Charlie Chaplin had brought a burgeoning sensitivity to the myriad social problems proliferating out from the Depression to Modern Times (1936). Industrial alienation, police brutality, citizens reduced to crime by hunger, hostility toward labour unions and petty micromanagement were all worked deep into the film’s fabric through a chain of brilliant comic sequences that endure all the more for their indifference to ideology. One of the most memorable ones features Chaplin’s Tramp, leading a parade of protesting workers demanding unionization, touting a red flag no less, and doing so completely unknowingly—he was just trying to flag down a truck.
Modern Times is not the story of a worker who discovers politics but a worker who discovers that he’s, like so many others, unemployed and hungry. So often he just wants to eat, something anyone can understand without the slightest bit of social context—that’s why this is a terrific film for kids. Of course this particular worker is also afflicted with a condition that compels him to wreak a little havoc everywhere he goes, especially in the places least appropriate, the ones where explosively tempered authority figures loom. This affliction takes its toll on the Tramp. Chaplin had heard about farm boys who’d been sent to work on Ford assembly lines and quickly succumbed to nervous breakdowns. Following the opening sequences that find the Tramp getting literally consumed by a colossal machine and having his body so consumed with repeating the same nut-tightening gesture in rapid succession that he can’t stop running around with his wrench trying to screw everything in sight (insert Chaplin-as-pussy-hound joke here), the Tramp himself collapses into nervous breakdown and is dismissed.
But what I found so arresting in my latest viewing of Modern Times—now available on gorgeously rendered and heavily supplemented DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion—was the entrance of the film’s other central character sometime after the Tramp’s hospitalization. The young woman referred to only as the Gamine is first seen cutting and tossing bananas from a cargo ship to some raggedy children on the docks, doing so with a zest that’s positively deranged, not to mention undeniably sexy (and perhaps looks forward to the work of Christina Ricci). It’s a stunning entrance, and the camera favours her as it does no one else in the film. This Gamine, who seems game for anything, will come to play a dynamic role in the Tramp’s recovery, though their attempts at upward mobility are always endearingly absurd. She’s played by Paulette Goddard, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Chaplin’s discovery of her as a budding actress, a respected collaborator, and a lover, was the other key element in the conception and execution of Modern Times.
Unsurprising too, that Chaplin couldn’t bear to use his original ending in which the Gamine entered a convent, leaving the Tramp to walk that final dusty stretch of road alone. The image of Chaplin walking away, with Goddard at his side, would be the last we’d ever see of the Tramp, closing the last (largely) silent film from this master filmmaker, which, despite the film’s title, was made nearly ten years after the introduction of sound, yet remains as timeless today as anything the movies have offered us.