None of the movies this weekend interested me (see below), and so I went to the local art house and saw “Modern Times.” Filmed in 1936, it is Charlie Chaplin’s last silent movie and it is still fun to watch.
Chaplin wrote and directed the piece, in which he plays his traditional Little Tramp character. His physical humor is on display throughout, from his characteristic splay-footed, tottering stride to the scene above, in which he roller-skates, blindfolded and blithely, around a floor with a big drop and no railing. It would be simple now to create such a scene with clever photography, but it was not so simple 81 years ago when film was literal and actors performed their own stunts.
(Yes, a smart set manager might have increased the apparent distance of the drop. Even so, Chaplin’s skating is impressive.)
The two themes of “Modern Times” are factory innovation and survival during the Great Depression. The movie begins begins with Chaplin working on an assembly line and occasionally getting run through the machinery in a big factory. The boss of the place bellows at workers from a screen in the odd moments when he is not working a jigsaw puzzle or reading the funny pages. (CEOs were not popular in those days either.)
The hapless tramp loses his job and ends up in jail, then distinguishes himself assisting law enforcement and earns a comfy sinecure. To his chagrin, he is released from jail and must find another job or, as it turns out, several of them.
He meets up with a barefoot orphan, played by Paulette Godard. She too is carted off to the hoosegow, in her case after stealing a loaf of bread, a clear Chaplin homage to the Victor Hugo novel, “Les Miserables.”
Chaplin and Godard watch their luck rise and fall in the uncertain world of the times. Every scene is a set piece for multiple humorous riffs. The audience in my theater laughed often and loudly. The movie doesn’t have much in the way of a resolution, but neither did the Great Depression in the mid 1930s. Its two characters just keep trying; they are survivors.
This was the first time I had seen “Modern Times.” What struck me was how many of its moments have been seen in other entertainments, including two scenes clearly inspired by “Horse Feathers,” the 1932 Marx Brothers movie. The assembly line scene that opens “Modern Times” was rejiggered to good effect in the classic 1952 television episode where Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz work in the chocolate factory.
There is even a scene in which a fellow jail inmate gets rid of “smuggled nose powder,” and the Little Tramp ingests the stuff, unknowingly and with amusing results. I hadn’t known that cocaine jokes were a thing that long ago; I was surprised last year by what I considered a dated cocaine reference in a contemporary movie.
You don’t have to go to a theater to see “Modern Times” these days, but if you get a chance, I say, do it.
The Idiosyncratist is now in Nashville, a city with a broad arts scene and more than a dozen colleges, set in a metropolitan area with a population of more than 2 million.
I believe this market would have supported a first-weekend release of “The Big Sick” and/or “The Beguiled,” so-called “small” films that were widely and favorably reviewed in the national media. Neither was available on a single screen among the hundreds in the area.
Instead there were dozens of opportunities to see each of several mass-market rehashes: the fifth Transformers movie, the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the third Cars movie and the third Despicable Me movie.
Enough, I say.
In this era of multiple megaplexes, I wish theater operators would give moviegoers a little more credit and not so much more-of-the-same all the darn time.