After viewing Metropolis and then Modern Times a week later, one cannot help but notice the similarity. Here are two films preaching the same series of messages: “Man versus machine,” “The brave individual conquering the dehumanizing effects of technology and society,” “The dangers of industrialization.” Take your pick! Both films cover it all. Yet, here we are with two completely different films. Like two preachers preaching the same sermon, Lang and Chaplin are two directors utilizing the same concept in very different ways. These differences are simply conveyed by form.
Form in Modern Times is clear, largely before even entering the theater. Often times, the viewer, or audience rather, will walk into a Charlie Chaplin film with a full set of expectations. Partly because of Chaplin’s recurrence of his “Little Tramp” character, yet mainly due to his styles as a performer and filmmaker, the audience expects to be entertained in a lighthearted and comical way. Chaplin is a comedian, fulfilling all expectations of amusement. It is his go-to style of filmmaking. Sure, the film itself creates many expectations, such as the romantic hope that the couple with start a new life together, or that the Tramp will one day find his place in society. But, ultimately, Chaplin meets our real expectation: to be paralyzed in our seats with laughter.
Form is also evident in the motifs of the film. The Tramp’s suit is an obvious one. It is exaggerated and absurd and conveys his personality. He is an individual. Society constantly is making him wear other clothes, be it a work outfit or a prison jumpsuit, but the Tramp always returns to his top hat, clown-like shoes, his tight jacket, and over sized pants. He will never conform, which says something crucial about the overall theme. Another recurring motif is the bad luck that pervades him and his attitude through it all. We see his smile, never his frown. This form creates his personality as a constant motif that sets the mood of the film. Any other film may try to evoke powerful negative emotion, but the Little Tramp’s smile shines through it all and creates an aura of amusement.
Chaplin dealt with serious societal issues in a way that is entertaining and he will never be forgotten. Like the Tramp, Chaplin was at this time alone in a fast-paced world. He fought for a genre that he had both created and mastered, yet was slipping away. Silent comedy would never return again, yet Chaplin ultimately left an unparalleled legacy.