This year, LACO’s annual silent film screening features Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and Kid Auto Races in Venice.
Kally Mavromatis of WelcomeToSilentMovies.com offers a bit of history into both the films and the man himself.
It’s an enduring image: A man, trapped in a machine, rolling along the cogs, seemingly trapped into becoming a part of the machinery itself.
Pink Floyd may have welcomed us to the machine in the ‘70s, but Charlie Chaplin introduced it to us in the ‘30s with his film Modern Times, and it’s as remarkably relevant today as it was when it first premiered in 1936.
Modern Times is the story of the Little Tramp who, driven mad by his mind-numbing job in a factory, goes on a rampage and is taken to a hospital. Later he is mistaken for a Communist agitator and thrown in jail. Pardoned, he tries – and fails at – a variety of jobs, along the way meeting the “Gamine” (Paulette Godard). Just when all seems to be going well for the pair, they are forced to go on the run, but are confident that as long as they are together, they will be just fine.
Modern Times is Chaplin’s first foray into social and political commentary. By the time he began production in 1934, he was deeply dismayed by the depths to which the Depression had left scores of people unemployed, accelerated by the dehumanizing increase in industrialization.
In mining these dark themes for comedy, Chaplin chose to use his “everyman” character, the Tramp, who struggles to find his place in this modern world.
It’s a world we could easily recognize today: Layoffs. Strikes. Increasing mechanization. Income inequality. Yet in the face of so much change, turbulence and turmoil, by the end of the film the Tramp manages to maintain a ray of optimism: The final intertitle is of Chaplin’s Tramp, telling the Gamine, “Buck up – never say die! We’ll get along.”
Modern Times can be taken not only as a commentary on modernization, but as an elegy to a lost world, as well.
Not only does it bid farewell to a lost art – silent filmmaking – but it bids farewell to a world that saw the creation of the Tramp, Chaplin’s enduring persona, and to the character itself.
By the time Modern Times was completed in 1936, the silent era was long over. The first all-talking picture, “Lights of New York,” had premiered in 1928 and by 1930 even stars such as Greta Garbo had made the transition.
But for Chaplin, the talkies presented a unique challenge. His type of comedy, he felt, was best expressed through pantomime, the “language” of silent film. It allowed his character to be understood by everyone, without relying on words or dialogue, and thus was more universal in nature.
Chaplin fought long and hard against using all synchronous dialogue in his films, but by the time he was ready to make Modern Times he was ready to experiment with this new medium.
Originally intending Modern Times to be a talkie, Chaplin initially wrote dialogue for his characters and even recorded some test scenes.
But unsatisfied with the outcome, he opted to stick to what he knew best: pantomime. However, there are numerous examples of the use of synchronous sound throughout the film including sound effects, which Chaplin enjoyed creating and were made part of the overall music score.
More famous, however, is a scene in which the Tramp, hired as a waiter, is pressed into service for a missing tenor and asked to sing Léo Daniderff’s comical song Je cherche après Titine; Chaplin’s own voice is heard singing a mish-mash of French and Italian to great comic effect.
Despite its limited use of sound, Modern Times is in many ways the last major silent film. It carries on the tradition of using intertitles to convey what the actors can’t, and was shot in silent film’s traditional 18 frames per second; when played at “sound speed” of 24 frames per second it only emphasizes the frenetic nature of Chaplin’s slapstick comedy.
If Modern Times is the Tramp’s Omega, then “Kid Auto Races in Venice” is its Alpha.
While the Tramp character was “born” in a Mabel Normand short, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Kid Auto Races in Venice is the first of Chaplin’s films to feature the Tramp in a starring role. It’s a 6-minute short with a thin plot: The Tramp continually finds himself in front of a movie camera that is filming a soap box derby race, much to the dismay of the cameraman and the racers.
Modern Times was a critical and commercial success, and Chaplin would go on to create talking pictures, but without the Tramp. In many ways, Modern Times serves as a bittersweet farewell to a character, a way of life and a style of filmmaking that gave way to…modern times.