulling the levers and putting the heat on chief bolt tightener Charlie.

Chaplin had visited the then world-famous Ford assembly line back in 1921 and, not surprisingly, didn’t like what he saw. But the sequence in which Charlie gets sucked into the machinery is definitely pre-Ford, dating to Charlie’s experience as a boy at the turn of the twentieth century, feeding paper to a “Wharfedale printing machine — an enormous thing, over twenty feet long,” as he describes it in My Early Years.  He recounted the process as follows:

The foreman showed me the lever [to start the machine], then put the beast at half-speed. It started to roll, grind, and grunt; I thought it was going to devour me. The sheets were enormous; you could have wrapped me in one. With an ivory scraper I fanned the paper sheets, picking them up by the corners and placing them meticulously against the teeth in time for the monster to clutch them, devour them and regurgitate until they rolled out the rear end. The first day I was a nervous wreck from the hungry brute wanting to get ahead of me. Nevertheless, I was given the job at twelve shillings a week.

It’s likely that Chaplin worked out a number of the gags that appear in the opening sequence of Modern Times shortly after his visit to the Ford plant, because they have the flavor of “early Chaplin” — Charlie as raucous, priapic12 satyr at war with all order, with society itself, rather than the delicate, wistful, love-sick, abused Chaplin of City Lights.  Instead of brooding over beautiful blind girls, Charlie flaunts wrenches as goatish horns before racing out into the world to tighten buttons on women’s breasts.13

Still, the real highlight of the assembly line scenes is the arrival of the Billows feeding machine, which arrives midway in the proceedings. This hydro-pneumatic, electro-magnetic masterpiece is a marvel of efficiency, etiquette, and hygiene, in itself a parody of the constrictive, controlling society against which Charlie is in constant, instinctive revolt. The wonderful mouth-wiper, which accompanies each outrage with a fastidious, condescending, cleansing kiss before it too finally goes mad, is a particularly happy invention on Chaplin’s part.

However, it isn’t the feeding machine, but simply life on the line, that finally drives Charlie over the top. Sucked into the belly of the beast and then spat out again like Jonah, he explodes in a balletic rebellion against all that is heavy, ordinary, and predictable in life — the revolt of beauty against strength, of caprice against necessity — the rebellion of the artist rather than the revolutionary. “An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work? That’s not freedom, that’s slavery!” Because for Charlie, all work was slavery, and those who worked, in any capacity, were all part of the machine. The guy beside you? He’s as bad as the boss!

Naturally, an attitude like that gets you a trip to the funny farm, which Charlie endures without trauma, hitting the streets in his tramp outfit, which obviously suits him better than overalls. Chaplin lazily intercuts stock footage of rivet guns, racing fire trucks, and city crowds to indicate the frenzied pace of modern life, as if to suggest that the Little Tramp was better off on the inside.

But he doesn’t stay free long, picking up a red flag that’s fallen off a truck and getting caught up in a workers’ demonstration. As Charlie is hauled off to jail for being a commie, we switch to Paulette as “the gamin,”14 piratically assaulting a barrel of bananas on a boat and tossing the spoils to a gang of starving kids on shore. Chaplin speeds up the film remarkably for this scene, portraying Goddard as a feral wharf rat, relentless and insatiable in the pursuit of what she wants.15 Unlike his previous heroines, she’s overtly sexual (“modern”), in tattered rags that show off her legs and cling to her hips.16 After she escapes a sailor who chases her off the boat (Men! They’re so contemptible!), she stands with her legs apart, swaggering and invincible, furiously tearing off chunks of banana and gulping them down.

After this dose of modern times, Chaplin shifts gears and plunges us into the depths of Victorian melodrama, showing Paulette’s dad as a despairing widower — no money, no job, and three young daughters to feed! Bananas help, but not for long!

Charlie, meanwhile, is enduring predictable but funny hardships in prison — being bullied by a brutish fellow inmate and accidentally ingesting cocaine. While spiffed on the stuff, he thwarts a prison break and is granted special privileges — his own cell! Three hots and a cot, 17 and privacy! Who could ask for anything more!

In Chaplin’s world, it’s life on the outside that’s grim. Paulette’s dad takes part in a demonstration of the unemployed and is shot dead by the police. In a rather harsh jump, Chaplin shifts from the old man’s death to Charlie, lying on his cot and reading18 of the terrible, terrible things happening on the outside with a sad “tsk, tsk.” “This Depression is so, well, depressing! One feels sorry for the unemployed, but, sadly, they’re depressing too! So loud and uncouth!”

Charlie’s summoned from his leisure to receive some unpleasant news: he’s been pardoned! But here I have everything I need! What, after all, is so liberating as solitary confinement! So wonderful at last to escape the horny-handed multitude, so eager to inflict on you both their tedious burdens and their boorish pleasures! In a film originally intended to express Chaplin’s sympathy for the masses, his contempt for them was never more evident.

For poor Paulette, things are a lot worse. Charlie’s getting out, but she’s going in! With dad dead, the suits show up to ship all three kids off to an orphanage. The little ones are carried off, but Paulette escapes.19 Rather astoundingly, once she’s gone, she forgets all about her siblings, who jerk our tears for thirty seconds and then disappear as a plot point forever.

Just before he leaves the prison, Charlie manages to get in a final dig at organized religion when he has to suffer the company and the condescension of a prissy, useless minister’s wife, whose husband is there to bring succor to the inmates, who doubtless are unimpressed by his compassion. In Police, one of his early shorts for Essanay, Charlie showed us a street preacher who was also a pickpocket. Here he’s still punching, but not very hard.

Once Charlie gets out, he and Paulette finally get together, Charlie taking the rap for stealing a loaf of bread, actually taken, of course, by the starving Paulette. Eventually, however, they end up in the same paddy wagon, when a fortunate bump sets them free.

They escape briefly from the hubbub of the big city and sit on a patch of suburban grass to get acquainted. Chaplin shows himself in close-up, smiling adoringly at Goddard. “Such a charming child!” We might think more of Charlie if he had allowed Paulette to be in the shot as well, instead of hogging it all for himself.20

When they catch sight of a suburban couple delighting in the comfort and security of their little home, Charlie first imagines what it would be like if they had such a house, leading to a brief dream sequence that parodies middle-class bliss, which he finds so convincing that he suddenly swears that he will get a job, and then get that house!

The job he gets is a position as night watchman at a large department store, allowing Chaplin to recycle gags from two of his “Mutuals” from twenty years earlier, The Floorwalker and The Rink. Escalators were definitely not as “modern” in 1935 as in 1915, but Chaplin on roller skates is something I never get tired of. Give us another reel, Charlie!

Unfortunately, Charlie drinks himself out of the job, earning himself ten days in the slam, but that doesn’t matter, because Paulette has found them a house, a falling-to-pieces near death-trap that provides plenty of funny sight gags. Chaplin, perhaps conscious, or at least subconsciously conscious, of his own rep, goes out of his way to show that the two are not, repeat not, sleeping together.

They really need to do better, so Charlie goes back to work, this time at his old factory, which has been reopened. Charlie and old-time silent comedian Chester Conklin set to work oiling the massive gears. The humor here is definitely recycled — one has the strong feeling that Chaplin decided that, having spent so much money of the big prop gears featured in the beginning of the film, he ought to get some more mileage out of them — but, again, Chaplin’s inimitable pantomime turns the ordinary into something extraordinary.

Unfortunately for Charlie’s financial dreams, some union types call a strike. Those guys, with their solidarity and everything! They ruin it for everybody! We just want to work, okay!21 Exiting the factory, Charlie gets into a little contretemps with the cops — unfairly, since he’s against the strike — which earns him some more time in the slam.

This new setback fails to dampen Paulette’s spirits. Music from a carousel has her literally dancing in the streets, where she’s spotted by café owner Henry Bergman. “Such a talent!” he cries. “Sign her up!”22

Naturally, she signs up Charlie too, as a waiter, allowing Chaplin to sample still more old gags from his early days. But Charlie’s not just a waiter, he’s a singing waiter! Charlie talks! Or at least sings!23 He writes the lyrics, in English, on his detachable cuffs — a “Chaplinesque” lyric about a “gay old man” and a young girl, but a spin on the dance floor sends them flying, so he sings in nonsense, music hall Italo-French, with extravagantly arch gestures, to put over a tale of innocence and appetite. It’s an entertaining but curious bit. One can guess that Chaplin was still nervous about speaking in his real voice, or even letting the general public hear him pronounce English, but that may be way off.

Whatever his motives, Charlie’s a hit, but Chaplin rather smartly decides that it can’t end that easily. The suits from the orphanage show up, still wanting to lock up Paulette, so the two kids take to their heels, on the run again, with no home of their own, falling asleep in a pasture. When “Dawn” arrives, Paulette is feeling worse than ever. “What’s the use of trying?”

Chaplin’s stiff upper lip retort — “Buck up! Never say die! We’ll get along!” — doesn’t have much substance, but if you can resist the shot of the two of them heading down the road together, well, there ain’t no hope for you at all. And, believe me, heading down the road with Paulette Goddard on your arm ain’t a bad way to go.24

AFTERWORDS

The current state of availability of Chaplin features is a mess.  Both Kino and Warner Home Video have discontinued their “quality” restoration series, which are available second-hand on Amazon and, surely, other places. I have Modern Times on DVD from Kino, from the “first wave” of DVD releases. Since the copyrights have lapsed on all of Chaplin’s films, there are lots of cheap boxsets, which are probably awful. It’s painful to note that there doesn’t seem to be much demand for the work of the greatest film star who ever lived.

If you search for it, you can probably find The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, which is well worth seeing. Chaplin’s autobiographical My Early Years, out of print but available secondhand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten used at a reduced price.

I’ve written previously about Charlie for Bright Lights
here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

  1. This is a bit of an exaggeration. He got along pretty well with Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes. I don’t know why it is, but sometimes I say things that aren’t true! []
  2. I haven’t seen ’em. I’m taking all of this from Joyce Milton’s Tramp. Maybe they weren’t diamond “encrusted” or even platinum. But it sounds good. []
  3. According to Milton, Chaplin landed in Seattle and dictated his ideas, or at least some of them, to a stenographer, intending to have them published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but apparently that didn’t happen, because she doesn’t cite the Post-Intelligencer but rather a 1932 article in the New York Times and Garith Von Ulm’s 1940 bio of Chaplin, King of Tragedy. []
  4. The Kid from Spain is unfortunately not available on DVD. The film opens with one of Busby Berkeley’s more outrageous conceits, a vast, circular girls’ dormitory, roughly the size of the Pantheon. The girls’ beds are arranged around a huge, circular swimming pool like the spokes of a wheel. As the camera pans around the room, the girls awaken, arch their backs, and repeat cheesy doggerel along the lines of “In mathematics classes, our grades are always high/We always show our figures, and figures never lie.” Later, of course, they take their morning plunge, while wearing high heels, which they apparently wore to bed. Hey, a girl has always got to look her best! []
  5. I imagine that most Americans today have never heard about the “hog butcher to the world,” and the once-famous meat-packing families like Armour and Swift, who were only a few notches below the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Al Capp, in his “Li’l Abner” comic strip (okay, also largely forgotten), came up with a ruthless slaughterhouse king, “J. Roaringham Fatback” — “whenever swine are discussed, his name is prominently mentioned.” []
  6. There’s more social satire in the opening scene of City Lights, showing the unveiling of the statue “Peace and Prosperity,” than there is in all of Modern Times, although the message — that the stuffed shirts are full of it — is scarcely profound. []
  7. Modern Times is a very random film, scarcely more than a series of gags that appear in no particular order, but I think it’s funnier than City Lights. The gags may not be related to one another, and they may not be new, but they’re funny. There was simply no one in film, not even Keaton, who could execute like Chaplin. []
  8. “Why are you so interested in a picture which no longer exists?” Fritz Lang askedPsycho author Robert Bloch, back in the day. Ah, Fritz, mon ami, you died too soon! Lang’s über classic, launched in 1927, continues to roll through the cinematic mind like a vast, slow-moving boulder. Sometime this year or the next, the final, fully restored, definitive, complete! version ofMetropolis will emerge via Criterion (of course). One can hope that Crterion will keep its Blu-ray (of course) package under five discs and under $150. If you can’t wait, Kino has a three-quarter complete version. Check out the reviews on Amazon to keep up with the multiple debates about soundtrack, projection speed, etc. For the ultimate (pretty much) Metropolis site, go here. If you haven’t seen Metropolis yet, when you do, be prepared for the fact that the ending is, um, lame. []
  9. A lot of people did charge that Chaplin borrowed, not from Metropolis but from René Clair’s once very famous À nous la liberté, but that film was so “Chaplinesque” that Chaplin did little more than borrow back what had been taken from him. []
  10. If you watch closely, you can see that in those days each Sunday comic received a full page, instead of being crammed down four to six to a page as in the present day. As virtually the only splash of color in the popular media’s black and white world, the Sunday funnies were a very big deal. As late as the 1950s, there were radio shows on Sunday morning on which an announcer would read the funnies aloud to kids whose parents were too busy or too hung over to care. []
  11. Sammy, who played offensive end for the NFL’s Staten Island Stapletons during their late twenties heyday (and what a heyday it was! Holy Hannah!), still had enough beef, and enough hair, to play a “strongman” in Mighty Joe Young twenty years later. []
  12. “Priapic” means “penis,” or, rather, “penis-ish.” []
  13. “Wrenches for wenches,” eh? []
  14. Since Paulette’s a girl, it should be “gamine,” but, to use a joke I’ve used before, Charlie’s French is as bad as mine. []
  15. Typecasting, anyone? Perhaps Charlie was reminded of Paulette’s pursuit of his banana. []
  16. Goddard showed up for the shoot wearing her “gamine” outfit but with her hair perfectly done. Chaplin dumped a bucket of water over her head to get the look he wanted. This girl is bad! This girl is dangerous! []
  17. In America’s old draft army, RIP 1974, you were supposed to be willing to trade Uncle Sam your life in return for “three hots [hot meals] and a cot.” []
  18. As a boy, during those rare occasions when the family had some cash, Chaplin regarded it as the supreme luxury to lie in bed on Sunday morning reading the comics while his mother prepared breakfast. He recaptured these moments both here and in The Kid, when Jackie Coogan makes breakfast for him. []
  19. One of the little ones, who get practically no screen time, is Gloria DeHaven, who became a middling musical comedy star in the late forties and early fifties. Gloria apparently could read the writing on the wall a little ahead of the rest of Hollywood, and shifted shamelessly to the small screen in the mid-fifties, working steadily on TV until the year 2000, hanging it up after an episode of Touched by an Angel. []
  20. Chaplin would pull the same trick later in Limelight, showing himself in close-up passionately telling a young Claire Bloom what a great artist she is. Pauline Kael rightly gave him hell for doing so. []
  21. This frankly anti-union message from someone who always posed as a champion of the people is more than a little strange. In his last film for Keystone,Dough and Dynamite, which I haven’t seen, Charlie supposedly played a strikebreaker. I think this was referenced in an episode of Seinfeld (Kramer working in a bagel factory, maybe), but I’m not really an expert on the show. []
  22. Because in Hollywood, the only real cure for economic distress is show business. (Besides, if you had a real job you’d die of boredom.) In the once very famous, now only famous, thirties flick My Man Godfrey, William Powell brings hope to the unemployed by opening a fancy nightclub(though he does have the grace to admit that it won’t solve the Depression all on its own). []
  23. Chaplin was probably thinking about his parents, both music hall singers, when he chose to first speak to the public in this manner. []
  24. Earlier in the film, Chaplin dressed Paulette in a sort of little Bo Peep outfit to set up the classic silhouette that closes the film. How she got into the outfit when they were running from the orphanage dudes (she wasn’t wearing it when they showed up) is left a mystery. []