Modern Times – Analysis and Observations

It seems our laws are always telling us what not to do – are always keeping us from enjoying ourselves. Human beings are made just as much for having fun as goose-stepping and sweating in factories.” – Charlie Chaplin

Modern Times is a 1936 comedy written, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin. It is considered one of his most important films alongside classics such as The Great Dictator, Gold Rush and City Lights. Like all Chaplin’s greatest work, the film treads a fine line between slapstick and satire, as well as functioning as a  socio-economic commentary on American society during the thirties as a result of increasing industrialisation and in particular the  devastating effects of Great Depression. As one of the world’s first auteurs, Chaplin himself must be closely scrutinised to properly understand and analyse his work. Throughout the latter half of his career, Chaplin was often accused of having communist sympathies and though he vehemently denied these accusations (“My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a non-conformist. Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them“), it is clear that Chaplin leant comfortably to the left of the political spectrum. This is best illustrated by his famous on-screen persona of  the  Tramp; a scruffy happy-go-lucky underdog, who often finds himself at odds with the society and institutions around him, yet remains cheery and hopeful despite his misfortunes. The Tramp is, in essence, an idealised Everyman. This affection for the working class can be traced back to Chaplin’s childhood in the slums of London. Despite his early distrust for “films with messages”, Modern Times marks the turning point at which he fully came to grips with his status as an international figure and began to use his fame to comment more upon the world and draw attention to issues he felt were important. His next films, The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux are perhaps the greatest examples of this; while The Great Dictator rails against the evils of fascism and the dangers of nationalism, Monsieur Verdoux takes satirical aim at the darker side of capitalism.

Chaplin’s overwhelming preoccupation in the first section Modern Times is the tyranny of technology and society, how humanity is forced to fit around and within the machines and institutions endemic in modern society, particularly in relation to the idea of the “American Dream” and the “pursuit of happiness”. This theme of technology ensnaring and enslaving man is emphasised in the opening section of the film, which takes place in a bizarre factory in which all workers are monitored and overseen by giant Orwellian monitors. Furthermore, the humans work at the pace of the machines, a pace that is adjusted several times to comic effect and results in a scene in which the Tramp experiences a nervous breakdown and begins to wrench anything and everything that looks even slightly like a nut, including his co-worker’s noses, the buttons on a woman’s dress and a fire hydrant. While this scene works wonderfully on a purely comic level, it also attempts  reveal how such dull, mechanic labour, that requires no creativity or thought, de-humanises people, reducing them to little more than cogs in a machine. Indeed the film is filled with visual metaphors; from the Tramp disappearing into the machine itself and being moved along by giant cogs, to a scene in which he is forcibly fed bolts by a half-baked contraption designed to “eliminate the lunch hour”.

Interestingly this criticism of the supposed benefits of technology continues  into (or perhaps partially originates from) the production of the film. Sound had arrived in cinema with The Jazz Singer in 1927, yet in Modern Times, nearly ten years later, Chaplin opted to keep the film almost entirely silent, mostly out of fear it would undermine the universal appeal of the Tramp and his ability to communicate across the divide of language. Modern Times is notably the first and last film to feature the Tramp speaking; while working as a waiter and entertainer in a restaurant, he loses the lyrics to a song and improvises by singing a garbled song consisting of multiple languages and general nonsense, which is seen by some to be a sarcastic riposte to the suggestion that he should utilise sound in his work. It is in this sense the film as a whole can be seen as a response on Chaplin’s part to the growing dominance of sound in film and the anxiety he felt towards it.

From this, the film moves out of science fiction to human drama as it examines and explores the wider subject of American culture and society during the great depression. It is during this section we are introduced to the film’s second most important character – the Gamine – a resourceful and energetic young orphan who, in conjunction with the Tramp, serves to illustrate the human cost of the Great Depression.Through them, we are shown a country torn apart by poverty and paranoia, in which existence is at best precarious and common people find themselves at the mercy of the world around them.  Together they undergo a series of misadventures including a number of scuffles with the police, a playful night spent in a department store and a sweetly romantic scene that parodies married life wherein the two play house in a ramshackle hut. The film closes with the two characters once again out of employment and back on the road, with the Tramp assuring the Gamine that everything will be okay. It is in this way that the second half of the film encapsulates not only the overall message of Modern Times, but the meaning of the Tramp himself; that salvation and happiness is to be found ultimately in hope and human creativity and the freedom of the individual.

Overall I found Modern Times to be thoroughly enjoyable, often hilarious and occasionally thought-provoking, though I could not help but find the film to be curiously disjointed, as if Chaplin had difficulty balancing his message with the comedy of the film. This leads to a jarring change of tone as the film leaves the factory behind; largely due to the drastic change of scenery from a science fiction style factory to a far more realistic and recognisable cityscape. Despite this the film is a deserved classic and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Chaplin’s work.

Buck up – Never say die. We’ll get along!” – The Tramp

2 Responses to “Modern Times – Analysis and Observations”

  1. Excellent article here, thank you. I’ve read it while preparing an image. I’ve provided a link back here for anyone else to read it. (Which they should) I’ve attached a link to the image if you’re interested

  2. This movie is being screened in my area I thought i would read a little bit about the movie beforehand. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis ! This will be my first Chaplin movie and I am looking forward to it.

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