Tramp the Dirt Down

Modern Times, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, starring Charlie Chaplin (A Factory Worker) and Paulette Goddard (A Gamin) (1936): Stubbornly, Charlie Chaplin somehow made a mostly silent movie that got released 7 years after the advent of sound pictures. Some characters do intermittently speak, though Chaplin’s Little Tramp relies on title cards and one nonsense song to communicate. A luminous Paulette Goddard plays the only other major role, an orphaned teenaged runaway whom Chaplin’s character takes under his wing.

Chaplin’s main targets in Modern Times were the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the social effects of the Great Depression. Thanks to one slapstick sequence in which the Tramp accidentally leads a Communist Workers Rally, Modern Times would be used as proof of Chaplin’s Communist sympathies, allegations which would force him to leave the United States in the late 1940’s.

Chaplin’s late-period silent comedy features were expertly choreographed, big-budget productions. Gigantic sets and set-pieces dominate the early stages of the film, as the Tramp’s problems working in a factory are highlighted. The later stages don’t paint on so gigantic a canvas, turning instead to Chaplin’s English dancehall roots in scenes set in a cafe where the waiters perform elaborate musical and comedy numbers for the patrons.

Other setpieces make use of a dilipidated shack in which the Tramp and the Gamin play house, a jailhouse cafeteria in which the Tramp inadvertantly does a whole lot of cocaine and subsequently becomes manic, and a gigantic department store. Chaplin’s skill at choreographing and executing physical comedy is unparalleled; the concluding scene is a real tear-jerker. Highly recommended.

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