when it comes to silent film comedians, one debate will continue eternally - charlie chaplin versus buster keaton. chaplin, to me, is the beatles of this argument. virtuosic, precise, total. he also has that blasted sentimental streak. keaton, the rolling stones. he gets by - ahead, even - more on guts and guile. he's no slouch in the talent department either, he's just more about the heart than the head. he certainly was much more blues than tin pan alley. it may be stating the obvious, but i am an unabashed keaton guy, all the way. chaplin, although i always recognized his considerable skills, always just seemed so damned smug and self-satisfied. w.c. fields, who makes me laugh like no other single person on the planet, once said about chaplin, "he's the best ballet dancer that ever lived, and if i get a good chance i'll strangle him with my bare hands". while i wouldn't go that far, there was always a bit of a gulf between me and the man's work.
well, that gulf was bridged a great deal this week when the criterion collection released a stunning two-disc set of my favorite chaplin film, modern times (1936).
the film opens, appropriately enough, on a ticking clock. chaplin was certainly up against it. almost a decade into the sound era, anyone else would have been laughed out of town if they had stubbornly attempted to make a (nearly) silent film in 1936. time was running out for the little tramp, make no mistake. this would be the last time chaplin portrayed the character - the most universally known and loved cinematic figure in the world, at the time - on film and he certainly makes the most of it.
the film plays as a series of episodes, really, like a number of thematically linked two-reelers. chaplin's little tramp perseveres through each, enduring a number of indignities foisted upon him by the encroachment of the mechanized age. the socially conscious (and critical) tone is established right away as the opening credits fade in on a flock of sheep that quickly dissolves into a shot of workers coming up from the subway on their way to the factory. once inside, we find chaplin tightening bolts on an assembly line. right away, the choreography is noteworthy. it's a simple introduction, but his grace and cleverness are immediately evident. the toll of all this progress on the little man is evident, as well. it is easy to draw parallels between the burdens borne by chaplin's alter ego and the position he found himself in, professionally. the technological advances in talking pictures threatened to be his undoing, but his solutions to the problem were fairly ingenious, the spectacular sound design of this film being just one of them. amidst the static and whirring of modern industry, human voices are heard for the first time in a charlie chaplin movie but every one of them is via a transmission of some sort. intercoms, phonographs, closed circuit systems - every human sound is filtered through a device of some kind, every voice one step removed from humanity. it is a clever concession, indeed. and the human voice is just the beginning.
in the race to outdo competitors with more production and efficiency, a machine is brought in to feed the workers directly on the job. of course, the machine goes comically haywire and, not long after, the little tramp suffers a nervous breakdown on the assembly line, which, at one point literally swallows him. he has become, in no uncertain terms, just a cog in the machine. the worker is simply fodder for the industrialized era, to be devoured in the name of progress.
it drives the tramp around the bend. he ends up in the hospital to get his mind right and is released only to stumble right into another misadventure. again, chaplin's (sometimes muddled) politics that would come to full flower a few years later in the great dictator (1940) begin to peek through. he is mistaken for a labor agitator and thrown in jail. for the duration of the film, the tramp goes back and forth between the relative comfort of jail and a series of jobs that were obviously in short supply in the depression-era united states. all along the way, authorities threaten to impede his pursuit of happiness. those authorities, however, did not count on this film's secret weapon, paulette goddard.
the kid's a pip, i'll tell you. as the gamin, she is every bit chaplin's equal here. there's a light in her eyes that poverty and hunger cannot extinguish. i cannot think of a woman in the history of film that i would rather live by my wits with. that whole pursuit of happiness thing? she's game, and no lousy cop, pencil-pushing social worker or any other cheap chiseler is going to keep her from it. for the first time in chaplin's career, he had a co-star that was as exciting as he was inventive. she makes every scene work that much better. the roller skating sequence in the department store isn't just thrilling and funny, with her on hand it's poignant also. and late in the film, when we finally hear chaplin's voice on camera for the first time ever (the only voice in the film that's not a transmission), she seems crucial to me. it feels like the line between life and art blurs right there and chaplin might not have been able to summon the courage to sing, a brilliant routine too, if it weren't for her moral support. this indispensable chemistry was a result of their close relationship offscreen, as goddard was chaplin's common-law wife for a number of years, and his camera never made her less than radiant. he afforded her things, including his trademark finale, that no other acting partner of his had ever gotten and, as a result, ended up with the best picture of his career. it's a valuable lesson for all of us, auteurs or not - the important things are often better when you share them with someone.
paulette goddard - no yoko.
the film was already my favorite chaplin, by a mile - long on inventive sights and sounds, relatively light on treacle, the undeniable spark goddard brought to the proceedings - but criterion's work on this is just lights out. it has turned a film i simply liked a great deal into one i can now say i love, one of my dvd releases of the year. the restored transfer is as crisp as if the film was just made and i can't say enough about the special features. with criterion, the features are almost always great but they outdid themselves this time. if you watch this edition of the film without taking advantage of these extras you are just straight up cheating yourself. there's an insightful commentary track, trailers, a two-reeler that gives you more of chaplin's mastery on roller skates and home movies. in particular, a pair of visual essays plus a feature on the sound design and visual effects provided me with a depth of understanding of chaplin's work i had not had previously. the hanging miniatures chaplin employed were fascinating, both for their effectiveness and subtle sophistication. a dissection of the aforementioned roller skating sequence left me even more impressed than i already was with it.
most importantly, though, i have a better grasp of chaplin's devotion to his medium and am staggered by the amount of effort and ingenuity he demonstrated as performer, writer, director, producer and composer. i send a sincere thanks to criterion. their work turned simple enjoyment into true appreciation.
and, yes, that makes harold lloyd the kinks.