Modern Times (1936)

directed by Charles Chaplin

Plot Summary
The little tramp works in a futuristic factory tightening bolts that pass by on a conveyor belt. One day he has a nervous breakdown from the stress of his job and creates chaos in the plant before being carted off. Recovered from this episode, he is wrongfully jailed as the leader of a riot. After having an enjoyable prison stay, he is released but finds life on the outside difficult. He tries to get thrown back in prison by taking the blame for an orphaned gamine who was caught stealing some bread. However, the two wind up living together in a run-down shack, and the tramp goes back to work at a factory as a mechanic's assistant. But the factory closes down because of a strike, and the tramp is again incorrectly held for attacking a policeman in a riot. When he gets out of jail, the gamine has found a job in a cafe with singing waiters and promises to get him one too. The tramp fails miserably as a waiter but succeeds in entertaining the customers, and it looks like the two have found steady employment. However, orphanage authorities arrive and try to take the gamine away, but she escapes with the tramp. The final sequence shows the two wandering along a desolate road. The gamine starts to cry, but the tramp encourages her not to give up. They start their journey together, walking down the road toward the horizon.

Commentary


Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times is an entertaining comedy and also a keenly observed piece of social criticism. In many earlier Chaplin films, this type of critique was also present, but in Modern Times it comes to the forefront. The film’s negative view of industrialization and its dehumanizing effects on man is presented similarly in Rene Clair’s equally interesting A Nous la liberte. Chaplin’s version is perhaps more humorous and also shares an irrepressible sense of optimism in the face of society’s injustices. It seems that even when presenting a denunciation of the inequalities associated with capitalism, the filmmaker’s humanism and generosity remain evident.

The film puts the efficient, mechanized factory setting in direct conflict with the people that work there. In one of the most famous scenes, the little tramp is ‘swallowed’ by an assembly line machine, and a similar incident occurs later to the mechanic he is helping. These scenes, along with the frequent machine malfunctions displayed, suggest that man is serving his machines more than they are working for him. Modern technology is also shown to be an oppressive tool used by upper management to monitor the workers. The protagonist cannot even take a short break without being harassed by the "Big Brother" television screen on the wall telling him to get back to work. This occurs in the men’s restroom of all places, suggesting that these controlling devices destroy individual privacy. Furthermore, the film proposes that this environment works in turning people into programmed machinery themselves, as illustrated by the main character’s nervous breakdown. The jittery process he must go through to control his trained hands shows the dichotomy created between reality and job. Eventually, he is unable to separate the two and goes berserk in the factory, attempting to tighten anything resembling the two bolts of the assembly line; people and objects have become the same, merely things to perform the intended function upon. This idea reflects how workers are often treated as simple costs, much like other equipment, when analyzing a business for efficient running and cost minimization. Similarly, the company president seems to reject the feeding device not because it is absurd and inhumane but because it won’t work right—"it isn’t practical."

Another comic example of the dehumanizing impact of industrialization occurs while the mechanic is stuck in a machine. As the little tramp struggles to free him, the lunch whistle suddenly sounds, and he immediately goes to retrieve his lunch rather than continue trying to free his boss. When the mechanic interrupts his Pavlovian response to remind him of the predicament, again, the tramp attempts the difficult task of feeding him instead of getting him out of the machine—after all, it’s ‘lunch time’. By exaggerating the factory’s conditioning, perhaps only slightly, the film makes both humorous and thought-provoking points.

Outside of the manufacturing plant, things aren’t much better; strikes and riots, like the one in which the gamine’s father is killed, suggest people aren’t happy with the way things are. In an ironic sequence, the little tramp tries to return a flag (assumedly red) that has fallen off a passing truck and is wrongly arrested as a Communist agitator. This comment on Chaplin’s constant scrutiny by the government became even more accurate in later years as the U.S. plagued itself further with anti-Communist paranoia. The film proposes that in this upside down society, prison is one of the few places the protagonist can relax and enjoy life. He is rewarded for single-handedly suppressing a jailbreak, accomplished only after inadvertently ingesting another inmate’s hidden cocaine. This humorous scene also more subtly casts doubt on those that society makes into heroes. After being released the tramp begins to yearn for the simple life of the prison and attempts to get arrested again by gorging himself on food and smoking a fine cigar without paying for them. His playfully anarchic actions provide a comedic subversion of capitalistic principles. Also, much later, comedy is made out of an apparently rich and haughty restaurant customer who becomes increasingly angry while waiting for his roast duck to arrive. The man’s annoyance is understandable but is given proper perspective by earlier scenes showing the gamine struggling for a few pieces of fruit or a loaf of bread. The thieves in the department store are characterized not as villainous but as merely hungry and out-of-work. The film clearly sympathizes with the lower classes that are misused by the wealthy and that must struggle to survive.

Chaplin’s character is called the little tramp for good reason; he seems to be content with his transient but carefree lifestyle. He only becomes motivated to rejoin the rat race by the orphaned gamine, played by the lovely Paulette Goddard. Their shared vision is a very funny satire of a utopian bourgeois home life that elicits laughter from the tramp but clearly appeals to the gamine. He notices her reaction and decides to selflessly pursue this lofty goal—"even if I have to work for it." The shack they take temporary residence in is, of course, far from their ideal, so the tramp eagerly rushes off to work at the reopened factories. Once there, he determinedly clears his way through the crowd and is the last one allowed to work that day. These scenes, although satiric, provide an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the film’s disdain for capitalistic ethos. Now having something to work for outside of himself, the tramp will even push others out of the way to get a job. But, again, the system defeats him as another strike forces him out of his job (before his own incompetence would have). When the couple finally find something they can both do well, they must flee the threat of institutionalization for the gamine, which the government thinks would be in her best interest. Yet as the gamine’s spirit seems broken by all of the hardships, the little tramp tells her to keep trying and asks her to smile. The final image of the two walking towards the horizon suggests that the best way to face an indifferent and uncertain future is with the companionship of someone else.

All of the spoken words in the film, except for the tramp’s singing performance, come from various machines. This technique illustrates the fear of machines becoming too controlling and of replacing man in some areas—of the world becoming more dispassionate and mechanized. But it also allows Chaplin to extend his genius for silent comedy, as well as drama, and show how sound is unnecessary to convey both humor and emotion; often, poor usage of sound will seriously detract from the effectiveness of a film. Critically, it seems that Chaplin’s silent (or near-silent) films have stood the test of time better than his sound ones--and better than most sound pictures in general. Modern Times is certainly no exception. Not only is it a very funny film, but it also has substantial thematic depth as well, being both pessimistic about society and optimistic about humanity.

8 of 10


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© 1999

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