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)

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City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights

I don’t know what I wanted from City Lights. What I do know is that I was awed by what was considered as Chaplin’s relatively “lesser” earlier works (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus) and that I most definitely am a sucker for romantic comedies. So upon revisiting the film in the context of it being one of Chaplin’s masterpieces and it being hailed by some as the greatest romantic comedy of all time, I was expecting something significantly affecting. Unfortunately, although there are still a lot of legitimate flashes of brilliance throughout the film, I can’t help but feel shortchanged after watching.

For a film that is consistently touted – along with Modern Times – as Chaplin’s best work and among the best films ever made, City Lights sure opens pretty weak. Instead of the kind of witty physical comedy that the world has come to expect from the filmmaker, the film dishes out a bunch of perfunctory slapstick gags as we’re introduced to the tramp once again. Yet even then, it’s easy to see that the the genius is still definitely there. In the scene, for example, where the tramp meets the girl for the first time; in only two minutes, with barely the use of any words, Chaplin is able to convey so much: That the tramp is initially cold towards the girl, that the girl is blind, that the tramp discovers she is blind and warms up to her instantly, and finally that she has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. That is the kind of concise intertwining of comedy, plot movement, character development, and sentimentality that I’ve come to expect from Chaplin at his best. Unfortunately though, it’s not something that carries on throughout the film.

The film progresses at an odd pace, with some supporting bits (with the tramp & the drunken gentleman) feeling like they run on for too long and the main narrative only popping up in parts. What aggravates this the most though is that a lot of the jokes simply fall flat. The huge rock being dropped on the tramp’s foot, the bottle of alcohol spilling on the tramp’s crotch, the lady sitting on a lit cigar, and the tramp swapping out the foreman’s cheese for a bar of soap are all just the worst offenders of a common theme that runs throughout the film: That the comedy, quite bluntly put, is cheap (especially for Chaplin’s standards). The really good gags are few and far between, with the best laughs in the film coming towards the end in a sequence where the tramp tries to earn some money for the blind girl by fighting in an amateur boxing match.

Where the film triumphantly succeeds is in the romance. It may not be consistently heartwarming, and does take a while to get going (primarily because of the odd pacing in the middle), but it alone makes the film somehow earn its reputation. The scene where the tramp brings the girl to her picturesque little home is so subtly beautiful and charming; and by the time he makes it his mission to earn money for the girl’s rent and to cure her blindness, one can’t help but be moved by the selflessness of the poor fellow. In typical Chaplin fashion, through a weird turn of events, he does eventually get the girl the money. Unfortunately, he also lands himself in jail while doing so. And what this sets up is nothing but one of the finest and most emotionally striking endings in all of cinema.

Severely lacking in laughs, but overflowing with heart, City Lights just begs me to reiterate what I mentioned in my review of The Circus – that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he is known for. Upon watching it for a second time, I think I have to put myself in the minority that would not consider film as one of his better releases; but hey, at least it leaves us with that magnificent ending.

Rating: B (good)

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)

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

There is an anecdote about a meeting between Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in which Einstein commends the comedian by saying, “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you.”

To which Chaplin answered, “It is true, but your glory is even greater. The whole world admires you even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.”

What Einstein says is true, and how Chaplin reacts exemplifies his knack for sharp, truthful comedy. Throughthrough his nameless characters, Chaplin is able to let his viewers relate with the most universal themes in life: Love, loss, happiness, and sadness, while at the same time delivering among the most timeless comedy in cinema history. We laugh, we cry, and we empathize. The Kid is a film that is driven purely on heart – the source of our deepest feelings of joy and sorrow – and the reason why the film endures almost a century later.

The film begins with Edna Purviance as a single mother without the means to raise her newborn child. In desperation, she decides to leave the infant inside a car owned by a wealthy family. After she leaves, two thieves appear and steal the vehicle with the newborn inside. When they discover the baby crying in the backseat, they dump it somewhere in the slums where it is then chanced upon by a carefree tramp (as played by Chaplin, in his iconic character’s first feature film appearance). After a comedy of errors trying to get rid of the child, the tramp eventually accepts his fate and takes in the newborn as his own, seemingly undaunted by his hilarious inadequacies as a parent.

The story that follows largely involves the exploits of this unlikely duo five years later, and is most of the films’ source of comedy. Due to the film’s simple plot, the gags play out somewhat as a vignette of comedic skits surrounding the tandem of the tramp and the kid.  It features the surrogate father and son hustling through the city streets trying to make a not-so-honest living, then them roughing it up in the middle of the rural neighborhood, and also making ends meet in their small but cozy apartment space. What shines through the clever and witty humor is their odd partnership as equals, which sees the kid loving and caring for the tramp as much as the tramp does for the kid.  And similarly, Jackie Coogan serves as a most capable co-star, not at all playing second fiddle to Chaplin, but instead sharing the limelight in what is one of the best child performances of all-time.

The only thing that seems to stifle the momentum that the film builds throughout Chaplin’s exploration of this father-son relationship is when the mother comes back into the picture. While I realize the importance of this character, if there’s anything to be said against the story, it most likely has to do with the mundanity of the mother who seems to function mostly as a device to move the narrative forward through odd contrivances and coincidences. I guess such is life though with its quirky twists of fate; but I was far less interested in anything involving Purivance than Chaplin and Coogan, so I would still consider her a weak link.

Other smaller issues creep up towards the ending such as maybe that dream sequence seemed out of place (it felt more like a device to showcase some cool camera tricks than anything else) or that the ending of the film felt a little too abrupt. In the end though, Chaplin’s ability to deftly balance slapstick and melodrama in a neat package wins over anything that could said about The Kid. Here is a film that knows exactly what it’s set out to do: It opens with the following words: “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear” – and that is exactly what we get.

Rating: B+ (great)