Modern Times (1936). 87 minutes. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as the Little Tramp), Paulette Goddard (as Ellen Peterson), Henry Bergman (as café proprietor), Stanley “Tiny” Sandford (as Big Bill), Chester Conklin (as mechanic), and Al Ernest Garcia (as president of Electro Steel Corp.). Written, directed, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.
Modern Times is very special: unusually clever, unusually bittersweet for a comedy, and unusually and deliberately archaic. I say “archaic” because although it is from the sound era, Modern Times is largely silent, just like its predecessor City Lights (1931), also directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin and also made during the age of sound. Chaplin’s rejection of the talkies was multifaceted, and in resisting sound, he primarily sought to preserve his silent-era persona—the character known as the Little Tramp, who he did not believe could survive in a sound film. Modern Times, however, resists more than merely the demise of the Little Tramp at the hand of the new technology. It involves characters who dare to indulge in fantasies and dreams in spite of the cruel circumstances of the early twentieth century, which in this film is characterized as an age full of poverty, misfortune, and harsh mechanization. That is to say, while the movie’s title promises us engagement with the realities of the present day, the movie itself actually rather contentiously and continuously asserts value in alternatives to modern times.
During the Great Depression, the Little Tramp works on an assembly line in a factory. The speed of the line and an experiment with an automatic feeding machine drive him insane one day, and he is taken away to a hospital. Once released, he accidentally gets caught up in a Communist demonstration, is arrested, and is sent to jail. In jail he unintentionally consumes cocaine and, fueled by the drug, manages to thwart a jailbreak. He is subsequently given special privileges until he is released.
Once back on the streets, he meets and is captivated by Ellen, an impoverished girl who lives on the docks, scrounges for food, and steals to survive. Taking the fall for her crime one day, he is carted off to jail with her, but the police wagon is overturned and they escape. The two fantasize about living in a house together with plenty of food and resolve to make their dreams a reality. The Tramp finds work as a night watchman in a department store but soon loses his job and is carted off to jail again. Ellen finds them a shack by the water, in which they live meagerly but happily until the Tramp learns the factory is hiring again. He finds employment there as a mechanic’s assistant, even helping his boss when he gets stuck in the gears of a machine, until they both learn that the workers are on strike. Ellen finds both of them work as entertainers in a café, but the law catches up with her, and the two flee. Downtrodden and discouraged, the couple stands on the side of a road staring down an uncertain future, but the Tramp insists that they hold hands and march together into the unknown.
Although Modern Times is a mostly silent film, it does feature some elements of sound technology: it uses sound effects for select moments and even shows a modern television screen used by the factory owner to issue commands to his foreman. In a musical segment towards the end, we also hear Chaplin sing. Importantly, however, he sings nonsense lyrics in fake French and Italian, something that looks forward to his made-up German patter in The Great Dictator (1940)—so you might say that while we get to hear Chaplin’s voice, we do not technically hear him speak dialogue or recognizable language. As a result, the film manages to both tease and delight us with a side of Chaplin’s persona that we have never experienced before while simultaneously preserving his mystique.
The Tramp’s nonsense song helps to solidify his position as an alternative to the movie’s vision of modernity. Through his performance, he amuses and delights a café crowd, thus aligning himself with the humorous and the humane. But his song also subverts, creating its own sense out of made-up, non-grammatical parts, enhanced by the Tramp’s gesticulations. The spirited, improvised performance stands in strong contrast with the many images of mechanized gears and levers that are a part of the fabric of the film, and as a result, the Tramp is placed in opposition to rigidity and regimentation. Furthermore, because the Tramp withstands engaging in recorded dialogue, the movie also offers resistance to its own selectively deployed technology.
Most critics consider Modern Times to be a critique of industrialization and automation as evinced by its effects on the Tramp and his colleagues, which it is in part. Critics who want to see the automation angle as the main issue primarily mine the two sequences in the factory for significance. In the first sequence, we see the Tramp being driven crazy by the repetitive action of his work on the assembly line, and in the second sequence we see him back at work, shadowing a mechanic. These, to my mind, are portraits of mechanized industrialization, not automation. The automation jokes focus primarily on the automatic feeding device that is introduced to the factory with disastrous results in the first sequence. As a test case, the Tramp is pinned in place while the device ludicrously assaults him (I was amazed it did not do obvious damage to Chaplin’s teeth and face). Although I laughed at the outrageous nature of the machine, I did notice that the device is probably the most dehumanizing force in the factory: it deprives the Tramp of the use of his arms and the basic power to bite, chew, and swallow as he chooses.
The automated feeding device may rob the Tramp of his ability to move and choose, but it is not actually automation that robs the Tramp of his various jobs. In fact, even the device is rejected by the factory boss—who, although he is willing to see it tested out, is not willing to invest in it given the way that it malfunctions. The Tramp is primarily undone by different, more timeless forces: the greatest enemies to his job security are actually the police, who repeatedly misconstrue what he is up to.
Indeed, one of the reasons that it is easy to see Modern Times in a slightly darker light than its comedic elements would seemingly first suggest is that the movie implies that misfortune—at the hands of the police and others—is repeatable and inescapable (and thus not necessarily modern). The Tramp is arrested again and again, and nearly always due to a misunderstanding. Far from offering help or acting out of justice and righteousness, the law scoops up the Tramp, a good and well-meaning person, and predictably diverts his progress. Ellen, who has a similar relationship to the police, is usually running from the authorities because she actually has broken the law through theft, evasion, and so on. The Tramp in comparison is mistaken, you might say, for doing the things that Ellen actually does. The result is a feeling of decenteredness and lawlessness—a universe in which legal forces that we might expect to protect us, be a force for good, and serve as our guides are actually not on our side, are not sympathetic, and do not have our best interests at heart. It is for this reason, combined with others, that Modern Times can actually be rather wistful and melancholy.
The movie’s reassuring and beautiful love story helps to bring relief to this theme—observe how many times the Tramp comes to Ellen’s defense, how he helps her to escape from difficult situations, how often he takes her hand. But its comedic pantomiming also contributes to a fair amount of levity. The scene in the factory where the assembly line stops and the Tramp twitches and continues to twist his wrenches is delightful, also the reverie that he later embarks on when he goes unhinged on the assembly line: switching levers and pulling gears with a wild expression, mincing around in a silly way. He is astoundingly cute. The scene in the prison when he accidentally consumes cocaine is also amusing—daring, too, for its depiction of (admittedly unintentional) drug use. And anything having to do with food in this movie is a source of great delight, from the automated meal to the pastoral fantasy dinner to the scene where the Tramp feeds the mechanic who is stuck in the factory gears.
Modern Times engages in some complex fantasies, which are fed both by its characters’ powerful feelings of desire and by a pervasive need to escape prevalent forces of ennui. We see one kind of fantasy when Chaplin and later his mechanic boss get impossibly entangled in (but not injured by) the aforementioned gears of the factory mechanism. These moments are absurd and playful. But there is also a moment when the Tramp fantasizes about the posh life he could have with Ellen, living in a house of their own. He comes home from work and is greeted by her as he trips over the ottoman (this moment would later be referenced by the opening montage of The Dick van Dyke Show). She serves up an enormous, thick steak that the two share. He pauses to collect milk from a cow outside the kitchen, whose udders release their milk without his effort. As he waits for his pitcher to fill, he nibbles on dangling grapes. It is as much a fantasy about rural contentment as it is about suburban affluence.
The way that they delight in the shadows of their dreams when those shadows are far from the dreams themselves lends Modern Times a touching and bittersweet quality, one that emerges especially in the conclusion. Ellen has finally landed a job as a dancer in a café and has secured a job there for the Tramp as well. At long last, the two seem to have it made with steady work, but then the police track Ellen down for escaping from the authorities after her father’s death, and she and the Tramp lose nearly everything all over again. As they stand in the road in the last scene, destitute and on the run, Ellen does not see the point in going on. The Tramp persuades her to get up and walk with him towards their future. They only have each other, and a great deal of pain and suffering presumably awaits them. They may never get even remotely close to the life that they have fantasized about.
I must confess to you that much as I laughed at many of the movie’s comic antics, I actually sobbed at the end. For me, the pathetic nature of the story mingled with the fantasy life of its disenfranchised protagonists was a little hard to take. But the way that Modern Times mixes humor with sorrow is one of the things that makes it so special, so decidedly Chaplinesque. Joy in this movie is always tinged with sadness, and the melancholy flavor of life is one of the things that emerges as a universal constant in the movie’s critique of modern times—as much as or even more than the burden of industrialization, the problem of being a good person in bad situations, or the weight of joblessness. The nearness of sorrow as an idea may have seemed particularly true in the Great Depression when this movie was made, but audiences will likely always feel that it as a concept resonates with their own times.