Movie Review: Modern Times

When you think classic, silent movies, Charlie Chaplin is likely an actor that springs to mind. I’m not sure how many people these days have actually watched one of his movies, however. It can feel pretty daunting to be facing a 90 minute movie that doesn’t have any dialogue, after all. It’s black and white, the movement can be pretty jittery and sped up at times, and you might wonder how well the humor has actually aged. I certainly wasn’t sure how Daniela was going to take to it, despite the fact that there are multiple Chaplin movies on her list.

I shouldn’t have worried. We watched Modern Times last night, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. (Even MC, who watched the first bit before going to bed because it was late. She was disappointed she had to leave.)

Of course, Modern Times isn’t actually a silent movie, something I find really fascinating. It was filmed in 1936, just three years before movies like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz would come out, and nine years after The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier. It was supposed to be Chaplin’s first big movie with sound, and it has sound . . . just very little speaking. It has a very precisely timed orchestral soundtrack, as well as a few actual lines, in addition to many different title cards spread throughout the film.

The plot is fairly straightforward: a factory worker goes crazy from being overworked and goes to jail after assaulting his coworkers. We then follow him through a series of misadventures, from being arrested as a Communist leader to helping rob a department store where he’s working as a night guard. It doesn’t sound like the material for light humor, but it’s slapstick, and so it all works. He also meets a girl he falls in love with, and they do their best to get along in a world that seems set against them.

A few scenes really stand out. The first that comes to mind is Chaplin’s musical number. It might sound at first like he’s singing in a foreign language, but he’s really just singing in gibberish. It’s the first time his Tramp character was going to speak, and it’s fascinating Chaplin had him speak and sing, but had the words still mean nothing.

Then you’ve got the rollerskating scene. (Which wasn’t nearly as dangerous to film as it might look, since they used a matte painting to make it just appear that he was skating on the brink of a broken leg the whole time.)

The whole movie is fun to watch, and if you’ve got some concerns that you’ll be bored, all I can say is to get over them. There’s some really funny stuff here. Think of it this way: Looney Tunes started in 1930. Do you get bored watching Bugs Bunny? Then why be worried that this will be any different?

8/10 for me. Definitely worth a watch, and I’m relieved Daniela had such a good time with it as well. (There are more Chaplin movies to be watched, after all . . .)


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