Modern Times Chaplin Essay Writer

The themes of eating in general and the filching of food in particular are pervasive in Charlie Chaplin’s films. A Chaplinesque instance of food filching, such as in The Immigrant (1917), may be “an utterly unreal comic situation,” but it also “subtly suggests a form of revolution,” as Devin Orgeron and Marsha Orgeron write.(1) In Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the focus of this essay, the leitmotifs include man-eating machines, foraging for food, and consuming materialism.

 

I wish to tease out an inverse counter-current to these forms of ingestion, which together constitute a revolution by rejection. (2) Men swallowed by machines are spit out in transfigured form and engage in sabotage; the filching of food by the poor disrupts the social order and calls into question its morality; and the apparent devouring of consumer dreams is in fact a humorous/satirical undermining of their logic.

Chaplin’s critique of the machine age is rooted in a history of industrial sabotage. It also foreshadows many artistic responses to the “megamachine,” from George Orwell’s “Big Brother,” to the monkey-wrenchers of Edward Abbey and T.C. Boyle, to the visionary city symphony Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982), in which humans are enslaved by the technology that is their grid and host.(3)

Modern Times is Chaplin’s last “silent” film, and a last bow for his “Tramp” character, which had made Chaplin the world’s most famous man in the 1920s. After the 1931 premier of City Lights 9131), Chaplin went on a world tour, meeting with many leaders to discuss the pressing issues of the time. In newspaper articles and later an autobiography, he described his travels.

At a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, Chaplin said he was “confused by your abhorrence of machinery,” which could “release man from the bondage of slavery,” if altruistically used, Chaplin argued. Gandhi replied that machinery had made India dependent on England, so “we must make ourselves independent of it if we are to gain our freedom.”(4) By the time he began production of Modern Times (then titled “The Masses”), Chaplin was declaring: “Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy, or throw it out of work.” (5)

Chaplin wanted The Tramp’s swan song to address the pressing issues of the Great Depression and pre-WWII years: unemployment, food shortages, the Fordist routinization of industry, and repression of political protest.(6) Chaplin’s ability to combine hilarity with pathos reached classic heights in this film. But inside of Modern Times’ factories, a surveillance worthy of Orwell and Michel Foucault runs things, while on the streets a police state squashes all protest.

Chaplin shows drug-running in prisons and Communist marches; he lampoons religious do-gooders and glorifies food theft by the poor. Like most Chaplin films, Modern Times is episodic, but a meta-narrative emerges: “the spirit of the machine age” is double-voiced; machines mechanize human beings, but the “weapons of the weak” are available,(7) and the human spirit can break out of its confinements, providing not only comic relief but utopian models during dystopian times.

I will frame my reading with comments from two students about the Tramp’s interaction with machines. In an opening sequence when factory machines are sped up to an inhuman pace, the only way to keep up with the pace was to go inside the machine. Later, the Tramp feeds a mechanic who is trapped inside a machine during lunchtime. Everything in the camera’s view is eating.(8) That of course includes the “man-eating machine.” These observations are openings onto Chaplin’s visual comedy about the dangers of being “eaten alive” (9) in the machine age, and his tribute to the spirit of human resistance and innovation which endures, even in the belly of the beast, or in the face of efforts to regulate and mechanize human behaviour.

Much of this metanarrative is signalled in the establishing shots. First there is a long shot of a clock tower: industrial time rules this world portrayed here. Chaplin then shows a flock of sheep rushing through a corral. In the center is a black sheep. Next workers rush out of a subway. Workers are like sheep, we infer, but Chaplin’s tramp will be the black sheep who breaks norms and demonstrates escape routes from sheepish or machine-like behaviour.

Ingestion and Dysfunction in Man-Machine consumption

I want to first focus on an early scene at the Electro Steel Corp. when a machine short-circuits while attempting to force-feed the Tramp. Chaplin dated this idea to 1916, a “satire on progress” in the form of a trip to the moon for the Olympic games. The Tramp might as well be the man in the moon in the factory. That the “feeding machine” gags travel well is evident in the Cuban short “Por Primera Vez” (“For the First Time”, Octavio Cortazar, 1967), in which Cubans at the cinema for the first time laugh uproariously at the segment in which the machine spins a corn cob in Charlie’s teeth.(10) This scene reads almost like a travesty of enduring a drill in a dentist’s chair. The failed attempt to force-feed corn to this non-industrial man helps construct the film’s meta-narrative.

Chaplin’s Tramp will not become a man of corn in the sense of the critique of industrial food as developed in King Corn (Aaron Woolf, 2006): a perversion of traditional corn culture which has produced corn-fed people whose very molecular structure and thought patterns reflect the industrial foods they eat.(11) Charlie the Tramp would eat anything put in front of him, but Chaplin the man was a vegetarian, and his critique of the machine age extended to industrial food, as this scene implies.

This scene also foreshadows later sabotage. Although the tramp is grateful for the free food, and is not trying to “monkey wrench” the feeding machine, this machine goes haywire. It may have been defective to begin with, but something here doesn’t compute: the Tramp is wired differently from the more regimented workers the machine was designed to feed. It’s almost as if the machine cannot process the Tramp’s free spirit, and blows its gaskets in the effort. There is a further foreshadowing in this scene, when the machine shoves steel nuts into his mouth. As Russ Castronovo observes, “before Chaplin is swallowed in the belly of the industrial beast, he finds the machine inside his belly.”(12) Every time the machine tries to swallow or mechanize The Tramp, we might expect he will break down, or become like the machine. But it is the machine and factory system which breaks down, when it cannot digest Charlie’s Tramp.

The scene in which Charlie slides into the machine’s gears is iconographic, a larger-than-life picture that has taken on a life of its own.(13) Following the suggestion that one can only keep up with the machine by going inside it, I want to sketch some implications of this “inside job.” The fullness of what is denoted and connoted in this scene seems inexhaustible. Let us start with a couple of forms of denotation.

  1. We are being shown that accidents are commonplace when machines are sped up to an inhuman pace. In the 21st century, the swallowing of humans on the production line will be played for horror, in Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, 2006).(14) But this sequence is perhaps more akin to the wonder evoked by the sped-up flows of production and traffic in Koyanisqatsi.
  2. In his Autobiography, Chaplin traces the film’s genesis to a conversation with a reporter about Detroit production lines, particularly “healthy young men off the farms who, after 4-5 years at the belt system, became nervous wrecks.”(15) Chaplin denotes a commonplace of the machine age, nervous breakdowns. But the sequence is choreographed like a ballet, from the moment of being swallowed alive, through the subsequent madcap sabotage. Modern Times man-eating machine connotes much more than it denotes.
  3. Chaplin’s Tramp is like Jonas in the belly of the whale, spat out transfigured and ready to undertake his mission. He only goes to warn of imminent destruction because he has been swallowed alive, which defamiliarizes his relationship to “the beast.”
  4. Charlie’s body winding through the gears looks much like film being wound through a projector. Chaplin may be commenting on the loss of the utopian potential of film.
  5. The nature of his transfiguration is unique in the history of representations of sabotage. After his jerky movements in the morning, when he cannot stop his mechanized motions, and tries to “tighten” women’s buttons, etc. we might expect that he will become more like the machine. But after being “vomited”/rejected, he emerges deranged, but more human–dancing a ballet. It is while dancing that his sabotage goes into high gear.

He squirts oil on workers and authorities (both are machine-line) to render them ineffective while he continues his sabotage, or escapes. Sensing that the workers cannot think past their mechanization, he uses the machine to distract them. This is not mere sabotage: it is monkey-wrenching as a spirit of play. It creates joyous havoc, disrupting the dehumanizing pace and design of the machine. Even when the tramp is fleeing the police and re-enters the factory, he still punches in. He is not trying to destroy industrial time. But Chaplin brings the insouciance of the music hall, as well as an anarchistic sensibility to his mise-en-scène, to the staging of modern times. Subsequent scenes seem to indicate that as long as one maintains an ability to improvise and a focus on eating well, then in the battle between man and machine, a sort of “separate peace” can be achieved.

The second “machine-eating” scene occurs when the Tramp goes back to work because he wants to buy a “real home” for “The Gamin” (Paulette Goddard). This is a final effort to function within an institutional context; one must read it in relation to a string of earlier failures. After his breakdown, when released from a hospital, he is swept into a series of misadventures: accused communist leader; a hero who foils a jail-break while (inadvertently) high on cocaine. Then he “gums the works” in one job after another, inevitably damaging (or pilfering) the merchandise. His only successes are in finding his way back to jail (a safe space) and charming Gamin. For her, he secures a job as a mechanic’s assistant, but he is such a klutz that no equipment is safe in his presence. He destroys his boss’s tools and then manages to get him stuck inside the gears of another machine. At lunch, he decides that feeding the mechanic is more important that extracting him from the sharp-toothed gears. The Tramp will not stop eating, after all. When he stuffs a stalk of celery in the mechanic’s mouth we can see: everything in the camera’s view is eating.

What are the implications of a mechanic being fed by the Tramp, who is outside the machine that has eaten him? Timothy Corrigan’s comments on perspective in mise-en-scène seem applicable here. Corrigan focuses on the purpose of mise-en-scène, or, all that is put in the frame. This ordering “is about the theatrics of space as that space is constructed for the camera.” The construction of the overall image in a shot is done with a theatrical perspective in mind: perspective in mise-en-scène “refers to the kind of spatial relationship an image establishes between the different objects and figures it is photographing.”(16)

Chaplin’s theatrics of space suggests a particular kind of inter-relationship between the machine and the two men who are working on it, or being devoured by it. Keeping in mind the “ethical inversions” which predominate in this film,(17) one might ask re: the theatrical relations of this scene: who’s in charge? The master mechanic ought to be in charge. But he is imprisoned in the machine, at the mercy of a bumbling worker who is his inferior, in terms of technical competence. Charlie the Tramp in Modern Times is somewhat like the Juan Bobo of Puerto Rico, the town fool who can never get things right. (18) Yet Charlie has “mother wit.” Unlike that Bobo, Charlie’s apparent ineptness in practical matters serves as a critique of the limits of rationality. If the Tramp’s bumbling is well-meaning and unconscious, it serves the conscious designs of the film’s creator. In that sense, Chaplin the multi-millionaire masking as a down-and-out indigent is a forerunner of a very different sort of bobo—a bourgeois professional who espouses bohemian values.(19) Chaplin can afford to identify with the poor because he lives amongst the rich and privileged. From that safe distance he has made a fortune with his representations of the underclass everyman. But in the Tramp’s last appearance he gets off some parting shots at a new world order that marginalizes and indeed criminalizes all that is not mechanized.

An inversion has taken place here, and the intern-inmate is clearly in charge, at least for the moment. He re-establishes a set of priorities which have been crowded out by the machines, and the mechanized men who run them. Foremost amongst these priorities are the need for down time (indeed, work stoppage), and time for communal dining. Something like the innocence of a child’s perspective is evident, but re-ordered through the sensibility of an adult who is both politically engaged, and keenly attuned to the bottom line of entertaining a mass audience.

The man-eating-machine theme came to Chaplin at age 12. Apprenticed to a printer, he found himself dwarfed by a huge printing press. “I thought [it] was going to devour me.” (20)As an adult he reframed this view. Charlie is a trickster (playfulness is the essence of monkey-wrenching), and the machine has swallowed something indigestible, giving it indigestion. In the second lunch-time feeding, all but the mechanic’s mouth has been immobilized. If in the earlier scene, the machine-men had tried for force their workers to ingest progress,(21) on this lunch break, Charlie has engineered a bit of humble pie. Work and the irascible mechanic’s mouth are brought to a standstill. Soon this scene devolves into something like a loving son feeding his invalid father. That he first attempts unsuccessfully to feed the mechanic through an oil funnel, and then successfully through the opening of a whole cooked chicken, seems to suggest the need for both mechanic and machine to be brought closer to natural processes.

Chaplin is prescient in his representation of the struggle for food, and to control its distribution, in the machine age.(22) But this portrait hardly romanticizes leftists or labour unions: no sooner is the confining lunch hour over, when another worker rushes in and announces that they are on strike. So Charlie’s latest job evaporates in less than a day, just like the others.

In Modern Times, both marginalization and attempts at integration centre on food. Hunger and the dynamics of communal dining are central to three scenes on which I will focus:

– Lunching with a drug-smuggler in prison
– Pilfering: bananas, bread, and free-loading
– Dining with the Gamin in imagined and real ‘ideal homes’

Nose Powder in the Prison Cafeteria

After the post-breakdown Charlie is released from the hospital, he picks up a red flag which falls off a truck, and finds himself “leading” a march. The signs declare “Liberty or death,” and express “solidarity” in several languages. Time-honoured ideals, one might think, but of course agitating for freedom or siding with the working class has long been criminalized and painted as subversive in the U.S. Misrecognized as a communist leader, Charlie is tossed in jail with common criminals. The jail scenes provide a variant on the theme of going inside the machine in order to keep pace with it. The pace here can only be sustained by criminality, as when Charlie ingests “nose powder” which a criminal beside him has dumped in the salt shaker. Charlie foils a jail-break in a coke-fueled fit of heroism. He thus gains the status of a “working class hero,” and an (unwanted) early freedom. He also wins a personal episode of the “Bread wars” while high.

Earlier he had filched small nibbles from his burly cell-mate through guile and trickery. But only while high on cocaine does he muster the manly force needed to take the bread for himself. Thus he is doubly rewarded, both by the authorities and by the convicts, for his ingestion of a banned substance. But his “inside job” merely lands him on the street, where “appetite appears to be linked with guilt and criminality as a condition of modern culture.” (23)

Food-filching and free-loading

The Gamin first appears on-screen as a desirable thief, making Robin Hood gestures and striking pirate postures. She cuts bananas on a boat, and then tosses them to hungry urchins on the dock, knife clenched in her teeth. A good-looking pirate indeed. Her redistribution of wealth is immediately comprehensible, given what we see of her poverty, and what we soon learn of her destitute family. But the boat and the bananas are private property. When the owner sees her, she scampers to safety, and then engages in another, gratuitous form of trespassing: she eats the banana in his view with defiant relish, a sexual undertone being perhaps a part of her taunting.

Like the Tramp, the Gamin is constantly dodging policemen, but she also flees from child welfare officials after her father is shot in a street protest. She never seems to eat anything that is not stolen, but the “theatrics of space” tell us that this is her due.

While the Gamin’s thievery is suffused with pathos, The Tramp’s shoplifting career is played for laughs. But these barbed laughs plant a subtext about the intertwining of appetites and criminality in modern times. The homeless soul-mates are brought together by a stolen loaf of bread. The Tramp tries to take the blame for her theft, which is typical of his gallantry towards women. But it is also self-interest: a ploy to go to jail. It is worth noting that it is actually the policeman who makes off with the bread. When the police discover that Charlie’s guilt is fictional, he is abandoned in front of a cafeteria. His quest for free food and shelter is realized by free-loading in the cafeteria, after which he enlists a policeman as accomplice. Called to witness Charlie’s inability to pay the bill, he sends the Tramp back to jail—on a full stomach.

The free-loading becomes a joint endeavor after Charlie, fantasizing about a life of abundance in a perfect home, declares that they will secure such a shared abode, “even if I have to work for it.” Opportunity knocks when Charlie secures a job as night watchman in a department store. No sooner has he clocked in than he smuggles in the Gamin, and hustles her down to a soda fountain, where she can load up on empty calories. As at the factory, Charlie makes the department into his playpen—and into a penthouse for his new love, who can wrap herself in furs and sleep on a luxury bed.

Have they “swallowed consumerism”? They are trying on new identities, or new masks, like kids in a playhouse. When the Gamin dons a fur coat she also sports glamorous makeup, as if she were suddenly Cinderella. Charlie glides on a pair of roller skates, as if in a state of grace. But unattainable identities are soon shed like borrowed clothes. Some burglars surprise Charlie, whose knees buckle; one shoots, but only opens holes in a cask of rum. Scared stiff, the Tramp stands in front of the streaming rum with his mouth open. In short order he is in another state of altered consciousness. One of the intruders recognizes Charlie from the steel factory, and soon they are immersed in drunken camaraderie. Meanwhile, the glammed-up Gamin looks like a dream as she sleeps in the lap of luxury. Life on the lam is an intoxication, it seems.

When the store opens the next morning. Charlie has slept under a pile of clothes. A lady shopper tugs on a white shirt, which turns out to be the Tramp’s. When he is extracted, shoppers and the management are appalled, and Charlie and his Cinderella are unceremoniously booted out, where Charlie is carted off to jail once more. The shirt-tugging episode, read symbolically, suggests that consumers want goods produced by or services provided by the underclass, but they do not want the workers themselves. They do not want to be reminded of the presence of those whose flesh and whose labor underwrite their consumerist convenience and leisure.

A Little Taste of Paradise—in search of the “perfect home”

The theme of eating at home with one’s beloved as an unattainable paradise plays out in two parallel fantasies. The first home is imagined by Charlie, while the second is a depression-era shanty claimed by the Gamin. But in both scenes the momentary bliss experienced by the characters is dependent on a shared suspension of disbelief.

Enacting domestic happiness begins with first imagining it. Charlie’s fantasy of suburban bliss occurs after the couple is flung from a police wagon onto the streets (spit out by a machine again).(24) The pair had been arrested for theft—the Gamin’s bread; the Tramp’s super-size meal. Fugitives from justice, they wander into a suburban neighborhood and sit on a curb, where they witness a display of exaggerated marital bliss, with a deliriously happy housewife kissing her husband goodbye as he heads for work. What Charlie describes for the Gamin is a parody of the dream life of sub-urban abundance that was even then luring young professionals off the farm, or out of the cities. Returning home to his apron-clad lady, Charlie can reach into a window and pick an orange or grapes. He calls a cow which milks itself. His woman serves him a steak.

As he is cutting the meat, the “real” Gamin calls him back to reality. A policeman is standing over them, demanding that he keep it real. They are on private property and have to beat it.

Drawing on Gerald Mast’s brief discussion of Chaplin’s use of dream imagery,(25) David Lemaster argues that we should recognize “the importance of dreams [and fantasies] for establishing a sympathetic pity between Charlie and the audience.” In Lemaster’s view, this “motif is actually one of Chaplin’s favorites for further defining Charlie the Tramp’s mask.” (26)

That the Tramp wore a mask that had evolved into a more socially engaged form should be obvious, if we see the film in biographical as well as historical context. In My Autobiography, Chaplin recalled a period of depression and “continual sense of guilt” as he lived the Hollywood high life in the early 1930s. He was troubled by “the remark of a young critic who said that City Lights was very good, but that it verged on the sentimental and that in my future films I should try to approximate realism. I found myself agreeing with him.” (27)

Modern Times, then, was Chaplin’s effort to “approximate realism.” It was a tenuous approximation: Chaplin stubbornly adhered to silent film nine years into the sound era, and sentimentality was ingrained in his character. But as David Robinson’s biography shows, Chaplin was becoming radicalized during 1930s.(28) The Tramp’s “mask” in Modern Times was in keeping with the spirit of the times. The Tramp had long shown a proclivity to bend or break the law, and to live on the fringes of respectable society—close enough to pick off pretty young ladies, but far enough to avoid accountability for either his rule-flaunting or his skirt-chasing. In Modern Times the Tramp evokes our “sympathetic pity” both because of his evident longing for domesticity, and because of his discomfiture with the machine age. His fantasy about the abundance of a suburban Garden of Eden expresses a more politicized satire. We recognize the exaggerated nature of this fantasy, and our laughter has more bite if we see a piece of ourselves in this sketch. Most of us buy into such dreams, to some degree. Even though reality keeps snapping us back, such dreams of romantic or consumer bliss often prove stronger than reality.

But Chaplin more than skirts around realism in staging the other side of paradise—the Gamin’s “perfect” shack. In Philippe Truffault’s special feature Chaplin Today, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne usefully compare this humble abode to Depression-era shanty town shacks. (29)

The shack interlude takes place 10 days after Charlie has been carted off from the department store, when the Gamin waits for him when he is released from jail. They stand outside the shack and gaze at it as if it is Zion. No sooner has Charlie stepped inside and pronounced: “It’s paradise,” than a board falls and clocks him on the head; the flimsy dining table collapses, and part of the roof caves in. “It’s not Buckingham Palace,” she acknowledges. But the day ends with their illusions and their innocence intact, the Gamin sleeping in a pallet on the floor, the Tramp like baby Jesus in the manger, curled up amidst some hay in a shed.

The key sequence in the shack occurs the next day. Charlie scolds the Gamin for stealing food, and she winks—Modern Times’ attitude towards theft by the poor. The Tramp’s chair falls through flimsy floorboards. No problem: this is a moveable feast; they just move the table and start again. But their house’s instability is the flipside to the unreality of the Tramp’s fantasy of domestic bliss. There is no room for them at the inn of modern times.

Reading the newspaper, Charlie sees that the factories have re-opened. Interrupting their meal, he dashes off to seek employment, wanting to buy a “real home.” By the skin of his teeth, he secures the mechanic’s assistant position which will be interrupted by a strike. Leaving the factory, Charlie once more has a run-in with a policeman, and is carted off to jail yet again.

When he is released, the Gamin has found him work in the café where she is a dancing waitress. The communal dining here is in vibrant contrast to the kinds of eating we see in the rest of the film. The environment is a throwback to Chaplin’s music hall roots. It suggests that the domain of entertainment is their only home. But this will not be permitted them: welfare officers catch up with the Gamin, and they make a vaudeville-style escape. Short of a performance space, there can be only one home for the Tramp: the road. Chaplin fans have seen this exit into a liminal space often: literally straddling two nations that cannot be his home at the end of The Pilgrim (1923). But on departing the silver screen forever, he sets off with his girl. The saccharine rendition of the “Smile” theme masks what is in fact a bittersweet end to this attempt at socially relevant “comic realism.” The Tramp and his love have turned their backs on modern times, and hope to find food, shelter and sustenance in some other social order.

Conclusion

I earlier suggested that Modern Times’ response to the problematics of consumption—devouring machines, a food crisis, and consumerism—together constituted a sort of revolution by rejection. To fully define and explore the implications of that term is beyond the scope of this essay. But I want to sketch its meaning, and suggest how this might shape our assessment of Modern Times in relation to Chaplin’s career, and film history. Two questions I would pose regarding Chaplin’s comedic revolution by rejection are, what is being rejected? And is that rejection revolutionary?

The term revolutionary has been devalued through over-use in the realm of advertising and right-wing politics. I will apply it narrowly to a work of art that satirizes an economic and political order. Revolution is “momentous change in a situation,” or “overthrow of one [order] and its replacement with another,” in political terms. Chaplin is concerned with an economic counter-revolution, the draconian imposition of a Taylorite regime. (30) And in Modern Times, he is keen to dramatize the deleterious effects on the poor of the machine age’s “momentous changes.” The face of what he rejects is devotion to profit so extreme that even a trip to the bathroom is monitored. Chaplin also rejects a criminal justice system which in Modern Times harasses the poor, and prevents a just distribution of resources. But Chaplin also is rejecting most of the “sound revolution” which “overthrew” film’s silent order. It produced momentous changes which Chaplin primarily portrays as negative, like the intrusive voice of despotic authorities. The question of whether this rejection is revolutionary cannot be answered objectively, in social science terms. But as a work of art, this is a “biting satire.” There is a Trojan horse quality that Chaplin folds inside the physical comedy. As with the image of feeding the mechanic who has been devoured by a machine, deeper symbolic levels may be more apparent in the stills. The photo used for the film’s poster conveys the multi-voiced quality of Chaplin’s symbolism. Here the Tramp is monkey-wrencher, ready to wreck havoc on the machine. Yet this pose also seems to echo Samson, about to pull down the pillars of his enemy’s temple. Yet while Samson’s woman blinded him, the Gamin gives Charlie a vision of home, and a reason to go to work. He can no longer swallow the machine age’s martial law, but marital love gives meaning to work and play. Yet again, this could be interpreted as a crucifixion pose—“nailed” to the machine. And yet, for an optimist, this could be the silent rebel raising his arms in triumph.

Our retrospective view of this film must be shaped by the final image Chaplin chose: not the Gamin going to a convent, as Chaplin first filmed it, but the couple heading off towards an empty horizon together. This is similar to the iconography of the Western, and one might argue that the flight into a supposedly utopian anti-social nothingness is reactionary, at heart. Yet there is also something archetypal here about prophets who turn their backs on a corrupt society, and go to the wilderness seeking new vision. In cinematic terms, I think that other generic traditions besides the Western, or the road movie, are a propos. Charlie and the Gamin are “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons,” wrote biographer David Robinson: “spiritual escapees from a world in which [Chaplin] saw no other hope.”(31) The conclusion of Chaplin’s last silent film is a forerunner of the cinematic “Last Man on Earth” tradition, which became a major genre from the 1950s on. What later generations of filmmakers would process primarily through horror and melodrama, in the post-apocalyptic imagination,(32) Chaplin foreshadowed through comedy, in a pre-apocalyptic satire of machines and their guardians run amuck. There are ironies in Chaplin’s representation of an escape from modernity, while he was sleeping with Hollywood starlets and hobnobbing with world celebrities. But this ending is also prescient of his rejection in the U.S. during the era of anti-communist witch-hunts, and his exile in Switzerland. (33)

In its visual imagination, Modern Times is one of the city symphonies which have represented the ways in which sped-up assembly lines shape humans and human society. In a cinematic timeline, Modern Times is close to the bottles of milk in Berlin, Symphonyof a City (Walther Ruttman, 1927). But in its visual ideology, it is closer in spirit to the flows of traffic, energy, and consumer goods in Koyaanisqatsi which, much like Modern Times, are both dystopian and euphoric. Both Modern Times and Koyaanisqatsi give a sense of the hallucinatory quality of our life on a template determined by machines. But both allow for much more benign, even celebratory interpretations. Finally, in addition to being a forerunner of the monkey-wrenching tradition, Modern Times is a fountainhead of an ever-growing body of cinematic work which explores the interpenetrations of humans and machines. This has become a veritable cinematic obsession: the machines we have created as servants have increasingly not only become our masters, but have colonized our bodies and our very imaginations. All filmmakers who explore this dynamic are, directly or indirectly, in Chaplin’s debt.

Endnotes

  1. Devin Anthony Orgeron and Marsha Gabrielle Orgeron, “Eating Their Words: Consuming Class a la Chaplin and Keaton,” College Literature 28:1 (Winter 2001): 84-104 (91).
  2. J. Hoberman described Modern Times as “Chaplin’s most sustained burlesque of authority.” J. Hoberman, “A Chaplin classic sounds off on Hollywood dream factory,” Village Voice (Dec. 23, 2003). The notion of a “revolution by rejection” became generalized in the de-centered protests of the late 1990s and early 21st century, as with the anti-globalization protests, calls for boycotts of corporate products, and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico. See John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (Pluto Press, 2002).
  3. Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (HarperCollins Perennial Classics, 2000 [1975]); T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth (Viking, 2000).
  4. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1964), 344. The second part of this quote is taken from a newspaper article which appears in Philippe Truffault, ‘Chaplin Today’, a special feature on the Modern Times double DVD (Warner Home Video, 2004).
  5. Machinery, Truffault, ‘Chaplin Today’.
  6. Russ Castronovo sees Modern Times as “an artwork essay on mechanical reproduction which responds to accusations that he had become a lapdog of capitalism.” Beautiful Democracy: Aestheticsand Anarchy in a Global Era (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), 163.
  7. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale UP, 1987).
  8. This wording is from one of my students at New Mexico State University in 2009.
  9. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 210.
  10. Octavio Cortazar, director, Por PrimeraVez (El Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, 1967); on special features DVD, Charles Chaplin, Modern Times: The Chaplin Collection (Warner Home Video, 2003).
  11. Aaron Woolf, director, King Corn: You Are What You Eat (Mosaic/Docurama Films, 2006). Chaplin’s comments on the use of machines, that when “employed solely for profit, they brought only misery” (paraphrase from Truffault, ‘Chaplin Today’) parallels what Miguel Angel Asturias wrote about the cultivation of corn. Maize could be a “sacred sustenance” when “sown to be eaten,” Asturias wrote, but when sown merely for profit “it means famine for the men who were made of maize.” Miguel Angel Asturias, Men of Maize. Trans. by Gerald Martin (London: Verso: 1988), 5-6. Asturias wrote much of Men of Maize in the early to mid-1930s, as part of the same era that inspired a range of modernist artists (including William Faulkner) to comment on the ways in what mechanization was destroying land and traditional cultures. See René Prieto, Miguel Angel Asturias’s Archeology of Return (Cambridge UP, 1983/2009), 90-91.
  12. Castronovo, Beautiful Democracy, 165.
  13. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  14. Gregory Stephens, “Corn-Fed Culture: Living Large and ‘Eating Shit’ in King Corn and Fast Food Nation,” Bright Lights Film Journal #68 (Spring 2010); http://www.brightlights.com/68/68cornfedculture.php
  15. Nervous in Detroit, Chaplin, My Autobiography, 383.
  16. Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 6th ed., (Pearson Longman, 2007), 56, 59, my emphasis.
  17. Mark Winokur, “Modern Times and the Comedy of Transformation,” Literature /Film Quarterly 15:4 (1987), 221.
  18. Marisa Montes, Juan Bobo Goes to Work (HarperCollins, 2000).
  19. David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
  20. From “Approaches to Film—Modern Times” on the Modern Times double DVD.
  21. Dan Kamine, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show (Scarecrow Press, 1995), 114.
  22. Chaplin’s silent but double-voiced Bobo represents those who are “refusing to be turned into disposable people,” as Vandana Shiva writes. The industrial production of food, one of the machine-age’s “innovations,” has worsened “the creation of ‘redundant’ or disposable people.” Vandana Shiva, Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2008), 2-3.
  23. Devin Anthony Orgeron and Marsha Gabrielle Orgeron, “Eating Their Words: Consuming Class a la Chaplin and Keaton,” College Literature 28:1 (Winter 2001), 93.
  24. After meeting Goddard, Chaplin described an image of the tramp being “very gallant [to her] in a crowded patrol wagon” as the seed from which Modern Times grew. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 383.
  25. Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (U of Chicago P, 1979), 83.
  26. David J. Lemaster, “The Pathos of the Unconscious: Charlie Chaplin and Dreams,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 25:3 (Fall 1997), 110-6.
  27. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 382-3.
  28. David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (McGraw-Hill, 1985).
  29. Philippe Truffault, ‘Chaplin Today’ (Warner Home Video, 2004).
  30. Daniel Nelson, Frederick W. Taylor and the Riseof Scientific Management (U. Wisconsin Press, 1980). After “revolutionizing” the machine-tool industry, and Taylor undertook a career in popular management writing as more of a public relations gimmick. But as the son of a radical feminist and abolitionist mother, Taylor was hardly a “Taylorite.”
  31. David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (McGraw-Hill, 1985): 459. Quoted in David Gerstein, “Modern Times and the Question of Technology” (1995); http://www.cartoonresearch.com/gerstein/chaplin/machines.html
  32. John W. Martens, The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film & Television (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2003); Charles Mitchell, A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema (Greenwood Press, 2001).
  33. John Sbardellati and Tony Shaw, “Booting a Tramp: Charlie Chaplin, the FBI, and the Construction of the Subversive Image in Red Scare America,” Pacific Historical Review 72:4 (2003), 495-530.

In 2012, we decided to ask one of our panelists or an additional scholar to write texts for each of our Action Speaks’ topics. This one by Charles Musser accompanies the 1936 Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ Debuts radio show. We hope that you enjoy it.

Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) spoke in comedic yet forceful terms about the crushing experiences of so many living through the Great Depression.  Seventy-six years later, the film still speaks to many of us mired in the Great Recession. But first, some background.

***

Charlie Chaplin had not released a film for five years when Modern Times moved into movie theaters in February 1936.  Curiosity, skepticism and suspense swirled around its approaching debut.   Charlie was of the most famous people in the world; but his good friends Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, movie stars of the highest magnitude in the 1910s and 1920s, had recently retired from acting.  The three of them had founded United Artists along with director D. W. Griffith, who was also in forced retirement.  Chaplin was a silent comedian–-and determined to remain so––a decade into the era of sound movies.  He played an old-fashioned, gentlemanly tramp but there was nothing gentlemanly or old-fashioned about the Depression.  It seemed all too possible that the title of his new film’s––Modern Times––would be a sad misnomer—even the final act of his illustrious career.

Reviewers and moviegoers were not only relieved, they were ecstatic. Following the film’s world premiere on February 5th, Frank Nugent wrote in the New York Times

The polls are closed, the returns are in and Charlie Chaplin has been re-elected king of the clowns.  In Modern Times, which opened Wednesday night at the Rivoli before an audience of his loyal subjects, his comic majesty was restored to the waiting throne, which he had abdicated five long years ago.  When the little monarch returned, still wearing the royal raiment of battered derby hat, bamboo cane and speck of mustache, a might cry went up from the populace.  King Charles was back and it was just as though he never had been away.[1]

Writing from New York City to the Los Angeles Times, Norbert Lusk reported,

The magnificent reception given Modern Times by the press and public at last week’s premiere at the Rivoli Theater gains confirmation as the picture settles down for a long run.  Every record achieved in the eighteen years the theater has stood on Broadway has been broken.  For the first time in its existence, a showing at 2:30 am is a nightly occurrence and it is said that 70,000 persons saw the film over its first week-end.  Be that as it may, the critical salvos are virtually without a parallel.  There is everything to prove that reviewers consider Charlie Chaplin the greatest artist of the day as conclusively as exhibitors recognize him as the greatest attraction.[2]

Debuts quickly followed in other major cities across the world: London’s Tivoli Theatre on February 11, Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Feb 12th, Boston’s Majestic Theatre on Feb 14th, Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand theater on Feb 21st, and Chicago’s United Artist Theater on Feb 22rd.  Charlie was repeatedly hailed as  “first among the comedians.”[3]  Then, less than two weeks after the New York premiere, Chaplin and his co-star Paulette Goddard left Los Angeles for Honolulu and then went on to Japan, China (they were secretly married in Shanghai) and the Philippines.

Chaplin’s work on Modern Times was bookended by world travel.  His ideas for the film perhaps began to develop as he left Los Angeles on January 31st, 1931—one day after the world premiere of City Lights.  Stopping off in New York City for that local unveiling on February 6th, he told New York World reporter Flora Merrill: “While crossing the continent I have been talking to all sorts of men—railroad men, workers, fellow travellers––and I heard that times are even harder than before the end of the old year.”[4]  These encounters led him to conclude that “The present deplorable conditions certainly cannot be charged against the five million men out of work, ready to work, anxious to work, and yet unable to get jobs.”  He was also highly critical of laborsaving devices, which he felt should make people’s lives better instead of generating more profits.  These concerns would provide a framework for the film he would undertake four years later.

A week after the New York premiere of City Lights, Chaplin departed for Europe where he met many kinds of people.  In England, the filmmaker not only met the Prince of Wales, Churchill and Gandhi but also visited the Poor Law School in Hanwell, where he had spent time as a child, and an old pub in Blackburn where he had lodged while a young struggling actor (for the latter visit he went unrecognized).[5]  He arrived back in Los Angeles via Yokohama, Japan, on June 10, 1932.  Within a few weeks, he announced an economic plan that was designed to stimulate the economy by increasing the quantity of money in circulation.[6] It was a front-page news story.

***


Chaplin’s Modern Times seems more or less consciously poised on a semiotic seesaw.  Artistically, he was torn between working within the tradition of silent film and pantomime that he had mastered and staying up-to-date by moving into the sound era.  The comedy offers an ingenious middle ground as we hear Charlie’s voice in Modern Times, but only at the end and only as he sings a nonsense song.  There are other voices, but they are always mediated through technologies such as radio or closed circuit television.  Indeed Charlie’s tramp is caught in a similar time trap.  Although the film is clearly is set in the modern times of mid-1930s America, Charlie remains the old 19th century gentleman tramp.  Charlie had been an old-fashioned tramp even in the Keystone and Essanay films of 1914-15, while The Gold Rush (1925) was cleverly set during the Klondike gold rush of 1897-99.  By the 1930s, Chaplin’s tramp character was no longer old-fashioned: he was from another realm of time entirely.  This disjunction was further underscored by his use of panchromatic film.  The tramp’s white flesh tones in the 1910s and 1920s had depended on pancake make up and orthochromatic film stock: conventions that were shared across the industry.  This look had become antiquated with the regular use of panchromatic film by the early 1930s.  Chaplin used panchromatic film for Modern Times and bestowed realistic skin tones on his co-star Paulette Goddard. This flattered his leading lady but emphasized his on-screen identity as a silent clown.   Likewise the factory settings, the strikes, riots, clothing, and other sets were all current with the times even as Chaplin recycled and reworked many of the gags from his classic films of the 1910s (Work, The Rink, The Floorwalker, Police and so forth).  Even the opening credits, which are superimposed over a clock, look backwards to the opening moments of The Pawnshop (1916)in which Charlie enters the shop and checks his pocket watch against a wall calendar.  (The clock is the embodiment of industrial discipline and Chaplin starts this film with a clock as a quietly ominous backdrop.)  A somewhat distant past (20 years earlier)––recalled nostalgically––and a harsh present are interwoven, but not seamlessly.  It is worth noting that Modern Times was the last hurrah for Chaplin’s tramp character.  The filmmaker must have found these tensions, both intended and unavoidable, to be at once compelling and unsustainable.

The comedy’s semiotic seesaw operated along several different axes and is strongly evident in its reception.  Of course, everyone acknowledged that Chaplin’s story had a contemporary setting and resonated with contemporary events. Charlie, the tramp character, is clearly identified in the film as “a worker.”  Just out of jail, Charlie walks down a street and picks up a red flag that has fallen off a truck with an oversized load.  A group of strikers fall in behind him, and the police assume that our innocent tramp is a labor agitator: he is quickly clobbered and arrested.  So was Chaplin’s tramp now siding with the Communists—despite himself?  Another time, our apparently apolitical worker tries to avoid a labor confrontation: as he leaves, Charlie steps on a plank, which sends a brick flying onto the head of a policeman—which again gets him arrested as a labor agitator.  Is Charlie slyly, “unconsciously” or perhaps despite his conscious intentions fighting for unions and the radical political groups?  This is certainly one possible interpretation.  After all, in earlier Chaplin comedies, the tramp seemingly does not intend to hit his boss or supervisor with a ladder or some other handy weapon—but does so with telling consistency.

In fact, Chaplin went out of his way to insist that Modern Times was not political, at least in this respect.  One newspaper article, headlined “Chaplin Denies Any Attempt at Propaganda,” read:

Chaplin said before sailing that “a lot of highbrow critics and many professional sympathizers with radical politics have seen in my pictures a significance that is not there.  They think the gags about the parade and the strike indicate an antipathy to capital and a desire to present subtle propaganda.”

Chaplin said he disliked to disagree with person so undoubtedly sincere and so intelligent and sympathetic toward him personally as his self-appointed highbrow interpreters who see his comedy as a solemn effort to carry out a mission but feels he has to set himself right.

“Maybe I’m wrong in trying to be funny,” Charlie said, “but all I was thinking of and trying to bring about was something that would induce people to laugh.  I have my serious moments, but my movie was only trying to amuse.  I want people to laugh at me, not to think big thoughts.”[7]

Mae Tinée of the Chicago Tribune eagerly obliged:  “Modern Times… is really great entertainment.  The story is utterly fantastical and, contrary to rumors that have been rumbling round and round, preaches no sermons.”[8]  Another critic observed, “Whether the little tramp is a comic soldier, a street cleaner, a heroic prospector, a circus performer, or, as in his late picture, Modern Times… a cog in the well-oiled machine of the modern factory system, he remains always the same shabby-genteel waif in a cruel and unconquerable world that will have none of him.  And always his uniform is the same: derby, moustache, shoes and cane.”[9] Many but not all critics supported this apolitical reading.  Of course, one long-established strategy of political filmmakers is to insist their films are not political.[10] Yet another analysis would note that films are often intentionally ambiguous and even internally contradictory texts such that they can be read differently depending on how one chooses to read them.

Modern Times, nevertheless, seeks to articulate the experiences of millions of employed and unemployed workers in the Great Depression—workers who often suffered intermittent employment as does his character.  Recognizing and sympathizing with the workers’ plight in its many dimension was itself a radical act.  The first part of the film looks at the employed in these severe economic times even as it offers a burlesque or satire on modern industrialization, the dehumanization of the assembly line and the use of labor saving devices to further exploit those workers lucky enough to have a job.  This extended sequence seems more straight forward, though it too is open to a range of interpretations.  Charlie is a worker on an assembly line, whose job is to endlessly tighten bolts.  It is identified as a steel factory, but the place looks nothing like a steel mill.  This naming is an obvious cover or displacement for something else.  We never actually see what is produced, but this assembly line in its very abstraction strongly evokes the Ford assembly line.  If much of Modern Times offers a backward look, this applies to the assembly line as well.  Chaplin began work in motion pictures—for Mack Sennett—in December 1913 at virtually the same moment that Henry Ford was introducing the assembly line for auto manufacturing.  Ten years later, in October 1923, Chaplin actually visited Henry Ford and his auto assembly plant in Highland Park, and the large dynamo in the background of the group portrait with Chaplin, Henry Ford and his son Edsel, is recalled in the Expressionistic factory where Charlie works.[11]  [photo]

The assembly line provides a crucial starting point and anchor for Modern Times.  The idea of the Ford assembling line was transferred from the slaughterhouse in which the carcasses of animals were disassembled.[12] This suggests an intriguing interpretation of the opening shot –a herd of sheep that dissolves to a group of men emerging from the subway and heading to the factory where we will eventually glimpse Charlie tightening bolts on the line.   These workers are lambs being led to the slaughter, their humanity to be disassembled through their incorporation into a technology of the slaughterhouse itself.  Overseeing it all is the master capitalist who sits in a spartan office.  This figure with his white hair again easily stands in for Ford himself.  This is further underscored as this corporate mastermind tells the bare-chested man at the controls to increase the speed of the line.  In fact, Ford was known for slowly increasingly the speed of his factory assembly lines each week to extract greater productivity from his workers.  Much of Chaplin’s comedy in the 1910s and beyond involved resistance to work of all kinds, but particularly to the regimented workplace. Here, in Modern Times, both the regimentation and the resistance are taken to a logical conclusion.

The world of Henry Ford was expressionistically visualized even as it was transposed through the introduction of two other futuristic technologies that are closely linked in terms of the film’s comic, semantic seesaw.  One is an automatic eating machine that is designed to feed workers even as they still work on the line.  It is meant to be a labor saving device.  Charlie is the unlucky guinea pig as the inventor seeks to demonstrate its efficiencies; but as the machine malfunctions, Charlie ends up the comic victim of physical abuse—a comic demonstration of the worker’s reduction to a dehumanized state.[13] The other futuristic technology is less obviously funny and involves the use of close-circuit television as an instrument of pervasive surveillance.  This employment of television cameras and screens throughout the factory is a modernized version of Foucault’s panopticon, which allows the company president to monitor his corporate domain, from different sections of the factory floor to the bathrooms—and then chastise or command those in his purview.  It is not that everyone is being watched at every moment but that they might be being watched at any given moment, which makes this technology so effective and intruding.  Charlie retreats to the bathroom for a quick smoke and via the surveillance system, the corporate president tells him to get back to work.  This futuristic technology, which has since become embedded in our daily lives in only slightly modified form, was a mere abstraction of Ford’s Service Department or Internal Security, headed by Harry Bennett (1892–1979). As Wikipedia puts it, “The job of the Service Department was to deal with the growing labor unrest and the labor unions that were starting to form. Ford had instituted a policy called “speed up” by which the speed of the assembly lines were increased slightly every week and employees were feeling the strain.”[14] Farm boys, Chaplin noted in his autobiography, often suffered nervous breakdowns after a few years on the line.[15] The tramp’s nervous breakdown, which leads to the total disruption of the assembly line, has a much more direct cause-and-effect relationship than is the case in his earlier films such as The Pawnshop where the tramp’s resistance and destructive ineptitude have no direct basis in the job itself.

Modern Times takes place in a city that is never specified (and purposefully abstracted) but is effectively Detroit.  During 1932-1935 and beyond, Detroit was a center of industrial conflict and violence of the kind that Chaplin was evoking in Modern Times.  The father of the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) is killed during a demonstration—leaving his young children destitute and headed to a state institution (like the one Chaplin had himself experienced).  One counterpart that took place in Detroit was the Ford Hunger March, which also became known as the Ford Massacre.[16]  Workers––organized by the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft and Vehicle Workers of America––marched to the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan—on March 7, 1932.  They planned to present Ford with a petition of 14 demands.  As they approached, Dearborn Police and Ford’s Security met the workers with tear gas and clubs.  The confrontation spilled out of control and four workers were killed (a fifth died from his wounds several months later).  Frequent strikes and labor unrest continued not only at Ford but also at the factories of its suppliers.  Desperate workers were condemned as Communists even as Ford did everything possible to oppose the unions.  Employment fluctuated and there was no unemployment insurance or other elements of a “safety net.” The scene in which ex-workers break into a store—where Charlie found work as a night watchman—again resonated with reality.   Charlie and the Gamine (Paulette Godard) live for a time in a Hooverville shack: this emblem of the depression may be a home of sorts but it is a comically dangerous one.  The almost comical disorganization of employment and the recurrent obsession with food in Modern Times are all part of the fabric of Depression America–-read undoubtedly through Chaplin’s own memories of desperation as a young child.

Did the unemployed and underemployed find a way to see Modern Times?  Looking for any kind of cause and effect between this film and larger political and economic changes would be absurd, but Robert S. McElvaine in his book The Great Depression suggests that it was important for the desperate and unemployed to recognize that the lack of a job was not their failure but a larger collective one—something Chaplin’s film and his personal comments in the press sought to underscore. By the end of 1936, the United Auto Workers had launched a sit down strikes in Flint, Michigan, which would force General Motors to recognize the UAW in a one-page agreement on February 1, 1937—less than a year after Modern Times debuted.

How Detroit residents responded to the film is difficult to tell.  It opened on February 20th at the United Artists theater and played for three weeks––an extended run.  Tickets were 30¢ before 2 pm—and perhaps some unemployed or underemployed went at these reduced rates, but very few would have had the extra cash unless others in the household were working.  The very conservative Detroit Fee Press, undoubtedly in coordination with United Artists and even Chaplin, pretended the politics of the film and the filmmaker did not exist.  Advanced publicity declared that Modern Times “is of interest because it reveals an almost firece loyalty to his associates that is an outstanding Chaplin characteristic.  Throughout all those years of inactivity Chaplin maintained his complete technical staff and to a large extent the same actors who helped produce The Kid [ed-1920].”[17] The day before it local premiere, the Press ran an article “Chaplin Denies That He’s ‘Red’,” in which Chaplin’s business manager Alf Reeves proclaimed:

For general information, Mr. Chaplin is not Jewish.  Neither is he a communist.  He has no political affiliations whatever, nor does he intend his comedy to convey propaganda of any kind.  He film was made solely for entertainment and laughing purposes and to endeavor to please his great motion picture audienecs everywhere.[18]

Reviewer Ella H. McCormick had a delicate task.  Declaring the film to be “Impish in its central figure,” she remarked that it “offers an admired old friend [Chaplin’s tramp] in a new frame.”  Astutely but discretely, she declared

The Chaplinesque sense of humor, shrewd showmanship and complete disregard of the conventional has entered so forthrightly into the picture as to make it stand alone in supreme merit among Chaplin’s cinemas.  With unceasing action, it tells its dramatic, comic, pathetic, satirical story without benefit of words.  Chaplin has taken the restlessness, speed and hardness of current existence to exploit inevitable incidents to provoke laughter, resentment, fear, sorrow, tears.  The spectator’s reaction is likely to be sustained admiration for the genius of the man who conceived and accomplished a cinema production so risque and stimulating. “[19]

Without ever suggesting that Modern Times spoke to Detroit residents and auto workers in particularly direct and forceful ways, McCormick’s characterization of the film as risque and unconventional quietly acknowledged the film’s achievement as a social statement.

Despite its enthusiastic reception both critically and at the box office, Modern Times was completely forgotten when it came to the Academy Awards.   Chaplin as an independent filmmaker lacked the clout to ensure recognition.  Moreover, despite Chaplin’s claims to producing an apolitical film, few were fooled.  If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to acknowledge the Depression, My Man Godfrey (1936) was a much safer choice and received six different nominations. Its protagonist (William Powell) is a rich Bostonian who goes to live in a Hooverville in a fit of despair over a broken love affair.  He finds the spirit of the men living in the shantytown to be inspirational and restorative.

Today’s Great Recession makes it easy for us to look back at Modern Times with a sense of connection.  In today’s moment of high and sustained unemployment, the problems and terms are somewhat different.  There is unemployment insurance—though it can run out.  Older people use up their life savings and fall back on early social security.  Younger people again live with parents. Others lose their homes and live in a car.  The homeless have become a more common sight as some camp out or live in shelters.  Others in despair commit suicide and sometimes take their families with them.  Modern Times offers us a way to reflect on an earlier moment when the unemployed were often dismissed as lazy and felt to be failures—when life was different but for many perhaps not all that very different from today.

Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)  © Charles Musser 2012

Charles Musser, Professor of American Studies, Film Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University where he teaches courses on silent cinema and documentary. His books include The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (1990).  He recently completed the documentary Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2012) with Carina Tautu.



[1] Frank S. Nugent, “The Reign of Good King Charlie,” New York Times, 9 February 1936, X5.

[2] “Reception of Chaplin Film Unparalleled,” Los Angeles Times, 16 February 1936, C3.

[3]   “New Film Reviewed,” Daily Boston Globe, 15 February 1936, 11.

[4] Flora Merrill, New York World, February 1931, in David Robinson, Chaplin, 457.

[5] Robinson, Chaplin, 424, 438.

[6] “Chaplin Tells Economic Plan,” Los Angeles Times, 27 June 1932, A1.

[7] George Shaffer, “Chaplin Denies Any Attempt at Propaganda,” Chicago Tribune, 20 February 1936, 13.

[8] Mae Tineé, “Chaplin Same Old Comic in His New Film,” Chicago Tribune, 25 February 1936, 17.

[9] “Charlie Chaplin’s Perennial Tramp,” Boston Globe, 23 February 1936, A38.

[10] To offer a recent example, cinema verité filmmakers publicly insisted that they have no preconceptions about the Iraq war that they were covering.  Their films were not pro-war or anti-war but just trying to show the war “like it is.”

[11] “Portrait of Charles Chaplin with Henry and Edsel Ford 10/15/23. Edsel Ford, Charles Chaplin and Henry Ford standing in front of a piece of machinery. In 1936 Chaplin would poke a jab at the Ford style assembly line in his masterpiece, “Modern Times.” (“Digital Learning Objects@Wayne State University,” net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/MWRC09_169336.pdf)

[12]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assembly_line

[15] Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 383.

[17] “Len G. Shaw, “’Modern Times’ Reveals Charlie Chaplin’s Lyality to Friends of Another Day,” Detroit Free Press, 18 February 1936, 9.

[18] George Shaffer, “Chaplin Denies That He’s ‘Red’,”  Detroit Free Press, 19 February 1926, 8.

[19] Ella H. McCormick, “Shop Worker Goes Berserk,” Detroit Free Press, 21 February 1936, 13.

mass media, pop culture, The Great Depression

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