(U.S., Charles Chaplin)
Blasphemy! I have not chosen Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times as the best picture of 1936. So many writers who have embarked on similar projects have chosen this movie for its top spot that it has almost become perfunctory, like Vivien Leigh as best actress in 1939 for Gone with the Wind. While it is still a great movie, it isn’t a perfect; some lag time in the second half pushes a few other movies ahead of it on my list. I do, however, still like the movie a lot (it is coming in at number four on my list), I just wish the entire picture could have been more consistent like some of Chaplin’s best (City Lights, The Gold Rush).
When Chaplin critiques modern industrialized and mechanized life, the movie shines. Just about every gag works in the early scenes set in a factory in which Chaplin’s Tramp is an employee. The grinding tedium of assembly line work causes one hilarious mishap after another (including one borrowed heavily by Lucille Ball for her classic chocolate factory scene) until Chaplin snaps, running rampant through the factory and on the street. One of the most famous scenes of the picture questions just how far we are going to allow mechanization to overtake our lives: the trial of the mechanized eating machine. Its inventor describes it as the industrialists answer to the pesky and expensive lunch break. Now employees can strap into the eating machine and continue to work as it seamlessly feeds them. Of course once Chaplin is ensconced in the massive machine for a demonstration, it goes haywire, treating Chaplin to a food bath rather than a meal. Ultimately the owner of the factory declines to invest in the machine because it isn’t “practical” – not because it’s dehumanizing and unethical. Had the machine worked, the owner of the factory would have invested heavily in the product and his assembly line workers would have been robbed of what little time they have to themselves during the day.
The introduction of Paulette Godard as a young ward of the state is less convincing; she’s clearly too old for the part and I don’t buy her as the plucky survivor. Chaplin is trying to recreate the touching relationship he had with Virginia Cherrill in City Lights, but he never connects with Godard in the same way. Though the movie drags a bit as their relationship develops, there are still some great moments in the second half, including Chaplin trying to make himself at home in a decrepit shack or when he goes to work as a waiter and attempts to deliver a roast duck across an uncomfortably crowded dance floor.
Modern Times may not be the best movie of 1936, but it is still very good, both as pure comedy and as an impassioned argument against the dehumanization of modern life. Maybe if he had stuck with these themes and eliminated much of the tiresome romance with the girl, I would like the movie enough to place it in the top spot.