In 1936 Charlie Chaplin made a film that is today regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. Last month, the ever innovative Royal Northern College of Music (along with the Manchester Science Festival) had the rather splendid notion to show this silent comic classic and have their symphony orchestra accompany it.
Modern Times is up there with The Great Dictator as Chaplin’s finest work, and when I say his finest work I mean just that as he wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, as well as composing the accompanying music. In it we follow the adventures of his most popular character, the little tramp, as he struggles to cope with the ever increasing pace of the production line in a Fordian-like factory in which he’s found rare employment in an America hit hard by the Great Depression.
I’m not normally one for revealing plots in a review but as I write this I realise it doesn’t matter – Chaplin will have you roaring with laughter or misting up in sympathy regardless of whether you know what’s coming. But should you wish to preserve your comedic innocence please skip the next two paragraphs.
In the film, Chaplin has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalised as a result of trying to deal with life on the line. The men in the white coats help him to get better and, upon his release, he is mistaken for a Red (a communist agitator) by an angry mob and ends up clashing with the police in an almighty riot. Chaplin is mistakenly imprisoned, during which he accidently takes a huge amount of cocaine (yes, cocaine…this is a strikingly modern film) with his lunch and while high inadvertently prevents a violent jailbreak.
Meanwhile, his love interest (Paulette Goddard) is trying to cope with the murder of her unemployed father and the fact that her sisters have been sent to an orphanage. At the same time, Chaplin is forgiven and released and the two meet and fall in love. Their subsequent attempts to have a normal life together see them falling in and out of a series of jobs, all against the backdrop of mass unemployment and severe economic hardship.
Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘hang on, you said this was a comedy’. But Chaplin’s great genius was to make things funny and to give people hope. Given his background, this is understandable.
Born in London in 1889, Chaplin had a Dickensian childhood. At the age of seven this son of music hall entertainers was sent to the workhouse; shortly after this his mother was confined to an asylum. This forced Chaplin to secure his first professional stage job when, in 1897 aged just eight, he joined a clog dancing act called Eight Lancashire Lads. More stage roles followed until in 1908 he joined the Fred Karno Pantomime Troupe. After the troupe toured America in 1913, Chaplin got his big break when he was signed to the famous Keystone Film Company. His prodigious natural talent was recognised very early on and his phenomenal capacity for hard work saw him embark on a truly astonishing rise to fame.
To get to grips with just how fast Charlie rose in Hollywood let’s follow the money. When Chaplin left the Karno Pantomime Troupe he swapped a contract worth £3, 10 shillings a week for one that brought him a weekly $150 at Keystone Films. By 1915 he had signed for Essanay Studios at $1,250 a week, and before the year was out he had moved on to the Mutual Company Film Corporation for a cool $670,000 a year.
At the age of 30, Chaplin, along with fellow Hollywood giants Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith co-founded the distribution company United Artists. Although he’d been in Hollywood for a mere five years he was one of the most famous people on earth. This phenomenal fame gave him complete control over his films. This meant the cinematic polymath could dictate every aspect of his work.
In Modern Times Chaplin put in a performance of bewitching dexterity that last weekend repeatedly reduced the packed audience at the RNCM to full-on belly laughs and left everyone breathless in admiration. Some of the scenes must have required astonishing physical effort and it was noticeable just how many of them are single shots, especially Chaplin’s hilarious attempts to deliver a meal, not to mention his charming performance of a nonsense song that subsequently saved the day (intriguingly, some scenes in the film are not silent).
The score itself was a well realised piece which, in the adroit hands of conductor Clark Rundell and a strong RNCM Symphony Orchestra, greatly enhanced the overall experience. In the accompanying notes, Rundell, head of conducting at the RNCM, had this to say:
“Modern Times is an absolute classic film with a musical score that is Chaplin’s largest and most sophisticated. Orchestral sounds not only provide atmosphere, but constantly interact to provide real-time sound effects…no home cinema could possibly touch the live sound of the RNCM Symphony Orchestra!”
The RNCM’s undergraduates put in an inspiring performance, one to match Chaplin’s on screen brilliance. And the atmosphere they created seamlessly blended with his celluloid antics. Judging from the storm of applause and the grins on the faces of the orchestra, I wasn’t the only one who was glad that the little tramp had found his way into college that night.
Where: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
The RNCM has launched an appeal to transform its concert hall into a state of the art world class venue. You can read all about it, and how they’ve got Professor Brian Cox and John Suchet on board, here: http://rncm.ac.uk/news/professor-brian-cox-john-suchet-champion-rncm-campaign/