The first in a series of articles tracing the vagabond’s travels “beyond the boredom and bondage of village life” onto the screen. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times confound everyone but the tramp- because the folks with nothing are the only ones who have it all figured out.
Tramp is a broad term with mixed parts. The poor migrant looking for work is a tramp, but so is the lazy bum who won’t get a job. By birth or by choice, the vagabond’s role in society is as the Other. Tramps don’t fit in because they are paupers and the modern world is defined by purchasing power. But, having nothing to lose, the hobo is the last truly free free spirit. Countercultural, but not locked into a counterculture. The salons and coffee shops brim with young bohemians and troubadours, artists who don’t fit in because how they express themselves is at odds with society. To me, the “crap artist” is the everyman’s version of this rebellion. What if you don’t do anything but you still don’t fit in? Not everyone plays guitar or can paint with a single color and make it work. Just because you want out doesn’t mean you are obligated to do something to prove it. The vagabond is an outsider for who they are, not what they do. This is the first in a series of essays that will explore how different films and TV programs glorify or at least examine the life of the wanderer. The hobo is an archetype, but beyond five o clock shadow and a bindle, on the inside, what makes one a tramp? Society called them layabouts who can’t put one day in front of another but the awakened sages call a person wise when their undertakings are free from anxiety about results.
The logical place to start is with the Tramp himself. Charlie Chaplin made a number of engaging and hilarious movies dealing realistically with the trials of Depression era poverty via vaudeville and broad physical comedy. They are all part performance piece and part social critique with iconic scenes out the waz, but more than City Lights or Gold Rush, the movie that hits you over the head with the devil-may-care attitude of the Tramp being a manifestation of having it all figured out is Modern Times.
Okay, so I must confess that sometimes I go straight to jail and skip the most recognized part of the film, the assembly line in the factory. It’s not bad, sometimes it’s great, but I think if you compare Modern Times to Our Hospitality, you’ll find Chaplin is the better (if not quintessential) physical comedian while Buster Keaton is a better director of slapstick comedy and a Keaton movie doesn’t need him onscreen to be great while a Chaplin movie mostly does. When you’re watching Charlie Chaplin, you don’t want a bunch of speculative automaton humor, you just want to watch Charlie Chaplin. For me, things really get going once Modern Times breaks this rule I’ve just made up and the Gamin is introduced. I think the strength of the beginning of the movie is the play it makes on the Little Tramp character. This story isn’t how an ordinary man became the Tramp, it just starts at the end of a long streak on the up and up for a character that is accustomed to living on the skids. The Tramp doesn’t “grow up” over the course of the movie (in fact, he keeps the Gamin from growing up too much), he remains the same enjoy it while you can nonchalant figure- except in the beginning, where he’s so screwed up by his horrible job he ends up having a breakdown and winding up jobless and in prison.
I defy you not to fall for Paulette Goddard. Chaplin has been funny so far, involved in many a madcap scenario, but things change suddenly when we are confronted with the Gamin, a girl whose family has fallen on such hard times that she needs to steal to feed them, dad and sisters. In the first half hour of the film, there are two brief parts with her in them, sandwiched between scenes like Chaplin having the robotic lunch and then the “nose powder” lunch and… boy, there is a lot of eating in this movie. But it is a poor man’s fantasy set during the Great Depression, so I suppose that makes sense. At any rate, the first scene establishes the Gamin/Goddard is a criminal. The second takes her father away and The Man breaks up the family. She runs from the law rather than be put into a foster home.
This is a movie that turns out to be full of criminals. The Tramp has been released from prison only to be immediately arrested again, this time purposefully taking the wrap for a crime committed by the Gamin (who he just met) because prison = three hots and a cot. It might seem like the Tramp was doing the right thing by making the police think that he stole bread instead of the starving girl (whose stealing is already morally justified by hunger, poverty etc), but technically obstructing justice is considered a crime and really the Tramp just wants precious prison resources wasted on him since he can’t hold down a real job- which as we’ve just seen would probably end up with him in prison anyway. However, from the moment the Tramp and the Gamin meet (and arguably from the moment of her introduction), the movie is no longer about seeing being poor from the funny side. The movie from Gamin forward is about Chaplin and Goddard trying to make it, to find those hots and cots in the real world. You care now about the Tramp staying employed because you are given some stakes that matter. A cartoon character like the Little Tramp likes to eat, but a girl like the Gamin needs to eat and this makes the need to hold down a job meaningful.
So call the humor black because the serious topics are handled with the gravitas that makes a comedy film black comedy. But doing that misses the mark. The smiles are often bittersweet- fantasy milk straight out the cow and imaginary grapes from the vine- but most of the funny comes from Chaplin’s combination of a zen master’s control over his own body movement and occasionally acrobatic vaudeville performance. Each attempt at getting a “normal” job is a spectacular failure for the Tramp because there is no place for him or the Gamin in the everyday world where all the straight jobs are. Black comedy. While Chaplin goes through multiple jobs whose loss seems to always land him in jail, Goddard has her eyes on the prize. They can’t have the dream house but she finds them an abandoned shack. She can’t get a job but she can dance for coins in the street to put some dinner on the table. She waits for the Tramp while he’s in prison. She is the vehicle for the movie to get meta, as she discovers the one thing that can raise poor people in economic standing/social stature: entertainment. GIANT WINK, AM I RIGHT VAUDEVILLE PERFORMERS? Also giving the Tramp an entertainment job allows him to sing in a silent film, only his character forgets the words and has to act out everything for his “Nonsense Song” to come across (which it does, beautifully). So yeah meta.
Anyway since the Gamin is on the lamb from the law all that milk and honey gets turned into a bindle by the side of the road again before the next act can even take the stage. Are the last two minutes of the film the most important? YES. The vagabond Way completely exposed in 120 seconds: the Gamin is torn up about coming so close to grabbing the prize and ending up empty handed. Fuck it, says the Tramp, you’re alive. You’ve got today and that’s as great a prize as you or anyone can ever get.