Best Pictures of 1936 (#4) – Modern Times

(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.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

6 responses to “Best Pictures of 1936 (#4) – Modern Times

  1. I remember watching this with you. We also watched that great factory scene in a 1920s class I read for with Valerie and Jessica. I agree with your take on the lag time; I remember thinking at the time that the whole romance was bizarre.

    Recently I was reading some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s letters from 1915 and she wrote of getting to see a Chaplin movie and just not understanding it at all. She didn’t elaborate. I wonder what was so incomprehensible to her?

    • Yes, I thought we watched this together, but I couldn’t remember. As for Miss Laura, I wonder if she was confused by his take on urban life? Not that a country girl couldn’t understand the ups and downs of city life, but if she was young enough, maybe it went over her head. I don’t know, just a theory.

      • Nope — in 1915 she was about 40 I believe, maybe even closer to 50. But it’s true that up till then she’d never been to a big city. The letters are all from her first trip to San Francisco, and it’s quite something to read them and realize she’d never seen ocean before, or desert!

  2. Well for me this is the best film of 1936, and one of Chaplin’s supreme masterpieces. (with CITY LIGHTS, THE GOLD RUSH and THE CIRCUS among feature films) So much stands out like the food machine, the conveyor belt sequence, the scene when Charlie glides through the gears, the society party and the poignant scenes with Paulette Godard. “Smile” is one of the greatest compositions of the century (even Michael Jackson said it was his favorite song!) and the brilliant film respresents Chaplin’s answer to Lang and Clair.

    • I can’t argue with anyone picking this as the best picture of 1936. It has moments of genius. I would say that of the three features you mention, this one is the weakest. I just never completely bought his relationship with Godard. However, if the relationship does work for a viewer, I can see how the whole movie would work. I still really enjoy the movie, I just stop paying attention to some scenes.

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