Charles Chaplin was the last holdout in an industry that had uncritically turned its mode of production away from the visual developments of the end of the silent period to the spoken word and the theatrical trappings which that change entailed. In 1931, two years after the end of the silent period, Chaplin directed City Lights; five years later came Modern Times, his last film to extensively and specifically employ silent film strategies. A stylistic anachronism, the film was both a tribute to the glories of the silent period and a sociological perspective on industrialized society. If Chaplin considered sound likely to become an enslavingly mechanized aspect of movie making, he rendered that vision nonsensically by portraying himself as the factory worker forced to undergo a new approach to factory life – eating while working, using both mouth and body simultaneously. Not surprisingly, this experiment in modernization has disastrous consequences for our hero, the machine designed to feed the worker running disastrously amuck, serving food but rendering it inedible. Having been served by a machine, Charlie is later literally served to a machine. The film becomes a satire on the mechanization of thought and industry, a plea for the reinstitution of human individual values over those of industrialization and mass production.
The year of Chaplin's City Lights – 1931 – was also the year of À nous la liberté, René Clair's film attacking mechanized society. Both films share an assembly line scene of humorous yet socially critical implications; both directors posit a rather utopian ending in which man abandons the mechanized world for a life of individual freedom outside the urban landscape; both resist the use of dialogue as a naturalistic element of filmmaking. Although À nous la liberté contains some dialogue, the strength of the soundtrack is an operetta of sounds and music, occasional pieces of dialogue being part of that source. In Modern Times, machines, not people, are allowed voice, Chaplin using the musical soundtrack to evoke the sentimental nostalgia inherent in all of his films and ultimately to introduce us to the tramp's heretofore unheard voice, when, near the end of the film, he finds employment as a singing waiter. In this scene Chaplin defies the law of naturalism by singing a lyric totally in gibberish, preferring to detail the song's narrative through the brilliance of his pantomime. Here he recapitulates his belief that actions speak louder than words by rendering the words superfluous.
When Modern Times was released, Tobis, the company that controlled the rights to À nous la liberté, brought suit against Chaplin for his "borrowing" from Clair. The suit, however, was never brought to court because of Clair's refusal to sanction the action: Clair claimed that he had been greatly inspired by Chaplin, and that if that director had been inspired by him in return, he was greatly honored. Critics of the day generally noted the similarities between the two films but rarely to the detriment of either.
The staple Chaplin narrative involved a struggle, and in Modern Times the tramp is shown encountering the modern urban landscape with its overabundance of menacing institutions. He assumes a variety of occupations from nightwatchman to singing waiter, from worker on the assembly line to worker at a shipyard. Each time his employment is short-lived, not because Charlie is incapable but because his human qualities interfere with the system. In the factory, the monotony of his job as a bolt tightener reduces him to a machine off the job – he is unable to stop fulfilling his mechanized duties, continuing to tighten everything in sight: noses, waterplugs, buttons, etc. This problem takes him to a hospital where, after recovering, he returns to the streets. There, picking up a red warning flag which has fallen off a truck, he unwittingly becomes the front man in a parade of radicals, his carrying of the flag landing him in jail. He unwittingly thwarts a jailbreak for which he is rewarded first with more luxurious quarters, then to his dismay, with an honorable discharge. Back in the work force, he gets a job at a shipyard, only to be fired when he accidently and prematurely launches a new ship. Continuing along the path where good intentions misfire, he meets the gamine. He witnesses her act of thievery, realizes that it is provoked by hunger, and attempts to take the rap. Unfortunately, an eye witness thwarts Charlie's intentions, and the girl is taken away. Incensed, he goes about purposely committing a crime: he enters a restaurant and, after eating a large meal and smoking the best cigars, admits to having no money to pay. Gamine and tramp meet through their mutual arrests and escape together to the (dis)comfort of her waterfront shack, the location of which allows Chaplin some of his most elegant balletics, notably his dive into two feet of water in an attempt to cleanse himself.
Once again Charlie attempts to integrate himself into the modern system, this time by taking a job as a nightwatchman in a department store. Misplaced confidence in some friendly burglars ends in his being sent back to prison. When he is released, the gamine is waiting and takes him to his next job, that of a singing waiter. No sooner does he enjoy some success at this job than a juvenile court officer comes looking for the gamine. Deciding to forsake this entertainment industry job, he and the girl go arm in arm into the sunset, unemployed but happy. Optimism infuses this final image, but as always, pessimism has been firmly situated throughout: his aesthetic rejection of cinematic advances, his moral rejection of industrialization.
This last scene, the indestructible tramp walking into the sunset empty of hand but full of heart, is but one of many references in this film to Chaplin's silent comedies. In the factory he converts the moment of despair into one of humor, notably when the feeding machine goes beserk, and by so doing refers to the slapstick comedy of the teens when food was used as an arsenal rather than as goods for consumption. In the parade scene he reinterprets the meaning of an object – the flag's being transformed from a warning of danger to a symbol of freedom from incarceration; in the toy store he reinvents his roller skating scene from The Rink (1916); in the restaurant he recreates his Gold Rush dinner scene, changing the food from sustenance for the stomach to sustenance for the spirit by using the duck first as a football then a chandelier ornament rife with delight rather than calories. Throughout the film Chaplin continues to assert his belief that actions speak louder than words, that the dictum "don't bite the hand that feeds you" is fallacious, that optimism must prevail despite omnipresent pessimism and adversity, and that one must continue to uphold the values that have served him well in the past. The reappearance of Chester Conklin and other silent film players in this film further strengthens Chaplin's ode to the past and past values.
Initially a financial failure, Modern Times has since been hailed as one of Chaplin's most eloquent social statements. Accused of embodying Red propaganda, the film was banned in Germany and Italy, and in Austria it was trimmed of the flag waving scene by incensed censors. At best a flirtation with radical politics, its real message lies in the rejection of modern urban life and the need for the reinstitution of human rather than mechanical values. With Modern Times Chaplin retained his position as spokesman for the underprivileged.
Essay by Doug Tomlinson
Release Date: 1935
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Chester Conklin, Stanley Sandford, Louis Natheux, Hank Mann, and Allan Garcia
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Source Citation: Tomlinson, Doug. "Modern Times." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 794-796.