Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of film history knows that the biggest development in cinema's 100+ years was the development of synchronous sound technology in the late 1920s. However, what most people don't know is that this transition did not go as smoothly as people may perceive. The first major film with synchronous sound, The Jazz Singer, actually plays much more like a regular silent film that has some musical acts with synchronized sound. That film was released in 1927, and it wasn't until around 1930 that films had dialogue that is similar to what we see today. Outside of the technological problems associated with the switch to sound films, major industry stars fell by the wayside because they were unable to make the switch. In fact, a lot of the silent film stars were foreign immigrants whose thick accents caused them to fall out of favor with the studios. Silent film stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Buster Keaton all faded from oblivion, and even the biggest silent film star Charlie Chaplin only released two more major motion pictures (one the 1940 sound film The Great Dictator).
The other of Chaplin's two major releases, the 1936 silent film Modern Times, is generally regarded as the best of Chaplin's work and was both the last major silent film and the last appearance of Chaplin's legendary Tramp character. While all of these historical landmarks make the film important in its own right, Modern Times stands out because it is a snapshot of both the technological changes in the film industry and the United States and their effect on the American populous. The plot of the film is fairly basic, essentially it is a series of mishaps by The Tramp as he attempts to work various jobs such as factory worker, night watchman at a department store, and singing waiter and his continued failures that mostly lead to jail sentences. He even meets a young girl (played by Paulette Goddard) who helps the Tramp with jobs, housing, and company. The film isn't even really fully silent, as Chaplin uses synchronized sound effects, and even has some dialogue although it is very sparse.
Culturally, however, the film's message is all about the difficulty of man to adjust to technological advancements in industry. In 1936, the country was still recovering from the devastation caused by the Great Depression, and most people in blue-collar jobs still found themselves in and out of work. On top of that the increasing mechanization of assembly lines made many unskilled laborers unnecessary. The 1930s and 1940s were the beginning of America's shift into becoming a service economy and as Modern Times illustrates for many it was easy to get lost in the shuffle of unemployment and poverty. Chaplin always portrayed the Tramp as a clumsy, unintelligent everyman who succeeded in spite of his best efforts, and nowhere is he more likable than in Modern Times. Despite his struggles and mistakes, he is an easy character to root for and Chaplin's ending makes us hopeful that one day the Tramp and all like him will find their place in the sun.
Artistically, the film is also one of the best examples of mickey-mousing (synchronizing music and effects with on-screen action) and slapstick humor ever created. The film has several classic sequences such as the Tramp working in the assembly line, his time as night watchman, and even the Tramp's only words, a song of gibberish he sings to entertain the restaurant he works in. The most famous scene though is the one where the Tramp is selected to test out a modern feeding machine,
All of the scenes expertly show Chaplin's knack for comic acting, and his facial expressions and gestures say more than any words could. The movie is genuinely funny and interesting, and it runs at a quick 87 minutes so even if you have not seen a full silent film before, Modern Times is an easy one to start with, unlike say Birth of a Nation.
More importantly than the films humor, however, is that Modern Times is the perfect film to express an important part in film's history. As silent film faded away so too did various film stars, directors, acting styles, and scoring techniques. The transition to synchronous sound completely redefined film as a medium, and over time the silent-film era has become seemingly unimportant. Chaplin was criticized for making a silent film almost nine years after synchronized sound began, but what Modern Times shows is that there will always be a place for great acting, humor, and wonderful characters no matter their technological standing. After all, Modern Times was the third highest grossing movie of the 1936, partly on star power, but also because it is an excellent film. So add Modern Times to your Netflix queue, and enjoy a film that showcases silent film's biggest star as he adjusted to a changing Hollywood. It is as the Tramp says in the last title card of the film (and some say the silent film era), "Buck up- never say die! We'll get along."