A flock of sheep segue into a group of workers heading into an industrial factory to start the long day ahead. Uncertainty awaits them, as they try to do their jobs well – and even keep them by any means necessary. Does it somehow feel like that every day sometimes?
Even in 1936, Charlie Chaplin probably knew what it felt like for the average worker to get through the day. And in 2011, 75 years after its debut in theaters, Modern Times has remained a revelation.
This working-class comedy was set and filmed during the Great Depression, where millions of people were struggling to find work – any work. They would find solace in Chaplin’s fabled Little Tramp doing whatever he could to find work, to better his own life.
The employees of a big-city steel factory sacrifice their lives for the better of the company, and its big boss (Henry Bergman), who rules all with an iron will. He even institutes an automatic “feeding machine” to give workers their lunch without actually having them take a long break. One such worker, the Little Tramp (Chaplin), has a hard time dealing with the conditions he works under – and a mental collapse effectively costs him his job.
Yet the Tramp’s troubles continue – he gets arrested for being involved in a Communist rally though a misunderstanding with a red flag (a theme that would affect Chaplin’s own life later), suffers a drug ingestion in jail, and has difficulty in landing a job. The Tramp later meets a gamin (Paulette Goddard, who was Chaplin’s wife when making the film), who is on the run for stealing bread.
The Tramp and the gamin are soon together to find better lives for each other, whether it’s trying to work in a department store or at a cafe – where the Tramp tries to delight an audience with an act as a singing waiter. Yet with all of the financial and social odds against them, can these two lost souls somehow find that better life they long for?
While talkies had become the dominant force of moviemaking for nearly a decade, Chaplin continued to maintain a silent tone with The Circus and City Lights, while other filmmakers were retreating to sound. Chaplin wasn’t ready to abandon silent film entirely – the continued use of intertitles for dialogue and setting remains one such aspect. He also felt the Little Tramp, his greatest on-screen creation, simply didn’t work with him speaking – or at least being heard. While that may be the case, the Tramp could still deliver effective comic gems.
Chaplin’s best comic moments in this film – and of his career – are seen in the beginning: from his trying out the feeding machine to his extraordinary trip through the assembly line gears. They may be considered outlandish in 2011 film, but in 1936, they were awe-inspiring moments of hilarious grandeur.
Modern Times was also not afraid to show the dark social underbelly that had crept up during the Great Depression – notably the idea of workers slaving away for little personal gain, only to please the big bosses who could easily replace them without warning. As clear examples of this, Chaplin used the bread lines featuring the unemployed (with a key member of the gamin’s family involved, with tragic results), and the riots that striking workers took part in to gain more in the face of big business. In an age of corporate greed, constant foreclosure, and the “Occupy” movements, Chaplin’s film could be more relevant now than ever. And this was made at a time when America was struggling to regain its employment footing – as the mood of war loomed.
Chaplin continued to be at his wunderkind best – by starring in, directing, producing, writing the script, and even composing the film’s score. As the Little Tramp, Chaplin continued to show off great comic chops. Besides the aforementioned moments at the film’s start, Chaplin also displays outrageous moments as a roller-skating night watchman, and near the end when he performs a song with verbal nonsense (as the singing waiter). For anyone trying to decipher what he’s actually trying to sing, it’s best not to – and enjoy the performance anyway. It also introduced one of Chaplin’s great moments, the legendary theme “Smile,” which he composed the music to. Later lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons would turn the song into a celebrated standard.
Goddard’s performance as the gamin was a key moment of her career – after this film, she would star alongside Chaplin again in the 1940 political satire The Great Dictator. She would also appear alongside Bob Hope in 1939’s The Cat and the Canary, alongside Joan Crawford & Rosalind Russell in The Women, and earned an Oscar nomination for the WWII-era drama So Proudly We Hail. Her marriage to Chaplin would ultimately end in 1942, six years after Modern Times was completed.
The ending of Modern Times was appropriate for the story – and maybe appropriate for Chaplin himself. After this film, he would go into the most ambitious and most difficult act of his long career. He would follow with The Great Dictator, before moving forward with Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Those three films were met with critical and/or commercial indifference, only to gain greater appreciation in the years following their releases.
Yet of all Chaplin’s films, this 1936 tale of economic and working uncertainty seemed to have themes and morals people could relate to – especially the struggle to do whatever means necessary to gain a job, and to keep it. Yet the greatest statement Modern Times possesses may be the determination to keep going in the face of uncertainty. For the Little Tramp and the gamin, that may be all they can do – but they may just get through it, with each other.