‘Modern Times’: Charlie Chaplin Finds Freedom in the Age of Industry

Modern Times Movie Essay - 1936 Charlie Chaplin Film

It was a whirlwind, worldwide promotional tour for City Lights (1931) that brought Charlie Chaplin up close and personal with the global economic and political turmoil that would in large part inform his follow-up feature, Modern Times (1936). Chaplin, who knew poverty and hunger first-hand, having endured both as a young boy in London, chronicled his trip in the pages of Woman’s Home Companion, writing five articles under the heading “A Comedian Sees the World.” Among his visits was a face-to-face with Mahatma Gandhi, where the two discussed recent mechanical and industrial advancements. Chaplin was generally in favor of the new technology while Gandhi had his concerns. Chaplin would change his mind. Modern Times was the result.

In America, Chaplin also observed Henry Ford’s monotonous and dehumanizing — albeit productive — auto plant, with its efficient (efficiently foreboding), humming, kinetic and finely-tuned assembly line. From this, the ideas started to form. Chaplin found a perfect vehicle, so to speak, to initiate what Saul Austerlitz says was the star’s “private political awakening,” now for the first time realized “tangibly on the screen.”

With Modern Times, which celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this year, Chaplin’s familiar Tramp character (his last screen appearance) gets up to a number of raucously comical shenanigans, taking on several different jobs and getting foiled in a variety of fish-out-of-water scenarios away from the world of manufacturing. But this film is, as its opening title card states, “A story of industry, of individual enterprise — humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness,” and Chaplin’s character is himself known only as “A factory worker.” Thus the ironic factory scenes that open Modern Times are not only the most prescient, they are the most amusing, elaborate and visually inspired; they are, in essence, situated as the key symbolic site of the movie. There in this wood and rubber factory set, Chaplin stages a concurrently ominous and hilarious series of events in which his oppressed factory worker embodies the rapidity and repetition of modern industrial life. As but a single cog in the wheel of this grand enterprise, Chaplin gets caught — literally at one point — in an unnerving mélange of components, levers, gauges and mechanical gadgetry designed to function irrespective of the humanity behind it. And what is this behemoth of a factory assembling? “Who cares,” says filmmaker Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Indeed, it is irrelevant. Such a plant, as depicted here, is about the process not the product — or the personality. Which is why Chaplin stands out in Modern Times: he is a breath of life into the doldrums of routine productivity.

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Modern Times Movie Essay - 1936 Charlie Chaplin Film

Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) before it, with its terrorizing, monstrous underground workshop leaving distended and damaged bodies in its wake, and the opening credits of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) many years later, which has removed mankind from the assembly line process altogether, Modern Times is another cinematic step in humanity’s gradual displacement from the progress of mass-production. And this process takes its toll. The habitual use of the wrenches at the conveyor belt leaves Chaplin staggering about with jerky after-effects, the comedian’s nimble physicality evident as he twists and turns his tools at anything in sight (including startled female employees with unfortunately placed buttons on their clothing). As shown in Modern Times, the physical repercussions of the labor produce tedious, purposefully perfunctory behavior, all while blurring the lines of the body-world boundary, where the separation between willful action and irrepressible automation begins to diminish. This is illustrated further when Chaplin is gobbled into the gears of the vast, interconnected apparatus. First he continues to “work” even when away from the belt, going obediently and unthinkingly through the motions, but now wholly absorbed in the mechanism itself, his factory worker has become one with the machine (to hammer the point home, Chaplin repeats the gag when the Mechanic, played by Keystone veteran Chester Conklin, is likewise entwined within the contraption).

Chaplin isn’t alone in this slavishly overpowering devotion to the process. His worker’s nervous breakdown (inspired by real life stories of factory-men losing their senses) leads to a crazed rebellion. As he runs amok, the other men chasing him instinctively stop so they can tend to the still functioning conveyor belt, while he, scrambling about, remembers to clock in and out when exiting then entering the building. The interminable factory has taken over, and when it doesn’t control people, it swallows them whole, physically and psychologically. The machines have already won thanks to the dire necessity of Depression-era employment in whatever occupation possible. Meanwhile, the president of Electro Steel Corp., where Chaplin’s factory worker toils away, busies himself with puzzles and comics in the confines of his office. As an all-seeing, disembodied managerial form, this Big Brother supervisor (years before George Orwell’s 1984) lords over his employees, keeping tabs on their whereabouts, barking instructions via video monitor and pushing them to pick up the pace, but never interacting directly, never getting down on the ground floor, as it were.

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Modern Times Movie Essay - 1936 Charlie Chaplin Film

Originally titled “The Masses,” Modern Times sets a collective tone instantly, with an opening shot showing a herd of sheep dissolving into factory men as they spew forth from the subway, a lockstep flock of dead-eyed workers beaten down by the harsh realities of the time and the coldness of the nation’s economic state. Discharged from the factory after his manic revolt, Chaplin enters the outside world, first seen in a hustling, bustling city montage of canted-angle stock footage. But this is not where Chaplin’s factory worker calls home; he resides in the discarded outskirts. On his way home, he picks up a flag left behind by a passing truck and begins to wave it around, inadvertently heading a parade of workers united against inequity and unjust hardship. Assumed to be their Communist leader, Chaplin is promptly jailed (he repeatedly seeks imprisonment, where the conditions are tragically better than on the outside). The gag is played for laughs, but looked upon in retrospect, it is also sadly prophetic, a preview of when Chaplin’s own sociopolitical sympathies got him barred from entering the United States. Fueling the fire of paranoia, the Soviet film chief Boris Shumiatski claimed Chaplin added anti-capitalist elements into Modern Times at his behest, which did not sit well with a leery public or the Red-hating government back in America. Additionally, Modern Times was banned in Nazi Germany for its “communistic tendencies” (it probably didn’t help that Hitler thought Chaplin was Jewish), and the red flag bit was cut in Austria. In Italy, Mussolini’s Fascist regime was similarly unamused.

A further curious controversy surrounding Modern Times’ release had to do with a lawsuit filed by the German film company Tobis Film, for what they saw as the blatant theft of certain sequences from René Clair’s 1931 film À nous la liberté. There are notable similarities, but Clair, a great admirer of Chaplin’s, was actually flattered by the homage and the suit was settled out of court.

As he often did, Chaplin composed the music for Modern Times, which was then conducted by the great Alfred Newman. As keen as he was on an original score, he remained ambivalent, even hostile, toward talking pictures. His reluctance to accept and accommodate this new technology was not only an artistic preference, it was, in a sense, representative of the very mindset put across in Modern Times. There are some sound effects incorporated into the picture, like water splashing and a growling stomach (an instance where the sound is not merely incidental but is a vital part of the comedy), but actual human voices are another matter. While Chaplin did toy with the idea of a sound film, writing some dialogue and experimenting with sound equipment, speech in Modern Times is ultimately only heard through the mediation of a device, never straight from a person, and when Chaplin himself actually talks — for the first time in a feature film — it is a gibberish song and dance number based on Léo Daniderff’s Je cherche après Titine. This medley, while comical, explicitly taunts the expectations of hearing the king of silent comedy finally say something. Almost 10 years after The Jazz Singer (1927) ushered in the inevitable future of motion pictures, Chaplin still resisted the technical advancement. He cared not to entertain this aspect of modern times, an aspect as off-putting to the master of pantomime as the grating, intense factory can be to its hapless minions.

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Modern Times Movie Essay - 1936 Charlie Chaplin Film

Where Chaplin’s factory worker finds solace and tenderness in this intimidating world, and where Modern Times distinguishes itself most from other Chaplin features, is with the stunning appearance of Paulette Goddard as a “Gamin.” As she steals bananas for impoverished waterfront children, she receives a feisty close-up introduction, knife in her teeth like a menacing, gleeful, sparkling pirate. The extraordinary impression of this initial appearance never diminishes. Just as much as Chaplin’s factory worker, this street urchin is something of a rascal herself. Age 24 when filming began, Goddard is saucy and spunky, and for the first time since The Kid (1921), where little Jackie Coogan continually steals the scene, Chaplin is leveled out by his co-star; she emerges as an impassioned, fully-developed character in her own right. Lovingly photographed by a smitten Chaplin, along with cinematographers Rollie Totheroh (who had done 29 films with the director to this point) and Ira Morgan (his only credited work with Chaplin), Goddard radiates with a sexy buoyancy and a deeply felt emotion in Modern Times, particularly as she tends to her two younger sisters and her poor father. And as opposed to merely being the love interest for Chaplin, she is, more accurately, in Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance’s words, his “partner.” She holds her own and actually talks charge, securing a stable job at which she succeeds and going so far as to get one for Chaplin.

Aside from the value granted Goddard, which is evident in her presentation and performance, Chaplin clearly recognized the importance of his assistant director, Carter DeHaven (if proof was needed, surely the shared credit card with the illustrious writer-director would be one indication). Even with its Depression-era backdrop, its factories and shanty towns, Modern Times is emblematic of a “Hollywood realism,” with a rather immaculate industrial setting, strategically tattered clothing and deliberately designed destitution. However, where Chaplin and DeHaven do their finest work behind the camera is in the framing of Chaplin as he does what he does best in front of it. Carefully arranged compositions don’t so much set up the surrounding obstacles and external sight gags one sees with Buster Keaton, but instead act as a distinctly demarcated arena, a site for Chaplin to act out center-stage. Be it his playing roast duck football at the nightclub or hazardously skating blindfold at the department store, the camera is at a suitable distance to theatrically observe Chaplin’s antics full-frame and within the complete context of each location.

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Modern Times Movie Essay - 1936 Charlie Chaplin Film

Complementary to this spatial configuration is Chaplin’s obvious sense of comic timing. The feeding machine sequence, for example, where a hilariously absurd contrivance encourages speed and supposed efficiency over reason and practicality, is built from Chaplin’s talent for comedy summed from one plus one plus one more. Just when there doesn’t seem to be room for innovation or another gag, he slips it in. In this scene (which Chaplin riffs on in a more personable manner when he sloppily feeds the ensnared Mechanic), Chaplin begins by having his factory worker get fed the food in an automated fashion, which is funny itself and is significant in terms of Modern Times’ techno-commentary. Then the machine goes haywire, short-circuiting, dumping soup on his face and chest, and piling bite-sized bolts into his mouth. One plus one. But then there’s more: the machine brings up a sponge, dabbling Chaplin’s face lest he get messy. One plus one plus one more.

Like film itself, Chaplin was born into a world of increasing modernity. Consequently, as Luc Dardenne states, Modern Times is about cinema in the age of cinema, an industrial system that was at the time cranking out a product with great regularity, uniformity, and proficiency. Chaplin managed to rise above this, though, to operate under his own set of conditions and to break free from the strictures of studio system dictates. Hollywood, after all, according to Jean Renoir, “is an immense machine, an admirable mechanism without a soul.” Creating great art in a business where box office reigns supreme, Chaplin eschewed the bottom line in favor of freedom. While Modern Times was the first film for which Chaplin had something resembling a shooting script, principal photography still took 10 months — long by Hollywood standards, rather short by Chaplin’s. Through it all, as director, writer, star, composer and producer, Chaplin worked with personal, hands-on supervision and control, far from the divisional design of the studio system and the unfeeling, thoughtlessly programed factories springing up across America.

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Modern Times Movie Essay - 1936 Charlie Chaplin Film

Chaplin said that his and Goddard’s characters were, “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons. We are children with no sense of responsibility, whereas the rest of humanity is weighed down with duty.” Such a sentiment is seen when the two live out fantasies of food and fun in a closed department store, or in Modern Times’ optimistic open-road ending, in which a persevering Chaplin assures his mate, “Buck up, never say die. We’ll get along.” As opposed to the film’s original ending, which had Chaplin recovering in a hospital and Goddard on her way to becoming a nun, the couple never to meet again, the conclusion of Modern Times cheerfully conveys a sun-kissed independence and a freedom derived from having nothing left to lose. “We are spiritually free,” said Chaplin.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.