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)

Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo as Ninotchka

“From what I’ve read, I thought champagne was a strong drink, but it’s delicate,” says Ninotchka as she takes her first sip of champagne. That line alone epitomizes the romance in Ninotchka, which revolves around the title character as played by Greta Garbo and Count Léon d’Algout as played by Melvyn Douglas.

They meet in the film as opposites. He is carefree and decadent. She is stiff and firm.  Through the course of the film however, Leon draws Ninotchka into his world, revealing a sweet and tender side to the Russian that he (or maybe even she herself) didn’t know existed.

Unfortunately – and I will put this as bluntly as Ninotchka would – the leads are just not that good, which sounds like blasphemy considering that Greta Garbo was considered as one of the greatest film stars for three decades. But if greatness is to be found in her acting, I didn’t find it here. Her stone-faced Bolshevik played out like a caricature and her turn of heart for the Count lacked believability. By the same token, Melvyn Douglas neither has the suave and sophistication of a Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise nor the tender charm of a James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. Most importantly, Garbo and Douglas just don’t have the chemistry that is required to make the audience swoon with the belief that they were made for each other.

A bigger problem with Ninotchka however, is that its satirical angle seems to miss the point completely. In To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch executes a masterful satire of the Nazi regime. He ridicules the most blatant bullies of World War II and reveals a truth through comedy that is both poignant and profound. In Ninotchka however, a film that Lubitsch filmed three years earlier, Lubitsch strikes not nearly as flush or witty. This time, instead of Germany, the target of his political commentary resides in communist Russia. However, it’s unclear who is being lampooned; and more importantly, why.

The story of Ninotchka concerns itself heavily with a comparison of opposites just in the same way that the lead characters are introduced: The decadence of France vs. the rigidness of Russia, the plain uniform clothing of the Bolsheviks vs. the extravagant haute couture of the Parisians, the lavish and carefree high society lifestyle vs. the numbing tedium of communist society. Through this, the message is that communist Russia is evil, which is, I suppose a valid and relevant enough message during that time. The only problem is that the film does it at the expense of the people being oppressed themselves.

The butt of the jokes in To Be or Not to Be are the oppressors: Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. Here, we see no shots being fired similarly at the Russian government. Instead, what we have to laugh at are Bolshevik envoys sent to Paris who are enamored by French culture. We laugh at Ninotchka’s Russian neighbor who walks as if the life has been sucked out of him. So, while Lubitsch’s heart appears to be in the right place, it seems that his aim is a bit off.

In spite of this, however, the great thing about Lubitsch films is that no matter what criticism may be laid on them, they never really are bad. Rarely are they even mediocre. In Ninotchka, what is left to admire is basically superficial Lubitsch: The classy production design, the grand and majestic air, the breezy pace and delicate touch. There not a lot of meat to sink one’s teeth into, but sometimes, what is experienced at face value may be enough.

Rating: B (good)

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)