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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that beneath the silent film slapstick comedy and the artistry of Chaplin in Modern Times there is a serious political thread that pits the working man against powerful authority figures. So while kids will be thoroughly entertained by sight gags, comic mayhem, and outrageous characters, grownups and teens will see razor-sharp commentary about class differences and the struggle of the poor and middle class. Action is vintage farce -- pratfalls, bumps on the head, man vs. machine, errant gunshots, and car chases. There is one brief but serious moment when a man is killed during a workers' riot. Several scenes show characters smoking and others involve drunkenness. One lengthy sequence finds Chaplin accidentally ingesting smuggled white "nose powder," and behaving erratically afterward. Though most of the film is silent, there are some synchronized sound effects and singing.
What's the story?
MODERN TIMES is about two people struggling with the isolation of the industrial era. Charlie Chaplin (simply called "A worker" in the credits) is an assembly line worker who loses his job after a work accident. Soon he finds himself leading a communist parade while just trying to return a red flag to a man who dropped it, and is sent to prison. When he comes upon an attempted escape, Chaplin captures the prisoners and releases the guards, and is pardoned because of his heroism. Chaplin soon is determined to go back to jail, and finds his chance when he sees a poor girl (Paulette Goddard) stealing bread, and confesses that it was he who stole it. But a witness identifies Goddard. After a series of missteps and trips through jail, Chaplin and Goddard eventually walk off into the sunset together.
Is it any good?
Children will adore the slapstick in this movie, especially the scenes where Chaplin tries out the feeding machine and when he experiments with roller skates at the department store.
Viewers have to remind themselves how prescient Modern Times was. To us, it may not be surprising that the boss watches the workers on-screen, but this was before the invention of television -- and more than a decade before the publication of Orwell's 1984. Interestingly, it was several years after the invention of the talkies. But Chaplin wanted to make a silent movie, and silent this one is, except for a few words, some sound effects, and a gibberish song.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the Depression and the concerns about the dehumanizing effect of technology that are a part of Modern Times. Why did the boss want Chaplin to try the eating machine? What would Frank Gilbreth of "Cheaper By the Dozen" think of the machine?
Why did Chaplin want to go back to jail? Why didn't Goddard want to go to jail? Did Chaplin want you to think that prison was like the factory? Better? How can you tell? How did Chaplin and Goddard differ in their reactions to their troubles?
High school kids: Why was Chaplin arrested for leading the communist parade? Does that violate the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment?
In what way is a silent film different from a "talkie" -- besides the fact that it's silent?
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