Released in 1936, MODERN TIMES is considered by most to be Chaplin's last silent film, although there is some spoken dialogue and a novelty song sung by none other than Charlie himself. Like the previous CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES contains a score written by Chaplin himself, plus sound effects.
Some claim that MODERN TIMES is a political statement dressed up as a comedy. I don't mind people who claim this, but to me, the message of the film is simple: Life is tough, so buck up and get on with it. The opening sequence, featuring Chaplin suffering a nervous breakdown in a factory, is certainly critical of industrialized society, but Chaplin is not heavy-handed. He uses the factory background mainly as an excuse to string along all the mechanical gags he can think of. Some favorite scenes of film eggheads and comedy fans alike include the Tramp getting stuck in the gigantic gears of a conveyor belt, his subsequent breakdown, and his involuntary volunteering to be the human guinea pig for an automatic eating machine which, naturally, goes haywire. Eggheads like these scenes because they perceive them as Chaplin's attack on an increasingly mechanized society that values production and profit over people. I like them because they're funny.
But the factory scene is over in the first twenty minutes, and from then on, the film becomes a series of episodes in which the Tramp attempts to get work to support himself and his new streetwise orphan friend. Like several of Laurel and Hardy's last features for Hal Roach, MODERN TIMES is almost a greatest hits movie. There are echoes of shorts like The Floorwalker, The Rink as well as features like THE KID and THE GOLD RUSH. Possibly knowing this would be his last silent film, Chaplin trots out many favorites situations and gags and gives them new twists. With no grand love story to get in the way, this is possibly Chaplin's funniest feature.
I've had a crush on Paulette Goddard, who plays the orphan, from the first time I ever saw MODERN TIMES and each time I watch the film again, I am stunned at just how lovely she is in this film. Beyond her obvious beauty, Goddard brings an energy to the film that no other Chaplin co-star could match. She is the best thing to happen in a Charlie Chaplin movie since Jackie Coogan in THE KID. She was, at the time, Chaplin's real-life mate, though whether they were ever legally married is still a bit of a mystery. She would co-star with Chaplin again in his next film THE GREAT DICTATOR, a year after losing out the part of Scarlett O'Hara in to Vivien Leigh.
Aside from the factory scene, the most famous scene in MODERN TIMES is also its most historic. For the first time ever, we hear Chaplin's real voice as, employed as a singing waiter, he sings a song. Hedging his bets, Chaplin created nonsense syllables for the song, leaving it up to his expert pantomime to put over the meaning of the lyrics. MODERN TIMES also ends on a historical note, as Chaplin's Tramp heads down the road once again, but this time, with a companion - the lovely young orphan. It is the perfect image on which to end the silent screen career of "The Little Tramp".NOTE: The Little Tramp, or his lookalike cousin, would return as "The Barber" in Chaplin's first "talkie", THE GREAT DICTATOR. Fans are divided over whether this character is actually the Tramp, but Chaplin himself calls him the Tramp in his book, the redundantly titled My Autobiography.