Modern Times 06/02/2010
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
As Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times begins, we see crowds of men making their way through the bustling crowd in order to check in on time at their respective jobs. Then we are shown a factory manager working on a jigsaw puzzle at his leisure, observing his staff, occasionally dictating their activity through large screens spread through the workplace – even in the washroom. Yes, even when the little tramp tries to have a moment of privacy in the men’s room, he is interrupted and forced to get back to work. The manager’s voice will be one of the only we hear in this film; a “talkie” in the spirit of the silent film, which is appropriate as this is a film about industrialization in the spirit of humanity.
Of course, we can take utter delight in the film’s breathtaking hilarity. As the little tramp is used as a guinea pig for an innovative device designed to feed employees while they work, complete with a bowl of soup with an automated blower to cool it down, a mouth wiper and a food pusher that shoves more food in his mouth than he can chew. Also, there aren’t many things funnier than Chaplin chasing a big-bosomed bourgeois lady down the street with a wrench because her top has buttons that resemble the screws he has to turn on the never-ending assembly line at the factory. The scenes in the factory are some of the most memorable in cinema. One instance has the tramp getting caught on a conveyor belt and getting pulled into the hidden machinery below, an array of over-sized clogs in which he becomes entangled. Literally, this image shows a worker as just a cog in a larger machine. Welcome to modern times.
Later, as the tramp is being released from a brief stay in prison (which operated in a similar way to the factory), he is placed on a bench in a waiting room. Next to him is a bourgeois woman. They sit there, drinking tea, with their stomachs gurgling in an otherwise silent room, the woman’s dog barking at the noise emitting from their bodies; the divide between classes demonstrated wonderfully by Chaplin. They communicate only through their digestive systems, marking a commonality (natural) and emphasizing their difference (unnatural). The capitalist system has people sitting together on a bench rendered worlds apart.
Once out of jail, the tramp is determined to get back in. Through some ensuing exploits he encounters a woman, recently widowed, who has been arrested for stealing food, a necessary act, as she is poor. They escape a police car and decide to make a life together. The tramp lands a job at a department store, and after closing time they explore the floors – including the toy section, where Chaplin gracefully dances about in roller-skates, blind-folded, unaware of a dramatic drop he teeters by in his movement: pantomimic poetry. He is a man in the pit of consumerism, close to the edge, about to fall.
Modern Times was made during the depression, and it articulates the anxieties of a nation divided and falling (and of course a house must be united in order to stand). Chaplin depicts a system servicing only those at the top at the expense at those at the bottom, a pyramid scheme if there ever was one. To Chaplin, the American dream was a joke; he merely applied the punch lines.
The tramp remains unemployed until he gets work, once again at a factory. Men flock by the thousands to get the job and the little tramp is one of lucky few to get hired. Working with a partner on an unholy apparatus, the tramp gets his co-worker stuck in the machine. He frantically attempts to free him – that is until the whistle signals break time. At this juncture, being so conditioned by his environment, he grabs a stool and enjoys his lunch. At least he tries to feed his trapped co-worker. They are reduced, essentially, to robots, with a break only as a necessity in order to quickly refuel themselves.
Later on, the tramp is hired at an entertainment restaurant thanks to the glowing recommendation of his girlfriend. There is, however, a catch: he will have to sing in front of the patrons. In nervous preparation for his debut, he attempts to memorize the lyrics, but this brave endeavor is futile. His girlfriend writes the lyrics on his cuffs. Chaplin takes center stage and begins but with his luck the cuffs go flying off almost immediately. The girl tells him to “never mind the words”. Forced to continue in spite of this unfortunate mishap, he fakes the song in a nonsensical blend of Spanish and French while acting out its story in pantomime. The scene works as Chaplin’s argument for the power of silent storytelling. As previously mentioned, Modern Times is a “talkie” but Chaplin opts to use as little spoken dialogue as possible and the restaurant scene has the tramp making a similar decision. As the lady said, “never mind the words”.
At the film’s closing, the tramp and the girl find themselves unemployed in a world that just doesn’t have enough room to accommodate them. He tells her to smile – they’ll make it through. They join hands and walk down a road that will lead to more strife, as the world moves down a road ever colder; a machine that can’t be stopped.