People often say that we have lost Christ, we have lost Mary. Living in the 21st century, I am, perhaps, more concerned that we have lost Chaplin‘s Tramp.
Easter is not Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked sadism posed as religious dogma. Rather, it’s Fred Astaire and Judy Garland strolling down an Easter Parade. Christmas is not Cecil B. DeMille pious kitsch. Christmas is personified by the Little Tramp trying to find existential depth within an increasingly plasticized, dumbed-down modern Western world. Indeed, there may be a bit of poetic irony in Charles Chaplin’s exiting this mortal coil on Christmas day itself, in 1977.
Chaplin was not a religious man. Yet, his Tramp is the most religious and iconic figure in all of cinema. Chaplin seemed to be partly aware of this. The late film historian Leslie Halliwell reported that when Cecil B. DeMille was casting for The King of Kings (1927), Chaplin approached DeMille, offering to play the role of Christ: “I am Jewish, I am an atheist, and I am a comedian. I would be prefect for the part because I could play it totally objective.” DeMille had Chaplin thrown out of his office. Although Chaplin was probably right in that assessment, we can be grateful that DeMille rejected the casting. King of Kings may be one of the worst examples of 1920’s Hollywood. Of course, Chaplin exaggerated his beliefs in the interest of self-promotion. He was not Jewish and his atheism is debatable. The clown was, predominantly, anti-clerical.
With the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), silent cinema was history. Someone forgot to tell Chaplin. He was still making silent films nearly a decade later. Many commentators have noted Modern Times (1936) is anything but modern. This film was a last, in many respects, for Chaplin: his last silent film and the final indisputable appearance of the Tramp. (There is a debate over whether Chaplin’s Barber from 1940’s The Great Dictator was really the Tramp, or not).
Modern Times, originally titled “The Masses,” is not completely silent. The Factory task master talks through a Orwellian screen.The Billows feeding machine speaks through a “pre-recorded device.” Chaplin sings a gibberish song near the finale. However, these do not add up to a “talkie.” Rather, it adds up to a silent with clever, carefully chosen, cartoonish sound effects.
As a social commentary, Modern Times is derivative, borrowing from Fritz Lang, among others. As a romantic comedy, it’s also derivative, recycling numerous gags and plot elements from Chaplin’s Mutual shorts. It has, rightly, been pointed out that Modern Times is like a feature-length compendium of those shorts. However, the screen presences of Chaplin and Paulette Goddard are imbued with such authentic personalities that it somehow seems fresh.
In Run to the Mountain, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of Modern Times:
I saw Modern Times, everybody in the theater was laughing. I don’t remember when lately I have been in a theater where everybody laughed together so spontaneously as over this three or four years old Chaplin picture. It feels that anything that ever had any happiness about civilization-all the happy things that civilization has produced like Chaplin movies, are all gone and done with. Nothing left but the wars. The West Wall. The Maginot line. The bombers: bombers are our only shining things. Christ have mercy on us. God save you, Mary full of grace.
Chaplin’s Tramp, as a screen persona, has emotional resonance in his reflections and labors, inspired by his intimate intertwining and quintessential recognition with the Gamin (Goddard). His Tramp is the socially devalued of the Beatitudes. A misfit in respectable society, he embodies that blistering critique of status-quo avarice, lucidly penned in the Letter of James. The Factory Worker and Gamin are the faces of Them: “Let Them die in the streets before giving Them health care.”
The title credits face-off with a monstrous, eschatological clock: Futurism’s icon beckoning the 6 a.m. call for America’s workforce. A title reads: “Modern Times. A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” Pursuit does not equate attainment, as lambs herded through a chute remind us with brass knuckle subtlety. Charlie’s Oedipal fragility, juxtaposed against perpetually bleak industry, sets the absurdist tone. Only an artisan of Chaplin’s caliber could credibly render such meek conceit. Fortunately, Chaplin (along with Montgomery Clift) was probably the greatest actor of American cinema, which is why he wholly convinces, securing audience empathy.
The Factory President reads Tarzan funny papers, clips his nails, plays with jigsaw puzzles, bellows, and swivels his chair to catch sight of the Little Fellow trying to sneak off for a “smokin’ in the boy’s room” break. Robbed of his much-needed cigarette, tightening nuts, tightening nuts, tightening nuts, victim of a mechanical salesman feeding him nuts, feeding him, feeding him nuts: Charlie loses it! Wrenching his hands, he attempts to take his pain to the nipple, much to the outright horror of two unwilling ladies. The Tramp is, indeed, a lost icon in the padded cell.
Enter the Fellow’s fellow traveler, the Gamin, adorned in hip-hugging, clingy rags. Orphaned and on the run, she seeks to claim the promise of the New World. Banana in hand, knife clenched in her teeth like a cocky Captain Blood, she stands, with legs apart, barefoot and defiant, as an overtly sexual woman: a refreshing change of pace (and rarity) for a Chaplin leading lady (which were normally of the child bride variety). The Gamin’s “Jean Valjean” moment of shame and glory arrives, tucked in a loaf of stolen bread.
Now this Eve will meet her Adam, her soul mate, the Tramp. He will belatedly see the waif as a gift of wisdom. Through a series of strung-together short film vignettes, they will embark on a seemingly ill-fated pursuit of the paradisiacal hour.
Modern Times is deceptively simplistic. Such simplicity is personified in the suburban comic strip-like vignette of “let’s play house.” The façade is as “stuck” as Charlie in the clogs of machinery (filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne shrewdly compared the latter famous sequence to Chaplin’s image being run through a film projector.)
For the most part, the Tramp is a degree more detached here than he was in previous features, which serves him well. The film does have a mawkish “buckle up-never say die” moment of the type that Chaplin will take to maudlin extremes in Limelight (1952). However, this is washed aside by a sublime finale of Gamin and Tramp locked arm-in arm. Having met his equal, the Tramp has evolved. Whether the two reach the sunset horizon together or not is of little concern. They are frozen only where we require them to be.
This Criterion Collection edition of the film is, naturally, exemplary. A detailed booklet (featuring essays by Saul Austerlitz and Lisa Stein), an audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, three short films, deleted scenes, and an interview with David Raskin (the arranger of Chaplin’s picturesque composition “Smile”) are among the wealth of extras.