Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1936


Roller-skating puts the actor’s body into total action, as it requires both balance and graceful movement, which can easily become the basis of a physical routine. It is not the first time that Charlie has put on roller skates, having done so previously in The Rink. Chaplin shows that he has mastered the skill of roller-skating, but here he links it to danger, a danger which is real for both the character and the actor: standing on the edge he could fall at any time and break his neck. The spectator’s fear, which is also a source of pleasure, is cleverly managed by the film-maker: the choice of a rather wide framing, enables the coexistence, throughout the scene and in the same space, of both the pleasure of skating and the imminent threat of death.

Just like in an aerobatic routine, the tension builds up gradually: A small camera move accompanying Charlie’s movements pans on to the “danger” sign and reveals the pit; Charlie’s decision to blindfold himself, the reverse angle shot on the little girl relays our own fear, when she realises the danger… The danger is present up to the end of the sequence when Charlie, pretending to lose balance, takes genuine risks as he literally bumps into the edge of the precipice, whilst the little girl tries to get him away from it.

This scene is of a remarkable precision, which probably needed entire days of rehearsal and adjustment. It is a testimony of Chaplin’s perfectionism, of his cinematic ethic: emotional response in the cinema is won through truly challenging the actor’s body