If you haven’t seen Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times yet, I promise I’m not giving anything away by saying that it has a perfect, yet very bittersweet ending. As in many of his movies, Chaplin starred in, directed, wrote, produced, and composed the score for Modern Times. It is that music score that’s key to how the whole movie feels. It ends with the piece that later had words added to it and was called “Smile.” The chorus of the song says “Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking. When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.”
Even though those words were placed to the piece after the movie, they reflect the movie’s tone and message to a tee. Modern Times is the best Depression-era film about the Depression. It’s also the last time Chaplin played his Little Tramp character; after Modern Times, he finally transitioned into talkies and left the Little Tramp behind. In this film, the Tramp works in a factory. He has some hilarious scenes testing out all the newest machinery. But when the factory shuts down, he can’t find other work. He constantly gets caught accidentally with the wrong crowds and ends up in jail though innocent. When released the first time, he tells the jailer he doesn’t want to go. He’s happy there. The jailer laughs, but we know he’s not kidding.
On the rare chance that he gets a job, he can’t keep it for more than a day. So he keeps trying to go back to jail where he’s happy. It’s the only way he can get his daily needs met and the only way he’s happy, until he meets the gamin played by Paulette Goddard who was Chaplin’s wife at the time. The gamin witnesses her father’s murder at the beginning of the movie. Her sisters are taken to orphanages, and she remains homeless.
Even though Modern Times is full of Chaplin’s signature physical comedy, the plight of these two characters is a dramatization of the very real America of the time the movie was made. They help us to sympathize with the people who went through that and to see that no matter how bad the economy may be that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, we have not had to endure anything like that generation did. As we grow to care deeply for these two characters, we are able to rejoice with them in their ability to learn how to live in the midst of such harsh situations. They learn to smile when their hearts are aching.
It’s not a fake, “keep-your-chin-up” smile that ignores the reality of the world around them. They’re able to smile and they’re able to live because they have each other. The bond they share is stronger than all the many forces against them in the story. That bond is a reminder to all of us that when the world around us is at its darkest, there is always something we’ve been blessed with, something greater than the very real sorrow we experience, something that can lead us to a genuine smile in the midst of any pain.
Also directed by Charles Chaplin:
The Gold Rush (1925)
The Great Dictator (1940)
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