Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times (1936), isn’t exactly a silent. People can be heard speaking, but only over mechanical or electrical devices like a radio, a videophone and a gramophone. Chaplin himself sings a nonsense song (in some cobbled together language) late in the film. And his last appearance as his “Little Tramp” character isn’t quite the Tramp, though it’s fair to say he becomes him over the course of the film — only to end by looking past the character to an unknown future. Chaplin plays a factory worker (though Chaplin admitted he had no idea what the factory was making) driven to a complete mental breakdown by an overdose of the dehumanized Modern Times. Upon his release from the hospital, he picks up a red flag that has fallen off a truck, only to accidentally find himself marching at the front of a communist demonstration that gets him in trouble with the law. (This image is part of what got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee down the road.) But the bulk of the film deals with his relationship with a runaway orphan girl (Paulette Goddard) and their constantly imperiled desire for a happy future. It’s a winning combination of social commentary and pathos, built around some of the most inspired comic set-pieces of Chaplin’s career. Is it his best film? Maybe. It’s certainly in the running as one of the top two or three.
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