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: Continue reading CHAPLIN’S MODERN TIMES (1936) CRITERION COLLECTION