In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Modern Times (1936), #78 on the list.
There’s no genre of film more dependent on subjective taste than comedy. Even horror films don’t necessarily need to be genuinely scary for a viewer to see greatness, but in order for a comedy to be successful—let alone great—it must at least be amusing. If this preface sounds like I’m gearing up to say Modern Times isn’t a good movie or an effective comedy, rest assured, I chuckled numerous times. But, like with The Gold Rush, the overwhelming acclaim for the Chaplin films on this list is just lost on me. There are humorous moments and inventive set pieces that stand the test of time nearly a century later—Chaplin’s Tramp testing out the feeding apparatus early on and the department store roller skating sequence are notable highlights. And this film in particular sets up some interesting thematic material early on with the futuristic technology serving as a force of oppression to The Tramp—it’s just a matter of time before automation renders him obsolete, which is a fascinating meta-commentary on Chaplin’s resistance to introducing sound into his pictures. Once he leaves the factory though, this layer to the film dissolves, and the remainder of the film ends up just being an enjoyable adventure with the Little Tramp—a fitting, but not spectacular, send off for the iconic character.
Does It Belong on the List?
No. But that begs the question: do any Chaplin films belong on the list? He’s the de facto icon of the silent era—though I think Buster Keaton outshines him in every regard—so which, if any, deserve placement? For me, unlike Keaton or Harold Lloyd, Chaplin excels when he incorporates dramatic elements and poignant thematic material into his films. So I would remove the three on here and substitute The Kid, his most tender and charming, and The Great Dictator, which stands as his best—a hilarious satire that boasts a compelling plot and a timeless message.