This was supposed to be Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie, but he wisely realized that to preserve the charm of the Little Tramp, he also had to preserve the silence.
The great audience which had pushed into the Rivoli by nine o’clock on the morning of February 6 was there not so much to see Modern Times as to see the most famous actor in the world, and possibly the most famous man. A classic was on view, and there was every disposition not to be disappointed. Evidences of familiarity with the Chaplin tradition were constantly making themselves heard and felt. When Charlie put on roller skates in the department store, when he presented himself for a job as waiter in the cabaret where of course there were two kitchen doors marked “In” and “Out,” whenever he had a corner to get around, and whenever a policeman was waiting for him around this corner, the audience showed by all the ancient signs that it knew what was coming. And what should have come did come. Charlie Chaplin was not disappointing. He was exactly as good as he had ever been before, and all of him was there; which is a way of saying that Modern Times is one of the most interesting spectacles to be seen in America today.
He has changed very little. His appearance has not changed at all—derby, mustache, eyes, mouth, pants, shoes, and walking stick are just the same. He has brought with him some of the old actors of Mack Sennett’s day, notably Chester Conkun with his walrus mustache. He exploits the identical situations of five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, making familiar use of policemen, water hydrants, the waiter’s tray, and the custard pie. His eye for persons and institutions to be parodied has not lost a single beam of its quickness; if the football game with a roast duck reminds anyone of Harpo Marx’s baseball game in A Night at the Opera, it should he remembered who came first in this genre; and if there has ever been a finer piece of fooling than the scene in the bathing suit I think I must have missed it. But more impressive still, he has continued to hold out against dialogue. The manager of the factory where Charlie works does, to be sure, give a few orders with his own voice— through a glass screen, by television; and Charlie goes so far on one occasion as to sing a song—in no language! that may be identified, though it seems to represent a merger of French, Italian, and Romanian. Beyond these heresies we hear nothing but mechanical noise; phonographs speak for salesmen, sirens indicate the approach of the law, and incidental music (composed by Chaplin himself) suggest the tenor of such remarks as the actors address to one another. The rest is pantomime, with Chaplin always the central figure and with nothing to inspire the wish in us to hear the words he obviously has no need for.
Chaplin has not changed. The little monkey who without seeming to know that he does so, or without wanting to belittle anybody or anything, makes a monkey out of the entire world still expresses himself, I think, in terms of the purest, the most disinterested comedy. The rumors and the advance assurances that he had this time taken sides in the class struggle—and taken, naturally, the right side—were not borne out by anything I saw with my own eyes. The girl waif with whom Charlie casts his lot is the orphan of an unemployed man shot down by the police, and as such she unquestionably has our sympathy. But then it is by the most grotesque of accidents that Charlie leads a labor parade; the red flag he waves is a rag of warning which a truck has jolted loose from its projecting cargo; and the well-meaning hero, waving it for the truckdriver to see, never knows that a column of demonstrators has marched up behind him and fallen in step.
Not that Chaplin is making fun of labor demonstrations; he is simply using one to further his own comic purposes. What he believes as a citizen seems to have nothing whatever to do with the way he behaves here. There is nothing that is not funny for him, or that cannot be made so. His line is laughter. And I for one am glad that he has kept to it. The relatively brief portion of Modern Times which deals with poor versus rich is as little a worker’s tract as Shoulder Arms was a pacifist document, or The Gold Rush a discussion of the thirst for wealth, or The Rink an exposure of roller skating. The film as a whole means no more than Charlie Chaplin means. Nobody has ever been able to say what that is, but by the present showing it is something quite timeless and priceless, and more human than the best of alien words lugged in for definition.