Charles Chaplin and Jacques Tati, two of the most accomplished comedic filmmakers in the history of the medium, were both two decades into their careers when they made their defining statements on the subject of urban chaos. With thirty years between them, the films come to similar conclusions about the confusion and loss of identity that accompanied the “Machine Age.” The actor-directors introduced their iconic characters to this new world and watched them get pleasantly lost in it. There is inescapable political resonance in this subject matter, as well as a poignancy in seeing old-fashioned gentlemen set adrift in an ever-more-rapidly changing world. The overriding concern is to refuse to be swallowed up in the bustle, and this impulse extends to the filmmaking itself, stubborn and human and singular.
There’s nothing else quite like Chaplin’s Modern Times — not even City Lights, with its sound effects gags. The veteran silent clown’s mulish refusal to accept the sovereignty of the “talkies” in Hollywood, almost a full decade since the writing showed up on the wall, resulted in a sound film that used dialogue sparingly and pointedly. The factory workers, including the Little Tramp, are silent, while the capitalist plutocracy makes its pronouncements through filtered media: screens, phonographs, radio. There are a few other instances of diegetic sound, such as when a character gets conked on the head, or a memorable scene involving some spluttering stomach growls. Much of the humor of the “feeding machine” scene is tied to the sound, particularly the metronomic tapping of the mouth-wiper. But for the most part, Chaplin’s film grammar is the same as it’s always been, with the occasional nerve-wracking intrusion of noise.
Tati’s career began long after the silent era was confined to memory, but he shared an affinity for slapstick and sight gags. His recurring character, Monsieur Hulot, is a very quiet, awkward fellow. For the first half of Play Time, he scarcely says a word. Dialogue is generally de-emphasized in this film. Characters may talk simultaneously as in Hawks or Altman, but often what catches the ear is trivial. Play Time‘s approach to visual comedy is geometric and dense, with compositions that slowly grow more crowded while overlapping gags play out. There are a few crucial sound effects here as well, like the exaggerated burps of the cushy leather chairs. The problem with modernity in this vision isn’t so much a crushing system as it is simple distention. The hyper-advanced Paris (in contrast to the Everycity in Modern Times) is a place where tourists swarm and business dealings become blindly inefficient. Chaplin gets trapped in the cogs, but Tati fades into the background, stymied by a gaggle of doppelgangers.
A counterpoise between work and leisure becomes apparent when considering these films side-by-side. As always, the Tramp concerns himself with the day-to-day struggle for food and shelter, and in Modern Times he finds himself in the middle of Depression-era economic debates. Through it all, he remains apolitical and helpless, joining a Communist march by accident, getting a job just before the workers go on strike, and so forth. The episodic structure is unified by shifts in the character’s livelihood. Hulot in Play Time has an undisclosed business matter to attend to, but the film is primarily concerned with consumption and entertainment. A trade show entices the tourists with parodies of innovative products such as a broom with headlights and doors that slam silently. A virtuoso sequence shows characters in neighboring apartments watching TV; when filmed from a certain angle, it appears that they’re all staring at each other. The entire second half of the film focuses on the opening night of a new restaurant, in which various elements are not quite ready, or have otherwise been designed with aesthetics rather than practicality in mind. Chaplin also brings his film to its climax in a restaurant. The obvious difference is that the Tramp, at this point, is a waiter, so the question of getting everyone their food and keeping the patrons entertained is very important, whereas the customers in Play Time find ways to keep themselves amused. As night turns to morning, they all cheerfully walk through the gap where the shattered glass door used to be, never the wiser.
A final element that these films share is the female co-lead, a young lady who comes into the main character’s life and helps him transcend his surroundings. In Modern Times, it’s the “gamin” played by Paulette Goddard, introduced as a Robin Hood figure and later becoming a resourceful, glass-half-full homemaker. In Play Time, it’s Barbara (Barbara Dennek), an American tourist whose modest rebellion against her fellow sightseers is to take a photograph of a streetcorner vegetable cart. Hulot and she cross paths a number of times and share a dance at the restaurant. The filmmakers differ on just what kind of relationship their leads should have. Chaplin, whose sexual proclivities are well-known, had no compunction about imagining domestic bliss between himself and a woman half his age. (Chaplin and Goddard entered a six-year marriage soon after the film was released.) The film’s conclusion may be open-ended, but it leans toward happiness. She is what he needs, and vice versa. Hulot and Barbara never get that close, though they briefly make each other a little happier. He passes along a gift to her as she boards the bus to leave Paris. The separation is bittersweet but necessary.
It all comes down to the personas of Chaplin and Tati. Modern Times is earnest, chivalrous, balletic, eager to hit its marks with force. Play Time is lanky, bemused, deadpan, waiting for you to notice the gag before moving on. Chaplin’s Tramp goes into a dazed dance at the end of his workday, forging daffy beauty from soul-crushing monotony. In Tati’s Paris, unidentified workers lift a plate glass sheet with movements that seem dance-like to the snarky onlookers, adding wonder to the world as a matter of course. The Tramp and the Gamin ultimately escape the city, turning their backs on the current regime. Hulot doesn’t make any such judgment. The city in Play Time is redeemed, as a traffic jam at a roundabout is transformed into a carnival ride. Each film in its own way ends with an astonishing note of hope. Confusion and fear remain rampant as technology and civilization continue to evolve, but Chaplin and Tati believe there’s still a place for the clumsy and lovable individual.