I was introduced to Charlie Chaplin at a very young age. My father took me to a local store at Christmastime that sold VHS tapes and purchased a set of Chaplin films. The Kid, The Circus, Limelight, The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator, Modern Times, so many of them. When I asked my father why he was buying all of them at once, he said ‘Need to fill up your Christmas stocking.’ Modern Times was one of my favourite films out of the lot, which I would play several times on the VHS player. I remember bursting into laughter at all the slapstick gags.
Technology evolved. VHS almost became obsolete and life took over. A few years later, my father brought home a collection of 250 DVDs. To my pleasant surprise, the collection that boasted of titles like Children of Heaven, Bicycle Thieves, and so on, also had most of my favourite Chaplin films too!
It was during this time, I rediscovered the genius of Chaplin and Modern Times. It is almost a silent film yet it makes so many statements. The gags that made me laugh out loud in my childhood amazed me once again: this time, through their wit. Layer after layer, with each viewing of the film, I noticed a different nuance.
An initial title in the film reads, ‘Humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness’. One of the most striking images of the film is seen at the very beginning: one sees a herd of sheep crossing the frame, which is intercut with a herd of men walking out of a subway. The juxtaposition is a hallmark of a very evolved storyteller. The visual language of the film is outstanding. That one sequence where Chaplin gets trapped inside a huge machine as he rolls over from one part to another is simply breathtaking. Remember Modern Times was released in 1936. Such marvellous imagery was conceived and shot in those days.
Modern Times is the story of a factory production line worker, played by Chaplin himself, who will never be able to access what he makes. In one of the opening sequences of the film, we see the President of the company seated in his sprawling cabin killing time by playing a board game as the less fortunate workers grind themselves to achieve the target of the factory. In another scene, a group of men proudly walk in to present to the President a feeding machine that can feed the staff hands-free so they can work even during the lunch time. And in that way the company can stay ahead of their competitors. The scene where the machine misfires is pure genius. And Chaplin the actor too nails it with his innocent yet charming performance.
In one more scene, Chaplin is holding a flag in his hand as he waves to the truck driving past. The flag had accidentally fallen off the same truck. The Police identify him as a communist leader and take him to task. Don’t we live in such (or even worse) Modern Times even today?
Visually and philosophically the film is filled with such poignant ironies that make you marvel at the sheer genius of Sir Charlie Chaplin, who so effortlessly made statements through visuals and sugar-coated them with his trademark slapstick humour.
Much to my surprise none of the major OTT platforms seem to be streaming Chaplin movies. However, Modern Times is easily accessible on YouTube.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.