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Factory work. The great oppressor of the Industrial Revolution. So mind-numbing anonymous is this work that nearly succeeds in turning humans into integral cots in the machine themselves that the protagonist of this story has no name. Names are superfluous in the rising capitalist dream creating robots from humans until actual robots can be invented. The only aspect separating the factory worker at the center of this story from the thousands of others just like him is that he has been selected to become a guinea pig: another symbol of the impersonality of modern times.
In this case, the guinea pig is to test something new called the Automatic Feeding Machine. The machine malfunctions during testing, however, and along with it the factory work malfunctions. In fact, the tasks involved in being a guinea pig for this test nearly drives the factory work into a completely state of mental malfunction. The nervous breakdown sends the factory running through the factory, leaving a spray of oil trailing his path. Finally subdued, he is carted off to a mental hospital, but almost as soon as he is released, he is arrested after having been mistaken for a radical rabble-rouser.
Surprisingly, the factory workers finds life inside prison not entirely bad; in fact, one might even suggest it is preferable to life back in the factory. After stopping a jailbreak, he is rewarded with early parole, but accepts with obvious reluctance to step back into the world he knew. Life outside prison proves to be far less than ideal. Despite having a letter of recommendation, he cannot find a job amidst the growing numbers of unemployed. And when he does get work, he can’t keep it. Unable to face the massive disappointment of life on the other side of prison bars, he takes the blame for stealing a loaf of bread actually pinched by a pretty young woman. Nevertheless, both are arrested, but both manage to evade arrest.
The dream of finding and keeping a job is renewed as he finally has something to work toward: the American Dream of a comfortable middle class life shared with another. He is hired as a night watchman at a department store and he and the girl lavish themselves in fantasies of that which his job is to protect, but which he could not possibly afford to buy. When a burglar attempt is made, the worker gets arrested again. The young woman attempts to transform a ramshackle building into a home for him and upon release from prison he discovers the factory where he used to work has reopened. Back to work he goes repairing machines just like before only to get caught swept up in a strike, lose his job and get sent back to jail yet again.
Meanwhile, the young woman finds a job as a dancer in a café where the man gets a job as a singing waiter upon release from prison. While he’s no great shakes as a waiter, his songs prove a hit with patrons and it seems as though success is finally within reach. At the moment of their greatest fortune, the police show up to arrest the girl who is wanted for escaping from juvie. The two manage to elude the police and though they have to give up on their dreams of success at the café, at least they have each as they hit the road in search of success elsewhere.
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A lot of movies are said to be timeless, but somehow in their immortality they fail to draw audiences. They lead a sort of half-life in film society revivals, and turn up every now and then on the late show. They're classics, everyone agrees, but that word "classic" has become terribly cheap in relation to movies. It's applied so promiscuously that by now the only thing you can be sure of about a "film classic" is that it isn't actually in current release.
One of the many remarkable things about Charlie Chaplin is that his films continue to hold up, to attract and delight audiences. Chaplin hasn't really been active in movies for 20 years, aside from "A King in New York" in 1957 and the unfortunate "A Countess from Hong Kong" five years ago. The millions of followers and fans who cheered him in his Little Tramp days are now mostly a memory; if 85 per cent of the American movie audience is under 35, as industry statistics claim, then 85 per cent of Charlie's original audience must probably be over 35.
So his decision to release a series of his best films must have sometimes seemed like a risk. His name is enshrined among the greatest geniuses of film; the French have a movie magazine titled simply Charlie, and Vachel Lindsay said a long time ago, "The cinema IS Chaplin." He had proven his greatness in every possible way; but then, at 81, he decided to put some of his films on the market again and see how they fared.
They are faring very well, you might say. Here in Chicago they've been booked in the Carnegie Theater, where the staff hardly knows what hit it. "Modern Times" (1936), the first of seven Chaplin programs, was SRO all weekend, and when I saw it on Sunday afternoon, the audience was just about beside itself with delight.
I go to a lot of movies, and I can't remember the last time I heard a paying audience actually applaud at the end of a film. But this one did. And the talk afterward in the aisles, the lobby and in line at the parking garage was genuinely excited; maybe a lot of these people hadn't seen much Chaplin before, or were simply very happy to find that the passage of time have not diminished the man's special genius.
"Modern Times" was Charlie's first film after five years of hibernation in the 1930s. He didn't much like talkies, and despite the introduction of sound in 1927, his "City Lights" (1931) was defiantly silent.
With "Modern Times," a fable about (among other things) automation, assembly lines and the enslaving of man by machines, he hit upon an effective way to introduce sound without disturbing his comedy of pantomime: The voices in the movie are channeled through other media. The ruthless steel tycoon talks over closed-circuit television, a crackpot inventor brings in a recorded sales pitch, and so on. The only synched sound is Charlie's famous tryout as a singing waiter; perhaps after Garbo spoke, the only thing left was for Charlie to sing.