Modern Times (1936)

Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) vs. Feeding Machine in Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin, having complete creative control over his films – being writer, director, composer, and actor in almost all his works – is undoubtedly the center in which all his films revolve around. He is the focus and he is the star. In only one instance was there a co-star who was able to match Chaplin’s on-screen presence, and that would be Jackie Coogan in 1921’s The Kid. However, I would argue that there is also one instance as well wherein a co-star was able to surpass his on-screen presence. This would be Paulette Goddard in Modern Times.

In the role of the gamin, Goddard’s youthful exuberance and fierce (almost savage) characteristic makes all the difference. She has such timeless beauty and a strong, captivating screen presence that the film never loses a step when the focus is shifted away from the tramp and on to her. Together, Chaplin’s tramp and Goddard’s gamin are magnetic – almost like Bonnie & Clyde as they run away hustling for food from one place to another.

The charm, charisma and chemistry of the pair however, only serve to enhance what is already a film of great substance. Modern Times, more than any other picture Chaplin has done in the past, concerns itself with significantly more political and philosophical themes as it delves into man’s relationship with technology. This is even made more poignant set within the context of The Great Depression as it gives Chaplin much material to illustrate man’s struggle to adapt. In one scene, Chaplin depicts the power that machines have over men when the tramp suffers a nervous breakdown as part of a factory assembly line. The tramp frantically tries to keep up with the speed of technology; but to no avail, and is sucked into the machine – a wonderfully intricate piece of production design – both literally and figuratively.

Throughout this – Chaplin’s final silent movie, and what some would say as the last film of the silent era – only certain bits of dialogue are spoken. Curiously, they are only heard when coming from some form of technology such as a radio or a monitor. Again, Chaplin’s commentary not only on the increasing reliance of people on technology, but maybe also a reflection of his sentiments on how cinema was then moving away from silent films and on to “talkies,” making the film work as a refection on change and transition in more ways than one.

In spite of all these different layers that can be found in Modern Times, Chaplin never loses sight of the fact that the film is first and foremost a comedy. He mixes in the hearty laughs with the witty social commentary, displaying his ability to create biting satire within his slapstick approach. Granted, the film is not perfect as it features some stale jokes (the one with the minister’s wife in the prison comes to mind) and it doesn’t quite reach the highs that some of his other films are able to achieve. However, Modern Times benefits from being consistently engaging, and it achieves this by being effective on so many layers unlike any other Chaplin film before it. Whether it be due to the humor, or the social commentary, his patented comic twists in the narrative, or simply because of the electric screen presence of its two leads, Modern Times proves through every scene that it is worthy to be hailed as one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements.

Rating: A (excellent)

The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy in The Circus

Chaplin’s The Circus – arguably the least known and lauded of his “tramp” features – is a film that  succinctly captures the ephemeral quality of life: How one can fall in love and how that love can be smitten away from you in a blink of an eye; how in one moment you’re penniless and running from the law, then in another minute you’re a celebrity, then shortly after you’re obsolete, and finally you’re back from where you came from. The Circus is driven and revolves around this topsy-turvy nature; and as such, is also Chaplin’s most realistic film as it captures life’s most exhilarating triumphs and most heartbreaking falls from grace.

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a narrative; and being set in a circus, features some of the more physical gags from Chaplin. It also features some insights into the comedic process as the the tramp tries to incorporate his “accidental comedy” into the circus troupe’s more meticulously planned routines. The uniqueness of the film’s setting allows for some of Chaplin’s most magical moments, the most enchanting of which comes early on in the film as the poor tramp runs into a hall of mirrors to elude the chasing cops. The camera remains fixed on a multitude of reflections as the tramp and the cop run around chasing and running from reflections of each other in a brilliantly choreographed sequence. To say that it’s the best gag in the film and one of the best scenes that Chaplin has put together would not be an exaggeration.

Yet at the heart of it all, the way Chaplin’s character progresses in the film’s romantic subplot proves yet again that he is as much a sentimentalist as the comedian for which he is known for. In the film’s “meet cute,” the tramp chances upong a young female performer enjoying the breakfast that he’s been cooking for himself and chases her off. Upon realizing that she’s the ringmaster’s daughter and has been denied her meal, he develops a fondness for her and secretly hands her his meal anyway. The fondness soon develops into a romance; but once a dashing tightrope walker joins the circus, the romance turns into jealousy. Through all of the character’s ups and downs, Chaplin still manages to deliver the laughs and let shine the kind of truths that will make you nod and smile in acknowledgement. His ability to capture all of these changes in tone so poignantly in such a short amount of time can lead one to argue that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he had built his legacy on.

In the film’s final act, realizing that the happiness of the girl lies with the tightrope walker, the tramp devices a plan to resolve everyone’s problems as the circus caravan prepares to leave town. Everyone’s problems except his own that is, and the final scene sees the tramp left alone in the middle of a field where the circus used to be. So in the end, The Circus is ultimately a film that shows Chaplin maturing as a person as well as a filmmaker. It shows him having gained wisdom about the realities of life and the knowledge that not all romances need to end with a happy ending. That sometimes, the most truthfully effective stories are the ones that reflect life’s sad realities. It shows him expanding his technical prowess, reaching deeper into his repertoire of camera magic, and learning to deal with the nuances in juggling multiple themes yet still producing a cohesive whole. I went into watching the film expecting to surmise why The Circus has ended up as Chaplin’s least revered tramp film, and now that I’ve seen it though, I ask myself “…why?” indeed.

Rating: A (excellent)

The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp looking on at the merriment in the dancehall

Just like most of Chaplin’s stories, The Gold Rush is a deeply humanistic film. It tackles the lengths men will go through to achieve their dreams and how much we are able to persevere and hope in the face of adversity. At the center of it all is the little tramp – the classic underdog of Chaplin’s most heartfelt narratives. In this picture, the tramp takes on the role of a lone prospector searching for gold. He ventures out into the Klondike where he eventually ends up stranded in a cabin with an escaped convict named Black Larsen and a burly fellow prospector named Big Jim.

For much of the film’s first act, it’s difficult to miss the many gags that has made The Gold Rush so enduring and influential. In one scene, Larsen and Jim fight over a shotgun; and while they struggle, so does the tramp as he frantically avoids being on the receiving end of the barrel. In another scene, in desperate need of sustenance, the tramp dines nonchalantly on a boiled shoe while Jim looks at his half of the shoe hesitantly. In yet another, Jim gets delirious from hunger and hallucinates as the tramp transforms into a giant chicken before his very eyes.

It’s one familiar gag after another, and the familiarity stems from these jokes being borrowed on over and over by comedies for the past 89 years. Watch the film in full and one will undoubtedly see scenes appropriated for The Looney Tunes, The Muppets, The Simpsons, and surely many other films and shows. Yet even though it features such a familiar set of skits; the jokes are still able to produce the heartiest of laughters. And the most remarkable thing about The Gold Rush is that the impeccable comic timing and charm make these gags even much more effective than the acts that copied from it.

Later on the film shifts in tone from adventure to romance. It still doesn’t let up on laughs; but instead of coupling it with daring and exuberant thrills, Chaplin effortlessly weaves hopeless romance and melancholy in its place. My one and only issue with the film is in the way the romance was resolved. Georgia’s quite a bitch, really. I mean, the only reason she crossed paths with Chaplin’s tramp is because she picked out the most unfortunate looking fellow in the dancehall to spite her suitor. It never felt like she actually cared for the tramp, and even played him for a fool when she discovered that she was in love with him. All the while the tramp was acting like her knight in shining armor in his starry-eyed romantic idealism, which makes the viewer empathize with the protagonist so much more. In one of the films best scenes – the dinner roll dance – all of these emotions come together as for that solitary minute, Chaplin captures the charming comedy of his picture, the hopeful optimism of his protagonist, and the sad realities of life. Which is why I was so disappointed at the ending where a string of contrivances eventually brings Georgia and the (now wealthy) tramp together. It just didn’t seem right for the film and she didn’t seem right for him.

So I’m not so much a fan of the romance; but still, The Gold Rush endures as one of Chaplin’s most consistently funny comedies, which features a wealth of iconic gags and classic cinematic moments. It’s a film where he juggles and hits more notes than usual: It’s an adventure, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, and yet another proof of Chaplin’s timeless wit at capturing the many faces of the human spirit.

Rating: A (excellent)

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and the theater group from To Be or Not To Be

When To Be or Not to Be was released in 1942, the world was in the throes of war. The film mocked and satirized the Nazi regime. Naturally, there were people who questioned if it was something that should have been made.

Its main plot focuses on a troupe of Polish actors led by the husband and wife team of Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard). As a clever, self-referential touch, the company is introduced by Lubitsch as producing a satirical play about the Nazis at the height of tensions between Germany and Poland. Once the Germans invade Poland however, all operations stop. The Turas and their cohorts are then thrust into a tight situation when a certain Polish Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is suspected of treachery and tries to recruit Maria as a spy. From here on, the film deftly juggles mystery, suspense and intrigue along with biting satire to make what is easily the most brilliant of all the pictures I’ve seen from the director.

While there’s something oddly subversive about such a film being directed by a German right in the middle of World War II, it’s still classic Lubitsch at its core: It’s light, elegant and sophisticated despite the theme. He gets solid work from the entire ensemble down to the supporting cast, and even though the central narrative is not nearly as strong as the comedic commentary that accompanies it, it makes for a sturdy enough backbone for the film’s loftier plans.

Those plans are typified by Lubitsch’s ability to extract the most brutally honest hilarity during the bleakest moments of human history, as all great satires are able to do. The jokes are sharp, witty, well setup and impeccably timed. Most intriguingly though, they are cleverly multifaceted, with the dialogue and situations often repeated – not for the sake of emphasis – but because the differing contexts give rise to layers that make the film profound and poignant in more ways than one.

At one point in the film Joseph Tura poses as a certain Col. Ehrhardt of the Gestapo in an attempt to pacify Siletsky. In the course of their conversation, the professor tells him of his reputation in London.

“You’re quite famous, Colonel,” he says. “They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”

As the meeting goes on, with Tura needing to stall the professor, he quips, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, huh?” and then again and again to comically break the awkward silence, “So they really call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”

Then, later on in the film, with Tura now posing as the professor, he meets the real Col. Ehrhardt and echoes the lines of Siletsky, “Colonel, you’re quite famous in London. You know what they call you? Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”

To which the real, bumbling Ehrhardt reacts, “Oh, they do, do they? So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”

“I thought you would react just that way,” Tura responds. And laughter ensues.

We laugh first and foremost because it lampoons the Nazi army. But more accurately, we laugh because the cold-hearted nature and extreme cruelty of the oppressors rings true. It is comedy as a reflection of life, which makes for the best comedy in that it is hilarious and at the same time chilling. So, while easily the funniest Lubitsch that I’ve seen, with the jokes coming in such rapid-fire succession unseen from the other of the director’s films, the brilliance of To Be or Not to Be is in how it manages to be a sharp and witty reflection of truth in the midst of all the laughter.

To the question of whether or not it should have even been made, as the great satirist Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward — and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.” I would imagine that Lubitsch had the same thing in mind when he and his cast and crew set out to make To Be or Not to Be right in the middle of World War II.

Rating: A (excellent)