While I love old movies, there are all too many whose greatness is based on being innovative… for the time. I appreciate The Jazz Singer for what it did for sound cinema, but I hardly get super jazzed about watching it (sorry Jolson fans). But there’s something about a Charlie Chaplin movie that just never gets old, and Modern Times is no different. The humor translates into belly-roaring laughter in 2011 like I imagine it did in 1936. The destabilizing stresses of an increasingly fast-paced work environment coupled with, as the film’s opening intertitles proclaims, the American “pursuit of happiness,” creates a visible contradiction between the good life and how to get it that feels as relevant today as it did in the Depression era.
Modern Times is a film written, produced, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin. It was distributed by United Artists, a film studio he helped cofound in 1919 along with cinema heavy-hitters Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. As if that weren’t enough, Chaplin also composed the film’s score, including the original, lyric-less version of “Smile.” A song that would be later adapted for a Nat King Cole recording in the 1950s, only to be covered by artists from Judy Garland to Michael Jackson over the next half-century. Music or movies, whatever Chaplin touched either fell on someone’s head or turned to gold. And both can be said of Chaplin’s iconic character, the Tramp.
The boat-shoed, micro-mustachioed Little Tramp in his oversized pants and undersized jacket returned for his last appearance in Modern Times, where the hapless chap tries and hilariously, repeatedly fails to make it in the new industrialized world. The movie begins with the Tramp working in the Electro Steel factory, tightening screws on boards passing down the assembly line at Mach speed. The Little Tramp can’t keep up and can’t even scratch an itch without falling behind. At the same time, the factory manager shouts to the beefy, shirtless foreman to speed it up. Chaplin’s arms and legs spaz out after he’s been at the machine so long his motions become uncontrollable, an automated function of muscle memory programmed after repetition. Earlier, when Chaplin gets to take a break, the manager comes on a wall-size monitor screen and barks at the Tramp to get back to work, so the Tramp goes back to the line and tightens screws and tightens screws and tightens screws.
Released in 1936, Modern Times came out over a decade after the release of sound cinema “talkies.” Yet Modern Times has all the traits of a silent film, with a few notable exceptions. Chaplin feared the Tramp’s magnetism and mystery would be lost if the character ever spoke. So he didn’t. The Little Tramp does sing at the end of Modern Times, but does so without actually saying anything. Instead, the Tramp’s final performance (in both Modern Times and Chaplin movies altogether) is a gibberish song he sings on the fly in a franco-italo fusion of language and nonsense. I’m talking lyrics such as:
La spinach or la busho,
Cigaretto porto bello,
Ce rakish spagoletto,
Ce le tu la ti la trois!
Senora fila scena,
voulez-vous la taximeter,
Le jaunta sur la seata,
Je le tu le tu le waaah!
It’s fantastically catchy. I don’t know Michael Jackson neglected to cover this one as well. But a singing tramp wasn’t the only sound exception. Interestingly, the few other moments where dialogue appears are always delivered through some mediator (think, Big Brother style screen on the whole back bathroom wall) and by some authority figure (think, the comic-reading manager). Through sound, as well as story, social discrepancies are revealed through the contrast between authority figures and characters like the starving, orphaned Gamin. None of the workers get an audible voice.
In these and many other moments, Chaplin’s slapstick comedy comes with a commentary on many of the social and industrial systems operating during the Great Depression. Just decades earlier, Henry Ford developed the assembly line process that ushered in large-scale mass production. By the time Modern Times came out, Ford’s assembly line strategy had trickled over to the factories of other automakers, and one of the world’s richest men and once top car maker had to develop strategies to compete. Ford, who once offered workers a $5 workday (double what other plants were offering at the time), opted to tighten supervision, restrict at-work freedoms (just unreasonable things, like talking to co-workers or taking a bathroom break) and finally, dramatically kick up the pace of production. The factory scenes in Modern Times are an exaggerated form of “ Fordism,” displaying the mental spiral of a worker being forced to operate at inhuman levels of production. Chaplin even spoke of realistic exaggeration in a 1915 interview with Victor Eubank where he said, “In fact, naturalness is the greatest requisite of comedy… I believe in realism absolutely… My comedy is actual life, with the slightest twist or exaggeration, you might say, to bring out what it might be under certain circumstances.”
The factory sequences also exaggerate and reflect Marxist’s Theory of Alienation. In Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx notes four key factors in Alienation as it relates to human life and labor. He observes that in industrial capitalism, workers are estranged from 1. the process of production, 2. the product they create, 3. other workers and 4. their own humanity. Marx believed that when a worker loses the ability to create work that is self-controlled and meaningful to him, he loses his very autonomy, and even his very life. He saw industrial production as a degrading force against human nature and free, meaningful activity that turned people into mindless, replaceable parts in a machine. And in Modern Times, Chaplin literally falls into the conveyer belt and becomes just another cog in a giant machine. The same thing occurs when a mechanic falls into another machine later and the lunch bell sounds as the Tramp tries pulling on levers and the man’s arms to pull him out. Giving up, the Little Tramp sits down to eat, but on the mechanic’s orders, feeds the trapped worker. In this moment, the earlier problem of how to eliminate lunch breaks through mechanized eating machines is solved. The mechanic can eat in work, instead of just at work. Of course, even though the Tramp was forced to play Subject A in an automated eating experiment, as if the hunger of man were like the needs of gears to be oiled and tightened to keep production going, the eating scenes are two of the funniest in the entire film.
Charlie Chaplin was a master at making ordinary moments side-splittingly funny and critical at the time. As Chaplin himself said, “No matter how senseless a thing may seem on the screen, I think that if it is studied carefully it can be traced back to life, and is probably an everyday occurrence, which the would-be critic of the farce had never thought to be a bit funny.” Perhaps Chaplin alone could make two struggling kids in the Great Depression, starving from lack of food and work the comedic success that it was and is. Since he started making the movies, the want-to-be “tragedian” has been making people want to wear derby hats and laugh at our ridiculous world. As early as 1916, Miriam Teichner saw Charlie Chaplin and wrote, “if there could be such a thing as a smile with a man instead of a man with a smile, Charlie Chaplin’s smile is it.” Whether it’s the smile he composed or the smile he gives Paulette Goddard before they walk into the sunset down an open road together, it’s clear it will be around longer than that stretch of uncertain horizon the Tramp and the Gamin set foot on.
Additional Works Consulted:
Charlie Chaplin Interviews, edited by Kevin J. Hayes (2005 University Press of Mississippi)
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.