It's a Charlie Chaplin silent film, except that he blew everyone's minds by doing it in 1936. No one else in Hollywood had made anything but talkies for years.
Well, ish. It's a talkie that's pretending not to be. It has sound effects, music and a few spoken words, but only from radios, machines and video screens. (Yes, you read that correctly.) It even has a song-and-dance number. However it's the last appearance of Chaplin's famous Tramp character, who Chaplin concluded couldn't be allowed to talk. He did some dialogue experiments. He thought they didn't work. Thus, although he'd written a full script, he ended up cutting the dialogue and using silent era speeded-up frame rates for most of the film, i.e. shooting at 18 frames per second and projecting at 24 frames per second to make it more slapstick.
I'm full of admiration for him on that, obviously. He backed his artistic judgement, even though everyone else must have been calling it commercial suicide. Big thumbs up there.
However what did I think of the complete film? Answer: I kind of liked it. Some of it's great. However it's hardly plot-heavy and it feels like a bunch of short films pushed together rather than a complete narrative, which meant it lost me a bit in the middle. My parents laughed quite a lot and loved it. Me, I laughed sometimes and thought it was interesting.
This film helped convince the House Un-American Activities Committee (of idiots) that Chaplin was a communist, because it's protesting about industrialisation and the Great Depression. Chaplin was also inspired by a conversation he'd had with Gandhi (!?!), who'd been complaining about how machines were taking over. As a result, the Tramp's not a tramp. Instead he's an ordinary working man, usually unemployed and desperate for a job. This might sound good in theory, but it's a mismatch in practice. He's still the Tramp. He might as well be trying to grow wings and fly. I like the fact that Chaplin's trying to say what he is in this movie, but unfortunately he's doing so through a protagonist who's clearly incapable of holding down employment in any shape, manner or form and seems less intelligent than a headless chicken running into the road. You'll get scared whenever he finds a job, since it's only a matter of time before he does something catastrophic and gets fired.
Again, I admire the fact that Chaplin's being political. Art is more interesting when it has a voice and opinions, both of which are definitely true with Modern Times. I merely think that he got his wires crossed a bit and was using the Tramp in ways that, sometimes, worked against what he was saying... but that's not a problem as far as entertainment value goes and it arguably makes the film more interesting. It's often the contradictions that make art worth watching. If everything was perfectly aligned to deliver a single unified message, then we'd live in a duller world. The Tramp is used in various roles in Modern Times and in some of them (the factory) he's superlative. Couldn't be more perfect. Besides, even when he's not, his imperfections make the film more human and more complicated.
What happens, then? He works on an assembly line that treats people like machines and thus has a nervous breakdown. He develops a fondness for jail. He commits criminal acts, although Chaplin cut out the scene where the Tramp helps burglars clean out the silverware department of the store that's employed him as a security guard. He picks up a girl (Paulette Goddard) whose response to being in financial straits is similarly larcenous.
In short, chaos accompanies the Tramp for 87 minutes, in which I include the plot structure. There's strong development of the Chaplin-Goddard relationship, but otherwise you could cut-and-paste the film's episodes into any order. This review is thus going to be bitty.
THE FACTORIES. While we're in the factories, this film is SF. The machines are as stunning as Soviet propoganda posters, their innards are a masterpiece of surrealism and the walls have talking video screens. Chaplin thinks this is anti-humanity. There are not one but two comedy sequences about industrialisation being incompatible with eating your lunch. (Both are completely different and both are very funny.) All this is brilliant. It's amazing to look at, but also the film's most effective material because the Tramp is perfect at being confused by big machines. It's like a George Orwell version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or perhaps a cross between Fritz Lang's Metropolis and a James Bond villain's hideout.
COCAINE. There's a prison sequence in which the Tramp unwittingly eats "smuggled nose powder". This broke the Hays Code, but Chaplin got away with it, probably because it's funny.
PAULETTE GODDARD. Chaplin's then-girlfriend, but she's brilliant. She's so vivid on screen! The camera can't get enough of her. You could edit Goddard's work here into any modern film or TV show and no one would guess that she hadn't done it yesterday, except of course that it's in black and white. She's playing "the Gamin". "Gamine" (i.e. mischievous urchin or waif) had been a popular silent movie type, e.g. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Louise Brooks. Goddard's take on it though is like a sexy wild animal, introduced as she is with a knife between her teeth and throwing bananas.
She becomes more civilised as the movie goes on, though, with ambitions even to becoming domesticated. There's a rather pathetic scene where she takes Chaplin to the home she's found for the two of them, which she admits "isn't Buckingham Palace". She doesn't want to be desperate and starving.
MUSIC HALL. Chaplin does a music hall number, which of course in real life he'd been doing since childhood. (Father absent, mother committed to a mental asylum, Chaplin twice committed to a workhouse.) He sings it in nonsense words, because the Tramp mustn't say anything intelligible, but he's magnificent at it.
I'm going against the entire world in saying this, but I think there's a Tramp-shaped flaw in this one. The film still works, in eccentric ways, but at the end of the day Chaplin's showing us that life's hard for a featherbrained incompetent with criminal tendencies. Well, d'oh. However the upside is that this stops the film from seeming political or preachy, even when Chaplin's showing us strikes, riots and breadlines being broken up the hard way by the police. "Get your coat. We're on strike." Admittedly the film's political content stuck in many people's throats at the time, but it's not as if Chaplin was delivering a six-minute speech to camera (as he did in his next film, The Great Dictator).
More straightforwardly, the film's made up of episodes that could be played in any order. Some of course are stronger than others. However it has some memorable sequences (both for their comedy and for their SF-like vision of a mechanised America) and a nice ending and I thought Goddard was immense. (You'll laugh, but she struck me as a cross between Jenna-Louise Coleman in Doctor Who and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) This film wouldn't be a tenth of what it is without the Chaplin-Goddard relationship. Overall, it's funny, it's interesting and it's saying something important, in its topsy-turvy way.
"We ain't burglars - we're hungry."