It is incredibly difficult for me to step into “classic” movies with any real untouched objectivity. An entire life of hearing critics, fans, and popular culture build them up as “the greatest” or “one of the greatest” nearly inevitably leads to some measure of disappointmen or occasionally complete dissatisfaction. In my review of Juno, I’ve termed it the “Juno effect” as I’ve discovered an ability to better appreciate these films once I’ve distanced them from my initial expectations. I bring all of this up because despite this tendency, every now and then, I come across a classic film truly deserving of that title. From Casablanca to Singin’ in the Rain to Rebel Without a Cause, there are plenty of great classic movies out there, and despite being a mostly silent film, 1936’s Modern Times is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most clever films I’ve watched to date. Who knew that purely visual storytelling and outrageous physical humor could be such a rich comedy gold mine.

Set in an age where industrialism has run rampant and economic hard times have created vast swaths of unemployed, Modern Times is a satirical look at its age. Starring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp (for the very last time), we begin with the Tramp as a cog in the ever-turning machinery of a nearly dystopian and dehumanizing factory. After suffering a nervous breakdown from repeating the same inane actions over and over (as well as a bizarre encounter with a robot meant to feed workers so they never have to stop working), the Tramp goes crazy in the factory and after being mistaken for a Communist, the Tramp is shipped off to prison. After getting pardoned for stopping a prison break-out while the Tramp was hopped up on cocaine (yeah, you read that right), the Tramp meets a homeless girl (the gorgeous Paulette Goddard) who he befriends when saving her from the police. What follows is an ever increasing series of antics where the Tramp tries to get himself sent back to prison, mostly fails, attempts to acquire gainful employment, generally causes unintentional acts of wanton destruction, and penguin walk his way from one disaster to the next.

I was simply amazed by how political and relevant this film still seems despite being 75 years old. In his later years, Chaplin would become an expatriate to the United States (only returning many years later to accept an honorary Oscar) when he was falsely accused of being a Communist. However, it’s startlingly obvious from this film that his politics, nonetheless, were remarkably leftist. In our era of massive unemployment and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, Chaplin’s vision of a Metropolis-esque factory system may have died, but his tale of survival in a world where corporate theft and wage slavery is ignored but stealing to survive is punished rings remarkably true. The fact that he was able to accomplish all of this with virtually no dialogue (until the end of the film, where the Tramp sings in French, any spoken dialogue was coming from machines, like the radio or a robot, or was the direct commands of the god-like Boss of the factory). Chaplin’s ability to craft a story almost completely from images is just as impressive as D.W. Griffith’s, and he manages to avoid all of the horrific racism in Griffith’s work.

I remember that in high school I tried to sit through one of Chaplin’s earlier picture; I think it was The Gold Rush. However, I immediately found it so boring that I wasn’t able to finish it. While I’m willing to chalk at least part of that to how much my tastes have evolved since high school, I can also definitively state that Modern Times was one of the most consistently hysterical films I’ve ever watched. With more knack for pure physical comedy than even the modern greats (like Chris Farley or John Belushi), Chaplin throws himself around the screen with a disarmingly elegant grace. While the Tramp is always destroying everything around him, Chaplin is in such complete control of his motions and moves with such fluidity during the more choreographed sequences that you can only stand in awe of his physical presence. All of my favorite comedies of the modern era are incredibly dialogue heavy full of witty and clever conversations. For me to enjoy humor that is so entirely based on Chaplin’s ability to exploit his body for jokes is really just a testament to Chaplin’s timeless genius.

The film isn’t quite perfect as not every scene can maintain the outrageous heights of its most hysterical moments. As unbelievably beautiful as Paulette Goddard was (she was Charlie Chaplin’s wife when the film was made), she was no comedic match for Chaplin and the scenes focusing primarily on her didn’t do much to add to the humor of the film. Other than those minor complaints, this was one of the most remarkable comedies I’ve ever seen, and it simply goes to remind me that despite my claims of encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, there are still plenty of great films out there that I’ve simply never seen. I’m pretty sure that The Great Dictator is also on my list for this blog, as it also comes near the top of lists of great Chaplin pictures. For any fan of comedy, you are doing yourself a disservice by not watching this true piece of comedy genius. Whether you like older films or not, and even if you could never see yourself watching a silent film, you need to move past those prejudices and give this movie a chance. You will not be disappointed.

Final Score: A

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