“You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just
How many times have the lyrics of the song “Smile” gotten us through hard times? I certainly have listened to it several times over the past twelve months. Did you know that the music was written by Charlie Chaplin? It was written for his masterpiece “Modern Times” (1936) with the lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added in 1954. I’m partial to the Nat King Cole version of it, which was the original. Other artists have recorded it, including Judy Garland and Michael Jackson (who cited it as his favorite song). Jimmy Durante added his signature style to the tune, and in 2019, his rendition was used in Todd Phillips’ Academy Award winning “Joker” (2019).
I can’t help but think of the ending of “Modern Times” every time I hear it. For me it’s got to be among the most beautiful final moments of any movie. It’s at least the most optimistic and life affirming. Our two main characters have gone through ups and downs for the past 90 minutes, and they seemed so defeated seated by the side of the road. “What’s the use of trying?” a title card appears, conveying the gamine’s feelings. The Tramp tells her to “Buck up, never say die.” He then uses his hand to delineate a smile on his face, encouraging her to do it as well. Their forced grins evolve into the genuine article and they walk towards the camera full of pep in their stride, and then it cuts to them walking off towards the dawn of a new day, to begin a new, happy life. Chaplin, ever the optimist, was encouraging us to pick ourselves up and carry on, start all over again. In the background, you can hear the melody to “Smile” swelling up as the reel fades to black.
“Modern Times” marks The Tramp’s last film appearance. Although sound was prominently featured in movies by this time, Chaplin preferred to shoot it as a mostly silent film. The Tramp is supposed to be American, and he didn’t want the audience to hear his own British intonation. The character is so endearing, an innocent happy-go-lucky man who strives to behave in a gentlemanly way whenever possible despite the fact that luck and money are not on his side. His clothes reflect this. He seems to have outgrown his topcoat. His pants are too big. His bowler hat is odd. His shoes are too big and he carries a very springy cane. Everything seems past its expiration date. Yet his collar is buttoned up and it’s obvious he takes pride in facing the world with his best Sunday clothes. When he walks he looks like he just stepped off a horse after a long ride, and he’s attempting to walk a straight line.
He is usually caught in situations outside his control and choice, the victim of circumstances, and a lot of the humor derives from it. For example, in one of my favorite scenes in “Modern Times” he’s gotten a job as a waiter, and a customer is very angry for he’s been waiting an hour for his roast duck. The Tramp dashes to the kitchen to retrieve the meal which has been placed on a tray with a bottle of wine. As he goes to deliver it, the restaurant’s guests move to the center all at once and start dancing, blocking his way. The whirling mob of dancers becomes a tidal wave that sweeps him up as he balances the duck and the wine. He tries to swim against it, getting close to his customer only to be pulled away by the undertow, the duck bobbing up and down. It’s hysterical physical comedy, and simultaneously a beautiful metaphor for life.
This film is as timeless as ever, and its themes resonate as strongly now as when it was first released, perhaps more. The movie urges us to hang on to our individualism and humanity in a world that is becoming more modern and dependent on technology. It explores ideas of labor and the enslaving of workers by automation. The opening, with the Little Tramp working in an assembly line, screwing rivets tightly, is as poignant as it is comical. When he takes a break his body continues to contort and move as if he were still working on the line. His boss is obsessed with precision as well as speed. He’s installed “Big Brother” closed-circuit screens in every corner of the factory including the bathrooms where he barks orders at the employees and catches them taking a longer than expected break. With this obsession with productivity, the tycoon is willing to try a new invention, a feeding machine which automatically feeds the worker as they continue performing their duties. It will save time from lunch breaks. The test of the contraption of course involves the Little Tramp and some deliciously hysterical pantomime of disaster. Chaplin introduces sound in a way that fits with the content of the film about mechanisation. We hear the voice of the tyrant factory commander through his tv screens, the instructions to the infernal food appliance come via a recording played on a phonograph. The only time we hear Chaplin’s voice is when he sings and dances toward the end of the film, but his sounds are jibberish, a made up mixture of French and Italian.
The film was meant to be a commentary on the conditions people were facing during the Great Depression, facing unemployment and the struggles to keep up with an ever-changing world. The film has plenty of laughs, incredible sight gags, social commentary and a big beating heart.
Big Bill: “We ain’t burglars, we’re hungry.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, Kanopy and Hoopla. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and iTunes.
Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin
Bringing “Modern Times” to the Screen
By the end of the 1920s talking pictures were all the rage and the careers of most of the great silent clowns were either beginning to fade or were already over, yet Charles Chaplin boldly made “City Lights” (1931), his first film in three years, as a silent. While considered something of a novelty, the picture was received favorably enough by critics and audiences to convince Chaplin he could succeed on his own terms, defying trends and technological advances while seeking ways to explore the newly aural medium. He quickly learned he could even comment on and play with its emerging conventions and restrictions from the perspective of a silent filmmaker. Following “City Lights,” Chaplin embarked on an extended world tour to promote his film globally. He was convinced by the editor of Women’s Home Companion to document his journey in a five-part article for the magazine entitled “A Comedian Sees the World.” In this article he related many of his experiences and impressions such as his thoughts on the condition of humanity and observations of the devastating effects of the Depression in Europe. He also addressed the political and economic crises erupting across the world, and his meetings with politicians, artists and such great thinkers as Einstein and Gandhi. Chaplin’s own social and artistic circle had become more progressive and leftist, and all these factors brought about a shift in his views and the themes he wanted to explore in his work. He felt urged on by a growing sense that he was not simply a comic but an influential world artist. All of these factors were early inspiration for “Modern Times.” Chaplin heard and read stories, at home and abroad, about young men who had suffered breakdowns after financial necessity forced them to leave behind rural life for grindingly repetitive and impersonal factory work. Another influence on Chaplin’s ideas for “Modern Times” was René Clair’s satire “À nous la liberté” (1931), set in a mechanized factory where workers are reduced to mere automatons. (The inspiration was strong enough to cause the French distributors to sue Chaplin years later.)
In an interview shortly after the release of “Modern Times,” Chaplin described an incident that he said inspired the theme and title: “I was riding in my car one day and saw a mass of people coming out of a factory, punching time clocks, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that the theme note of modern times is mass production. I wondered what would happen to the progress of the mechanical age if one person decided to act like a bull in a china shop.” Various other inspirations have been credited for ‘Modern Times,’ among them Chaplin’s apprenticeship as a printer’s devil at the age of 12, dwarfed by an enormous printing press; awareness of the increasingly mechanized and regimented automotive assembly lines in Detroit; and a huge conveyor-driven dishwashing machine he saw in a Los Angeles restaurant. Upon his return from his world trip, Chaplin toyed with several film ideas for Modern Times, including a documentary on the Balinese dancing he had seen in Indonesia and the revival of an old idea about a “Napoleon and Josephine” story, which he pursued seriously enough to hire a young British journalist and aspiring playwright, Alistair Cooke, to help him develop. At the same time, he was also working with another assistant, the former vaudevillian Carter de Haven, on a satire about the factory system with his Little Tramp character causing chaos on an assembly line. His initial notes called for an opening shot of smoke billowing from the chimney of the “Electrical Metal Corporation” factory where the manager exhorts his workers to speed up production via a closed-circuit television. It has been said that Chaplin experienced a burst of creative and emotional energy after meeting a young starlet on movie mogul Joseph Schenck’s yacht. Her name was Paulette Goddard, and she had appeared only in bits and as one of the Goldwyn Girls chorus. She would become his constant companion, eventually his wife, and his leading lady in Modern Times. It has also been said that Goddard made story idea contributions to Modern Times as well as suggestions about her Gamin character. In his early notes for his new movie, Chaplin briefly considered a story involving rebellious factory workers, “a drama of communism and everybody getting two cars.”
During this period, Chaplin and Alistair Cooke were at Chaplin’s house playing piano duets, including a risqué cabaret song called “Titine,” which would find its way into Modern Times, albeit transformed into a nonsense song for the film debut of Chaplin’s voice. During the number, Chaplin reportedly turned to Cooke and announced that he no longer wanted to pursue the “Napoleon and Josephine” project. The factory project was called simply “Production No. 5” at first; later it was referred to under the title “The Masses.” At some point in the development stage of “Modern Times,” Chaplin began creating a story, which he related to a reporter at the time, about his Tramp character picking up a fallen red danger flag from a truck. He begins running after the vehicle waving the flag with the intention of getting the driver’s attention and returning it, only to be mistakenly arrested as a political agitator. The film would then build to a climactic rally at which the character would accidentally become a symbol, and perhaps leader, of the masses. At this point, the ending he envisioned was similar to the inspirational one he would later use in “The Great Dictator” (1940). Soon after, however, he backed away from the overtly political theme and title (“The Masses”). The original script of “Modern Times” called for substantial bits of dialogue, confirming Chaplin’s early plans to make a sound film. Some analysts have also noted that the dialogue script indicated a shift in his working methods from extensive improvisation to a more scripted and efficient style; in the past Chaplin’s films often experienced delays due to blocking problems and reshoots. (tcm.com)
The Making of “Modern Times”
“Modern Times” was the first picture on which Chaplin used a shooting script. This was so uncharacteristic for him that Variety even featured an article in September 1934, just before shooting began, about how the script and the construction of sets were evidence he was “thru with hit and miss sked.” The article noted that increased production costs and planned location shooting at the San Pedro docks necessitated a faster pace. Predictions that the movie would be completed by the end of 1934, however, proved to be inaccurate. The filming of “Modern Times” began in mid October 1934 and lasted until the end of August 1935. Ten months was a long time for principal photography on a motion picture at the time, but was considered fast work for a Chaplin film. Henry Bergman, who also played the Café Proprietor, and Carter DeHaven assisted Chaplin with direction. The elaborate factory and department store sets were built at great expense at Chaplin’s studios. Empty lots were rented for street sets, and three streets were built at the San Pedro waterfront. At the start of production, Chaplin was apparently still planning to make a complete sound film. The studio’s open-air stage was enclosed, consistent with sound production, and Chaplin and Goddard made sound tests and actually shot some scenes with dialogue. But the footage was scrapped and the picture proceeded as a silent with added sound effects. Shooting silent allowed Chaplin the option of cranking the camera at any speed he wanted, 16, 18 or 24 frames per second. This allowed him a flexibility of rhythm and movement in any scene. Publicity records for “Modern Times” indicate 400 people were hired for the café scene, and photographs exist of Chaplin himself, on a high tower, directing hundreds of other extras in the opening crowd shot, as opposed to the usual practice of assigning such a task to a second unit director.
Although filmmaking had become the province of large teams of highly specialized technicians, Chaplin resisted delegating tasks, involving himself in every aspect of production, even to the point of blowing bubbles in a pail of water to simulate stomach-grumbling sounds. According to some accounts, working together on “Modern Times” put a strain on Chaplin and Goddard’s relationship. Contrary to the way young actresses were presented on screen, Paulette was to wear shabby clothing and no make-up as the Gamin. When she showed up for filming with her hair beautifully coiffed, he dumped a bucket of water over her head. In early spring 1935, someone at the studio leaked word to the press that Chaplin’s “Production No. 5” was now being called “The Masses,” fueling speculation that the known leftist was making a pro-communist film. Chaplin issued a statement denying the rumor about the proposed title, although at the time it was still true. By late spring 1935, Chaplin was working sixteen to eighteen hours a day on “Modern Times,” often sleeping on a cot at the studio. Fears on the part of conservatives and optimism from leftists that Chaplin was making a communist tract intensified in July 1935 when it was learned that he had screened portions of the work in progress for members of the visiting Soviet Cinema Commission. Boris Shumiatski, head of the USSR’s film industry, wrote an article in Pravda upon his return home claiming he had persuaded Chaplin to change the ending of the picture. Chaplin had, in fact, shot an ending (still frames exist) in which the Tramp suffers a breakdown and, upon release from the hospital, finds the Gamin has now become a nun. He scrapped that finale, but not for the one Shumiatski claimed he would make, in which Charlie and the Gamin would decide “to work and fight together against the ‘machine of time,’ a euphemism for capitalist society.” Another scene Chaplin apparently shot (judging from existing stills) but scrapped was one in which the department store burglars clean out the silver department. Chaplin decided that would make them no more than common thieves, when his intention was to show them turning to crime purely out of economic desperation. (tcm.com)
The Music of “Modern Times”
On the recommendation of Eddie Powell, chief assistant to noted composer and musical director Alfred Newman, Chaplin hired David Raksin to help him write and record the score. Only twenty-three years old at the time, Raksin was already a seasoned composer and arranger. After reviewing what Chaplin had composed, Raksin offered the opinion that it wasn’t good enough for the film, nor was it modern enough or of sufficient “symphonic dimension.” He was fired after one week, but rehired at Newman’s urging and allowed to state his case. The rift was quickly patched and from that point, the two worked together well, having great fun coordinating musical ideas directly into the action running on a Moviola, instead of using timing sheets, the usual method of scoring. Raksin said that although Chaplin was not a professional musician, his command of musical styles, instrumental qualities, and development of melody and theme were impressive. While working on the music, Chaplin would relate to Raksin his ideas for other stories: the Napoleon project again, in which Raksin would be cast as Stendhal, and a picture about the Haymarket riots in Chicago, which would have had people talking once again about Chaplin’s leftist politics. By the end of their collaboration, Chaplin was treating Raksin like a son, inviting him to weekends on his yacht and lending him his chauffeur-driven Cadillac to impress an actress the young man was dating. Alfred Newman, musical director for United Artists (the studio Chaplin had founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith), was brought in to record and conduct the score. Chaplin had been dissatisfied with the orchestral work on his previous picture, “City Lights” (1931), so this time he sat in on all recording sessions, interrupting often, ordering retakes, overruling Newman’s instructions to the orchestra, and taking the recording sessions into the early morning hours. During one especially tense all-night session, he accused Newman of laziness. The conductor stomped out and never worked with Chaplin again. Newman’s assistant, Eddie Powell, took over conducting for the remainder of the work. (tcm.com)
About Writer, Director, Composer and Actor Charlie Chaplin
On April 16, 1889, future Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin is born Charles Spencer Chaplin in London, England. Chaplin, one of the most financially successful stars of early Hollywood, was introduced to the stage when he was five. The son of London music hall entertainers, young Chaplin was watching a show starring his mother when her voice cracked. He was quickly shuffled onto the stage to finish the act. Chaplin’s father died when Chaplin was a toddler, and when his mother had a nervous breakdown Chaplin and his older half-brother, Sydney, roamed London, where they danced on the streets and collected pennies in a hat. They eventually went to an orphanage and joined the Eight Lancashire Lads, a children’s dance troupe. When Chaplin was 17, he developed his comedic skills with the help of Fred Karno’s company, for which his half-brother had already become a popular comedian. Soon, Chaplin’s bowler hat, out-turned feet, mustache and walking cane became his trademark. He joined the Keystone company and filmed “Making a Living,” in which he played a mustachioed villain who wore a monocle. It wasn’t long before he also worked on the other side of the camera, helping direct his 12th film and directing his 13th, “Caught in the Rain,” on his own. Chaplin refined what would soon become his legacy, the character Charlie the Tramp, and signed on with the Essanay company in 1915 for $1,250 a week, plus a $10,000 bonus–quite a jump from the $175 that Keystone paid him. The next year, he signed with Mutual for $10,000 a week, plus a $150,000 bonus under a contract that required him to make 12 films annually but granted him complete creative control over the pictures. And in 1918, he signed a contract with First National for $1 million for eight films. A masterful silent film actor and pantomimist who could elicit both laughter and tears from his audiences, Chaplin resisted the arrival of sound in movies. Indeed, in his first film that featured sound (“City Lights” in 1931), he only used music. His first true sound film was 1940’s “The Great Dictator,” in which he mocked fascism. Chaplin founded United Artists Corporation in 1919 with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and director D.W. Griffith. Chaplin married twice more, both times to teenage girls. His fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, who was 18 when she married the 54-year-old actor, was the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Though he had lived in the United States for 42 years, Chaplin never became a U.S. citizen. A vocal pacifist, Chaplin was accused of communist ties, which he denied. Nevertheless, in 1952, immigration officials prevented Chaplin and his wife from re-entering the United States after a foreign tour. The couple did not return to the United States for 20 years; instead they settled in Switzerland with their eight children. Chaplin returned to America 1972 to accept a special Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art for and of this century.” He was knighted Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin in 1975. He died two years later. (history.com)