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Modern Times (1936) Wonder

A fitting swansong for Chaplin's Tramp, but not the last we'd see of Charlie

Modern Times (1936) Wonder
Balthasar, Apr 8, 2018
    • Balthasar
      "Modern Times" was Charlie's first film after five years of hibernation in the 1930s. He didn't much like talkies, and despite the introduction of sound in 1927, his "City Lights" (1931) was defiantly silent. With "Modern Times," a fable about (among other things) automation, assembly lines and the enslaving of man by machines, he hit upon an effective way to introduce sound without disturbing his comedy of pantomime: The voices in the movie are channeled through other media. The ruthless steel tycoon talks over closed-circuit television, a crackpot inventor brings in a recorded sales pitch, and so on. The only synched sound is Charlie's famous tryout as a singing waiter; perhaps after Garbo spoke, the only thing left was for Charlie to sing. ~ Roger Ebert

      An inspiration for Modern Times (1936), related by Chaplin, was a conversation he'd had with the great Mohandas Gandhi, who complained that machines were taking over the world. Chaplin recalls saying to Gandhi, "I grant that machinery with only the consideration of profit has thrown men out of work and created a great deal of misery, but to use it as a service to humanity ... should be a help and benefit to mankind." But then, he says, he realized that the first part of that statement - consideration of profit had created a great deal of misery - was the only part that mattered. When he returned home, he set out to make a movie about it.

      At first he struggled with the concept. Without proper handling the film could become a polemic and blow up in his face. His long-running character 'The Tramp' seemed a perfect stand-in for the beleaguered masses (he briefly considered naming the film "the masses"), but would giving the Tramp a voice be accepted by the public? No one had heard even Chaplin speak (save solely for the words "Guten Tag" on a newsreel). Dutifully (and perhaps to appease folks at the studio who feared that if Chaplin elected to make this film silent, as he had City Lights (1931), that it would bomb at the box office), Chaplin wrote a 'talking' script for the film, and by some accounts had a scene from the script filmed. Unsatisfied, Chaplin went back to the drawing board, and then had a brilliant idea: the film would be shot as a silent film, but the sound cues and other elements of the soundtrack would serve as commentary on the action, and almost as another character in the film. It's been noted that nearly every time a human voice is heard on the soundtrack, it emanates from a machine, in a sense making the sound itself an antagonist in the film. Ironically, there are accounts that suggest that Chaplin actually devoted more work to the soundtrack of the movie than he did to the principal shooting, and his then-girlfriend (and leading lady for this film) Paulette Goddard tells the story that Chaplin would stay days on end in the recording studio, working on themes, and only leave when she begged him to.

      Chaplin and Goddard had been (as they say) an item in Hollywood since 1932. That was after Chaplin had made City Lights (1931), and Goddard had never seen Chaplin work with such intensity before. When she showed up for her first scene with her hair coiffed, Chaplin poured a bucket of water over her head: Goddard was supposed to be playing a gamin (a street urchin, in the lingo of the day), not a movie starlet; she was supposed to look wretched. That, and the fact that Charlie practically lived at the studio during filming (he had a cot to sleep on there), put a serious strain on their relationship throughout the making of the film.

      Goddard wasn't the only one exasperated by Chaplin's insistence in having a hand in every element of the film. He had two well-regarded assistant directors, Henry Bergman, who also played the Café Proprietor, and Carter DeHaven (father of then-11-year-old future star Gloria DeHaven, whose film debut, in a minor role, was in this film), but Chaplin often directed scenes normally delegated to assistant directors, such as crowd scenes, himself. Alfred Newman, music director for United Artists, who had been brought in to conduct and record the score for the movie, stormed out of the studio and vowed never to work with Chaplin again after Chaplin, during a typically tense exchange at an all-night recording session, asked Newman if he was 'too lazy' to make yet another change. Newman's assistant, Eddie Powell, stepped in and finished the work.

      Powell also introduced Chaplin to composer David Raskin, whom Newman had recently recruited on the recommendation of George Gershwin, to help develop Chaplin's musical ideas. After reviewing what Chaplin had composed, Raksin offered a blistering opinion, including that it wasn't modern enough or of sufficient "symphonic dimension." He was fired, pretty much immediately, but was rehired after Newman interceded, pleading with Chaplin to let the young composer 'state his case'. Chaplin reluctantly had to agree that Raskin's criticisms were valid, and from that point, the two worked together well, having great fun coordinating musical ideas directly into the action running on a Moviola, instead of using timing sheets, the usual method of scoring. Raksin said that although Chaplin was not a professional musician, his command of musical styles, instrumental qualities, and development of melody and theme were impressive.

      Despite the time that it took to film some of the film's complicated set pieces (the food machine sequence took seven days to film), principal photography was completed in just ten months - an unusually quick pace for a Chaplin film. However, Chaplin's tinkering, and a slew of cuts demanded by the Production Board (including demands to cut the first part of the 'pansy' gag involving a knitting prisoner at the jailhouse, much of the scene involving the minister and his wife's rumbling stomach, and an entire brassiere gag in the department store - arguably some of the funniest bits in the film), delayed the opening of the film for three weeks. When the film finally premiered, it was to a packed house at the Rivoli Theater in New York on February 5, 1936. There had been no previews, and no advance screenings - Chaplin wanted the critics to hear the audience's reaction to the film before forming their opinions. The tactic worked; the critics loved the film, despite its deliberate anachronisms. Even his relationship with Paulette Goddard was improved, and shortly thereafter they got married (at 26, she would be the oldest woman he brought to the altar).

      The score for the film was recognized to be exceptional even in its time. In the mid-1930s, the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra performed the score under the title "A Modern Symphony." Words were added to the film's romantic theme by in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons; that's when it became known as "Smile." Nat 'King' Cole recorded it that year and it reached #10 on the Billboard charts, and # 2 in the UK. The lyrics ("Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it's breaking/When there are clouds in the sky/You'll get by") were no doubt inspired by the final moments of the film.

      About the ending: it is considered to be one of the greatest endings in the history of cinema. Discounting later parodies and novelty films, this was the last major American film to make use of silent film conventions, such as title cards for dialogue. The very last dialogue title card of this film (and thus, it can be said, the entire silent era) belongs to The Tramp, who says "Buck up - never say die! We'll get along." The Little Tramp's last words (if you read his lips) are "Smile! C'mon!" .
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