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Film Review: Modern Times (1936)

A zippy, clever, and meaningful comedy classic, Modern Times depicts Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp persona caught up in the industrial age, where the poverty-stricken masses eke out a living under the steam and clamour of machines. At first an assembly line worker who is fired over a nervous breakdown, Chaplin’s silent character falls fate to jail sentences and the effects of strikes and riots while trying to find new employment. Meanwhile, an independent young orphan (Paulette Goddard), also struggling to find food and escape the law, befriends the factory worker after a chance encounter. The duo ends up bearing their misfortunes together, buoyed by a shared dream of living in a real house with plenty to eat.

As this was his last "silent" picture, Chaplin went all the way in mining situational comedy in all sorts of disparate locations, from factory assembly lines and empty department stores to ramshackle beach huts and vaudeville restaurants. Modern Times showcases Chaplin’s movie star charisma and brilliant physical comedy to the utmost. The film was also Chaplin’s first collaboration with his third wife, Paulette Goddard. (Their second and last collaboration was 1940’s The Great Dictator.) Both actors give standout performances as the relationship between their characters is one of affectionate and heroic companionship in the face of endless disasters and not, it should be noted, a romantic one.

Chaplin, beyond being the lead actor of Modern Times, also functioned as writer and director for the movie. Wearing many hats, he proves himself a comic genius and an innovative force in the history of filmmaking. The film is chock-full of non-stop action, jokes, and iconic scenes. Chaplin balances equal parts light-hearted, original comedy with serious commentary on the real-life situations of his time. Heavy subject matter—such as the alienation caused by the industrial age, the cruel tides of poverty and misfortune, and the bleak and scary sentiment of an economy at war with the machines—are explored in countless vignettes as the factory worker and the gamine are thrown into various situations beyond their control. Chaplin speaks to a real time and place while also offering his optimistic comedy as a means of escape and as a message of hope. Modern Times is simply wonderful and the very definition of a classic.

Rating: 5 out of 5 nuts and bolts

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