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(Credit: Doctor Macro)

Film

The story behind Charlie Chaplin's 'Modern Times' roller skating scene

One of the progenitors of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin had to acquiesce to peer pressure and write dialogue for his films. But before he made that leap into “Talking Pictures”, Chaplin offered his fans one last piece of silent cinema that showcased his physical talents at their most limber, loose and comedic. The result, Modern Times, is his finest work.  

Modern Times serves as a farewell to The Tramp that had delighted Chaplin fans for the best part of two decades, giving him a valedictorian effort that celebrated the cerebralism, socialism and singularity of the icon. From The Great Dictator on, Chaplin’s work veered into a more narrative-heavy territory, one which focused on the emotional and intellectual arcs his protagonists would endure. Modern Times is the last of a certain type of picture before the artist had to tailor his art according to the demands of the changing industry. 

So, Modern Times serves as the last of his visual-oriented masterworks, culminating in a work that flits from set-piece to set-piece, and presents a work that is rich in visual splendour. And in order to achieve some of the more spectacular silhouettes, Chaplin had to place himself in a number of precarious positions. 

Although roller-skating is considered to be a relatively new phenomenon, it was actually practiced in America as early as the 18th century, and by the 1930s, it had become an attractive past-time for hobbyists searching for a more thrilling excursion. But only the looniest of characters would have done what Chaplin did, but for the British-born comedian, mania was part of the comedic process. 

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” Chaplin reflected. “I think in make-believe, you have an absurd situation, and you treat it with a complete reality. And the audience knows it, so they’re in the spirit. It’s so real to them and it’s so absurd, it gives them exultation.”

In an effort to impress a lady, The Tramp blindfolds himself while skating closer and closer towards a missing ledge. One wrong turn, and a broken leg is the least of The Tramp’s worries. And no matter how experienced a skater he is, you get the sense that Chaplin could have conducted the scene better for the sake of his health. 

As it happens, he did. The scene uses a very clever visual effect, capturing a matte painting placed directly in front of the camera. So, while The Tramp faced near-certain death, Chaplin merely risked destroying a perfectly fine artwork. And in doing so, he needed to sell the trick, so the cameras, actor, matte paintings and set are aligned accordingly. What’s even more impressive than the techniques – as Chaplin was a very adept skater – is the design, culminating in a spectacle that is almost as jaw-dropping as the Marvel movies like to flaunt. Interestingly, Marvel mainstay Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Chaplin in a 1992 biopic.

Modern Times doubles as a critique of the fading industry, fashioning The Tramp as a lonely voice of a bygone era. Europe was changing, fascism was rising, and by 1940, Chaplin could only counter Adolf Hitler with a blinding submission of the truth of his own. But that’s not to say Modern Times is superficial, considering the protests and street fights that occur before the viewers interested eyes. The roller-skate scene is notable for its use of toys, as two wayward lovers embrace the inner-child that has been silenced for too long. And with one wrong turn, that child could finish the adult forever. 

Apropos to form, Chaplin performed all his stunts himself, whether it was thrusting his spindly body into the factory machine that pays his wages, or challenging a fellow-inmate to the bread that divides the prosperous from the hungry. But the roller-skating scene holds the greatest impact, largely because it holds the most texture. For children, the silhouette exposes a yearning, goonish character traipsing around the skating rink for the chance of a lady’s hand, while for adults, the dance holds greater pathos, as a peer throws himself into a more youthful activity in the hope of regaining a sense of freedom — even if it’s just for a minute. And boy oh boy: Chaplin looks ecstatic to be back on skates.   

The film exudes passion and yearns for happier times. In a weird twist of fate, the film held newer resonances in 2016, when an American businessman won the position of President. Donald Trump’s actions were seen by many to be childish, juvenile even, but his penchant for visual representation and silent expressions of guileless sincerity was comparable to The Tramp’s earnest attempts to chat up a beguiling orphan woman. And like The Tramp, seemingly in danger of falling to his death, Trump led the country into a less cerebral, but more visual, era that was bandaged by the camera tricks that held the whole thing together. 

Stream the sequence below.