Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was released nine years after the first talkie feature, yet it mostly qualifies as a silent movie, save for some minor, pointed sound and voice effects. At the time, Chaplin justified his decision by saying that The Tramp, his iconic character from classics like The Gold Rush and City Lights, was too closely identified with the silent era to be given a voice. He was right, of course: Hearing The Tramp speak would be unthinkable, yet the act of even making a Tramp film that deep into the sound era is radical in a way that complements the themes of Modern Times, a film that views the march of progress through jaundiced eyes. It also brought a face to the Great Depression: Once the pitiable, bedraggled creature who ate a boot in The Gold Rush, The Tramp was now, more simply, one in a larger crowd. And Chaplin seized brilliantly on the opportunity, adding a layer of tart political commentary to sequence after sequence of inspired physical comedy.
Modern Times opens with The Tramp turning bolts on a factory assembly line, though it’s never clear what the factory produces, other than fireballs and misery. Between the company’s relentless drive for efficiency—it tests a new feeding machine that will let employees continue working during lunch breaks—and the grinding repetition of the line, The Tramp goes mad, at one point chasing a woman with bolt-shaped buttons down the street. From there, he’s knocked like a pinball from one place to another: He winds up in jail after accidentally instigating a Communist riot, gets released from jail after accidentally restoring order during another riot, then does everything he can to get back into jail, because it’s easier there than on the outside. In the middle of it all, he meets an orphan girl (Paulette Goddard) and allows himself to dream of a better life with her.
Though it has more famous setpieces—an out-of-control assembly-line bit that was lifted for an equally famous I Love Lucy scene, The Tramp being fed through the gears of a machine—Modern Times synthesizes comedy, politics, and romance in a sequence where The Tramp dreams up a domestic fantasy with Goddard. It’s the height of absurdity: He knows so little about living without want that his life of plenty includes plucking ripe fruit from a branch next to his window and getting fresh milk from a cow that materializes outside the kitchen door. But what gives the scene extra poignancy is that while such dreams are the promise of capitalism, they remain well out of reach for him. He continues to pursue happiness, but will only find it outside the system.
Key features: An engaging commentary track by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, two visual essays, two deleted scenes, an early Chaplin two-reeler called “The Rink,” an assemblage of 8mm footage from Chaplin and Goddard on holiday, and, most charmingly, an excerpt from a Cuban documentary in which Modern Times screens for an audience that has never seen a movie before.