Archive for June 18, 2022


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 18, 2022 by dcairns

I always thought Charlie got rehired by the Electro Steel Company an hour into MODERN TIMES, but no, it says plain as day that he’s now working for the Jetson Mills. But the cogs look the same — I’m assuming designer Charles D. Hall simply rearranged some of the earlier set and added new bits. If he built a whole new clockwork contraption then the effort was kind of wasted because it LOOKS the same to me.

OK, I compared. Totally different. Because of course each machine had to perform a different comic function — Charlie has to be fed smoothly through the first, like a string of sausages, whereas the second has to bring us the head of Chester Conklin, through various apertures.

Chester Conklin! Returning for his first co-starring role with Chaplin since 1914 (excluding their cameos in SOULS FOR SALE, 1923, which I haven’t bothered reviewing here). The two comics fall into their perfect interplay as before: this time, pretty much the white clown and auguste pattern. The sour boss and incompetent assistant. One of Chaplin’s meaner routines, though Charlie himself acts entirely without malice.

First, he nearly crushes Conklin in the press, and succeeds in turning an oil can into a Joan Miró abstract form. He helpfully suggests, by pantomime, that it might make a good shovel in its new form. On his second attempt, he presses Conklin’s jacket into rigidity and turns his “family heirloom”, a fob watch, into an enlarged 2D abstraction of itself.

Poor Chester’s work day is not destined to improve.

Next, Charlie causes the huge toolkit to fall into the machinery — not just a spanner in the works, but hammers, saws, drills… Very nice sharp pan from disconcerted Charlie to longsuffering Chester, staring in frozen abomination. Then they’re pelted with flying metalwork, establishing that the machinery is capable of grinding a toolkit to fragments.

So, when Chester himself is knocked into the works, the outcome shouldn’t be remotely funny, but the mechanism is strangely gentle with him, as it had been to Charlie in Act One, if we can speak of acts in so meandering a narrative. Chester’s head, still attached to his little body, emerges from amid the cogs to bark silent instructions. Pulling levers, Charlie is able to make the head retract and emerge elsewhere, now turned around to face the ceiling. As his former understudy Stan Laurel might have done, Charlie tries to pull the head loose through the tiny opening, much to Conklin’s consternation.

Then the lunch whistle blows — a sound effect which is also music of a sort. Charlie sits down to eat a sandwich — he’s a little callous, here, but it’s just thoughtlessness. When the Conklin head demands his own lunch be fed to him, Charlie is happy to postpone his own pleasure and feed the head. This proves to be a fairly appalling process and Chester might have been happier going hungry. It’s also a minor tour-de-force by Chaplin, using foodstuffs and tools in odd ways, as inadvertent instruments of torture really.

First he plants a bunch of celery in Chester’s face (salting it first), then he nearly chokes the poor man by slipping a boiled egg down his windpipe. Choking is a HUGE motif in Chaplin. A subset of the eating theme. The cup of coffee doesn’t want to pour in smoothly, so a funnel from a handy oil can is used. Nasty aftertaste. So instead, a roast chicken makes a nice organic funnel, the hot fluid passing through its body cavity and into Conklin. I love coffee and I love chicken, so I don’t see any intuitive reason why chicken-filtered coffee shouldn’t be delicious, but instinct tells me it’s not going to be a success. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. But Conklin seems to like it: I suppose anything that helps erases the taste of oil is going to be welcome, even if it’s the taste of caffeinated poultry.

This all seems like a deliberate echo of the feeding machine sequence from Act One, though in place of the unfeeling device we have Charlie, solicitous, motherly. But still awful if you’re on the receiving end. If the first sequence was a satirical attack on the dehumanisation of modern society, this one is just about how the human element is no great shakes either.

In his early, unfunny notes on the film, Chaplin seems to be deliberately trying to come out of surprising doors — sympathising with the boss rather than the workers, for instance. He no doubt sensed the danger of being predictable. And some of this survives into the film. There’s no sense that the inhumane working conditions that drive Charlie mad at the beginning are connected to the strikes which cause him economic hardship in the middle. It’s all just background that makes life tough for the Little Fellow.

Lunchtime over — just a few minutes, conditions really ARE harsh — the machines are restarted and Chester can be freed: Charlie rushes about, treating the clockwork as a Whack-a-Mole from which Chester’s sconce might protrude at any instant. Instead, he’s borne up and out on a conveyer belt, his helpless squat somehow touching and childlike, though whether it makes me think of perambulator or potty I’m unsure.

With Chester liberated, work can now resume, except it can. We’re on strike again. Beautiful mirroring shot of the two partners in comedy, scratching their heads in befuddlement at the ways of the world. And in itself it mirrors the opening shot of the scene.

Chester will return in THE GREAT DICTATOR!

Charlie will return in the next section of MODERN TiMES — tomorrow!