3. A silent or dialogue-free film: Modern Times (1936)
List Progress: 5/12
A factory worker is consumed by the mechanization of his life and body and has a nervous breakdown. He is briefly institutionalized, then spends a period of time drifting in and out of prison and trying to hold jobs that fall apart on him. He tries to build a happy but meager life with a young woman from an impoverished background, but right when it looks like they might have their happy ending, their criminal pasts catch up with them and cast a shadow over all of their plans and dreams. This somber story could take place as easily in 2021 as 1936, but leave it to Charlie Chaplin to turn it into a comedy. Modern Times has all the structure of a tragedy, but the joy and hope of a great comedy, so you can see how it has stood the test of time.
The first feature-length “talkie” film was The Jazz Singer in 1927, but nine years later, Chaplin was still holding true to silent films…mostly. Modern Times is Chaplin’s last silent film, and even then it is right on the edge, with sound effects and a few moments of audible speech. This dialogue almost always comes from the factory boss and professional recordings, while the lower classes are left literally voiceless. But Chaplin, the female lead Paulette Goddard, and the rest of the varied cast are such gifted physical performers that you don’t need to hear their voices to know them deeply. Chaplin’s kind-hearted Tramp character is well-suited to this saga, and as he is employed at the beginning of the film and a drifter by the end, some have considered this a sort of origin story for him. The modern world throws everything it can at this man, but he keeps getting back up and moving forward.
There are times when the film runs a bit long, with not all of the episodic adventures quite as tightly paced. But the conclusion in a nightclub, where audiences get to hear the Tramp’s voice for the first time, albeit singing a gibberish song, is so charming that it brings everything together nicely, especially as a farewell to the silent filmmaking that made Chaplin a star. This unfortunately-timeless film has so much to say, and it manages to say it all on its own terms.
Would I Recommend It: Definitely.