Context of Modern Times
Charles Chaplin performs “Modern Times”, a comedy film, in 1936. His Tramp character already has an extraordinary popularity. He invented the character of a generous and sensible vagabond two decades earlier, on the eve of the Great War. Charlie embodies the suffering of the dispossessed. Modern Times marks the last appearance of the Tramp Chapplin. Mass unemployment coincides with the industrial mechanization.
Chaplin, who was always very attentive to the economic and social problems of his day, declared in 1931: ‘unemployment, that’s the key question. Machines should do improve the well-being of humanity, instead of causing tragedy and unemployment”. Ironically, the film opens with a cardboard on which is inscribed a bombastic sentence: “a story about the industry, individual initiative and the crusade of humanity in the pursuit of happiness”. Immediately after, the director juxtaposes sheep and workers emerging from a subway (one black sheep: Charlot).
Summary of Modern Times
Charlie is a laborer working at a factory in the chain. It tightens throughout the day two bolts on parts of an unidentified object moving past him without interruption. Billingsgate, Charlie is faced with several incidents that make him lose the rhythm and paralyze the chain.
Then there is a guinea pig to test a new machine to feed the workers automatically, without having to interrupt their work during lunch. The engine, still in development appears to be a veritable instrument of torture.
When he returns to work, Charlie seems to be crazy. Caught in the machine, it shows hilarious, struck with a sort of St. Vitus’s dance, he sprinkles his fellow oil. You end up hospitalized. On leaving hospital, he picks up a red flag fell from a truck. Immediately, protesters take him for a leader and followers. Arrested by the police, he became a model prisoner who outwits, despite himself, an escape, which earned him a favor. Despite his protestations, he was released.
He then comes to the aid of a young orphan (“Lassie”, played by Paulette Goddard). Charlot is then hired as night watchman in a department store, but returned to prison after a burglary committed by one of his former colleagues. On his release, the girl hired as the server-singer in a restaurant where she performed as a dancer.
As he prepares to go on stage, he loses his text and improvises a song in incomprehensible gibberish. This is a triumph, but immediately after, police in the juvenile entering the facility to stop the kid. The couple managed to escape and walked away, hand in hand, to other adventures.
– The absence of dialogue. In 1936, the talkies has already established itself for almost 20 years. Yet Chaplin, a specialist in silent pantomime, refuses to dialogue. He still tries to prepare dialogues and even recorded some tests, inconclusive for his taste. The only human voices we hear are passed by the filter process technology: the boss who speaks to his workers via his television screen, the vendor machine which reduces to a voice in a phonograph. Only exception, when Chaplin improvises his song in the restaurant in a vaguely Italian gibberish.
– In contrast, music and sound effects are omnipresent in the film. Chaplin composed the music itself. It is the custom, as indicated by the rate of work. When the chain is accelerating, the music also.
– A work of identification picky: ten years before realizing Modern Times, Chaplin visited the Ford factory in Detroit, from which emerge a car every 40 seconds! Assembly lines are impressive especially when the director who is probably inspired to design the sets for his film.
The A relentless satire of Taylorism.
Charlie is struggling with a machine frightening, to gigantic gears. The worker becomes an appendage of the machine. It dictates its furious pace, dehumanizes individuals whose behavior resembles that of a robot (Charlot keeps repeating the same gestures and continues to act as a controller during his lunch break). The man tracing his movements on the workings of the machine and not the other. Worse, it even replaces the men to feed them. Basically, it crushes individuals. Moreover, Charlot is swallowed and is found in the belly of the machine, which digests and disposes. It appears totally crazy.
Where theory would make long speeches about the boring, Chaplin uses humor to better denounce the exploitation of man by man, machine-proxy. Thus, the boss of the company where Charlie works, requires high speed, without considering the consequences on the physical and mental health of his workers. He never addresses them directly, but always by interposed screen. Hence Chaplin represents the class struggle.
We are struck by the modernity of the film and its impact the philosophical ideas in Hollywood. Ultimately, the reality portrayed Charlie is not ultimately that different from that of many workers today, as described by Marx at the 19th century.