MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936)

Despite a thin patch here and there, Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times is one of cinema’s greatest satirical comedies. Chaplin’s last silent comedy (but for industrial noises, a little narrative voiceover, and his celebrated music and a nonsense song), Modern Times includes comedic sketches and bits that Chaplin had performed in other films twenty or so years earlier, and Chaplin, the greatest male actor in films, relies on his familiar persona of Charlie the Tramp to carry his central role. (This would prove to be the last appearance in film of the medium’s most recognizable character—film’s signature icon, critic Andrew Sarris has called it.) There is no depth to it, say, as there is to Chaplin’s performance of the Tramp six years earlier in City Lights. But why does Chaplin repeat himself in this way along two lines of the film’s presentation? The film is so formally radical and so tonally complex it perhaps benefits by being thus otherwise grounded in the sturdily familiar. Although not of the same rank as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights or The Great Dictator (1940), Modern Times is terrific.

In some ways it resembles an hilarious version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but not one resolved in a reconciliation between labor and management. Chaplin’s comedy is about the plight of the ordinary man as he struggles to survive in a depressed economy; it is about someone who seeks to be reconciled with life. In some of its scenes the film also has about it an air of futurism; but, as they say, the future is here (as indeed Metropolis also suggested). Charlie’s series of jobs, pursued when he is not doing time in prison, always underscores rather than stabilizes the precariousness of his position both as worker and as human being. Charlie works to the full, but his familiar ill-fitting garb, including the oversized shoes connecting him (as they do all clowns) to Oedipus (Western civilization’s ultimate figure of vulnerability), baggy pants and too-small everything else, reminds us that, for all his best efforts, Charlie can never “fit in” but must remain in some sense one of society’s outcasts. At film’s end he is on the road again, searching for the home in America that hopefully lies somewhere ahead. It’s true that he winds up with a companion, the gamin played by Chaplin’s actual wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, but so did he end up partnered, in another time and place, in Chaplin’s masterpiece, The Gold Rush, and just up ahead was the bereftness and isolation conferred on the Tramp by The Circus (1928) in its devastating conclusion. In Chaplin’s major films, we constantly see Charlie at work, and yet he remains the Tramp—an index of the elusiveness of the American Dream.

Modern Times opens with a clock approaching six o’clock, the morning hour that sets American blue-collar workers into motion for the daily grind. (The clock’s gigantic appearance—its face fills the whole screen—helps enforce the generalization. The clock also pushes forward by four hours the clocks in Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 Underworld that indicate the time when criminals set out to do their work, thus identifying ordinary workers with society’s starkest outcasts.) Wittily superimposed on the opening credits to identify those who worked on the film with those watching the film in a theater during the Great Depression, this image finds these new words superimposed on it: “‘Modern Times.’ A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”—this last, a phrase from the American Declaration of Independence that had originally been proposed to read “the pursuit of property.” Chaplin’s irony digs into the word pursuit, perhaps reminding one of Alfred Tennyson’s image of perpetually unfulfilled aspiration in the Victorian English poem “The Lotos-Eaters”: “Is there any peace/ In ever climbing up the climbing wave?” But it is the entire phrase “pursuit of happiness” that Chaplin’s irony shatters next, for an overhead shot of penned sheep forced through a chute dissolves into another overhead shot, this one of a pack of factory workers, on their way to work, moving up into the street from a subway station. It’s all mechanical routine that these human beings passively enact. Hence, no thought of theirs is involved; hence, the only “pursuit” is blind, dumb biological pursuit of the sort that the Victorians identified with evolutionary instinct (“survival of the fittest”), and of course there’s no happiness, either in the moment or in any future moment anyone is mindfully pursuing. Chaplin thus introduces one of the film’s principal themes, dehumanized humanity and, as the film unfolds, even Chaplin’s routine rendering of the Tramp, a character of such richness in The Gold Rush, The Circus and City Lights, contributes to the development of this theme.

In Modern Times Chaplin is the quintessential erstwhile worker trying his hardest, whether as a factory assembly-line worker, a shipyard worker, a night watchman on perilous roller skates, or a singing waiter whose “song” is utterly nonsensical—this last reflecting not only Chaplin’s disparagement of “talkies” but also the alienation between a worker and his work (the masculine pronoun holds for the time that the film portrays), which functions as a corollary to the theme of laboring humanity’s dehumanization.

However, it is on the assembly line—Henry Ford’s invention—that we meet Charlie the Worker in Modern Times, which in epic fashion begins in the middle of things. When this happens, he has already been contextualized both outside the factory, by the routine of workers I have described, and inside the factory, by Electro Steel’s maniacal surveillance and control of its factory workers. Before we see Charlie, we see the company’s president watching his workers on a giant monitor and breathing down their necks through instructions to his foremen: “Section 5—speed her up; . . . Section 7, more speed.” The “new efficiency” of intensified productivity has transformed the workplace into a torture chamber, although merely the monotony of Charlie’s single small job on the assembly line, tightening nuts with two wrenches on every unit that passes him on the conveyer belt, might be enough to induce madness. However, the surveillance that dogs him even in the bathroom compounds the difficulty he must endure. A cigarette break just can’t be tolerated, and lunch is more or less on the way out, too, given the Billows Feeding Machine that is tested out on poor Charlie: an automated system for speeding up workers’ lunch time. (The scene where the system is explained to the company president includes voiceover narration whose mismatch to the flapping lips of Billows employees underscores the unnaturalness of the whole enterprise.) Well, Charlie is quite undone by this “lunch break,” which, rather than providing him with a respite from work, intensifies the degree to which he is a slave to the factory’s drive for profits, no matter the cost to its employees. Having psychologically “merged” with the factory apparatus by dint of his lunchtime experience, after lunch Charlie, back on the assembly line, ends up “eaten up” by the machinery after falling onto the conveyer belt, becoming literally a cog in the machinery’s gear-turnings: a visual metaphor for the mental experience of factory workers in general—hilariously funny, yes; but also one of the most amazing shots in American cinema.

Charlie gets out of this ridiculous situation, a comical exaggeration of routine factory injury and death, but he does so at a price. In the throes of nervous convulsions simulating his wrenching activity on the assembly line (what a visual pun Chaplin has come up with here!), Charlie, each hand toting a wrench, aims for the “nuts” that appear like spots before his glazed eyes: the noses of fellow workers; the nipples of ladies underneath their clothes. Dispensing with these assembly-line tools, he goes berserk among the levers and switches of the factory machinery’s main controls, assaulting in effect what has been steadily assaulting him and draining him of his humanity and sanity. After a total collapse back at the assembly line, he is carted off to the booby hatch—an experience culminating in a sorely ironical title: “Cured of a nervous breakdown but without a job, he leaves the hospital to start life anew.” But not refreshed; “[starting] life anew” in this instance means trying to get into the same grind that put him in the hospital in the first place.

This whole episode, of Charlie from factory to hospital and back on the street, “reads” like a comic strip, the medium that accounts for the shallow aspect of Modern Times and which helps formally, throughout the film, to portray Charlie’s existence as a discontinuous thing in search of the social grounding that might give this life depth. Thirty years hence, Jean-Luc Godard would formally draw upon the comic strip for a number of astute and brilliant satirical films, including Alphaville and Pierrot le fou (both 1965); but it is perhaps with Modern Times that the application of comics to cinema begins. Indeed, we might say that two of the three major cinematic influences on Godard began in 1936, for that same year a collective headed by Jean Renoir (and including Jacques Becker and Henri Cartier-Bresson) made La vie est à nous, the elections commercial for the French Communist Party, with its newsreels, speeches, and staged Brechtian bits. (The other major cinematic influence on Godard, from the 1920s, is Dziga Vertov’s open-air Soviet documentaries attempting to catch on the fly “life as it is lived.”) It is worth noting, also, that Godard—think See You at Mao (British Sounds) and Pravda (both 1969)—would see and hear in factories the same alienation and dehumanization that Chaplin saw and heard, and would not associate with machinery the glorious modernity that inspired Sergei M. Eisenstein (The Old and the New, 1929) and Vertov (Enthusiasm*, 1931).

Without doubt, everything involving the gamin, with whom—after her father, one of the demonstrating unemployed, dies on the street—Charlie “plays house” as though they were married and respectable, is stamped with this aspect of a comic strip. This informing quality lends an air of the trivial to such scenes that, in fact, poignantly imply the discrepancy between the “play lives” of the characters and the “real lives” they might be leading were these lives more economically secure and socially integrated in a structured community. The Tramp and the Gamin make do by themselves in an abandoned shack.

The comic-strip lightness and shallowness of Modern Times, then, are capable of disguising how profound a film Chaplin has made. Such elements require analysis as to their artistic purpose for the fullness of Chaplin’s vision to reveal itself. Complementing these elements is the film’s tonal complexity—yet another element that requires analysis lest it also seem lightheaded and throwaway. One episode illustrates this complex tone perfectly. Upon his release from hospital, Charlie accidentally, innocently, ends up leading a protest march carrying a Red flag. (He lands in jail for the incident.) This is all very lightly done, as part of a comic strip again, and the tone might confound those who want Godardian savagery to their satire à la Weekend (1967). But Chaplin’s lightness here reveals the philosophical nature of Modern Times that informs everything in it. It might be expressed thusly: Chaplin hates capitalism and all the miseries it generates, but he loves life more than he hates capitalism. Thus the “sentimental” close of the film as the Tramp and the Gamin take to the open road—a scene Mark Donskoi would invoke beautifully at the close of The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)—isn’t at all a cop-out of wishful (and wistful) optimism amidst a harrowing thicket of urban poverty and dire circumstance. This ending isn’t, as it might at a glance appear, “tacked on.” Rather, it expresses the philosophical nature of the entire film, bringing the film to thematic fruition and completion. That is why it is so moving.

Well, that’s not the only reason the ending moves us. There is also that heartrending melody that Chaplin composed. “Smile.” This became one of two secondary anthems of the Depression. The primary one, of course, is Al Jolson and “Yip” Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The other secondary one would be Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.”

Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, edited and scored Modern Times. (The cinematographers were Rollie Totheroh and Ira Morgan.) The film was banned in Germany and Italy—given the time, a badge of honor. It was most successful in France, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The most celebrated American film of 1936, it received not a single Oscar nomination, not even for Chaplin’s music. The Great Ziegfeld, with its lavish musical numbers, won the best picture Oscar that year.

Noting similarities between its assembly-line scenes and those in René Clair’s A nous la liberté (1932), the studio that had produced the latter, which had been headed by Joseph Goebbels (by the time of Modern Times, Hitler’s chief propagandist), had begun legal proceedings against Chaplin and his film. These dissolved instantly when Clair, whose Emile in A nous la liberté was based on Chaplin’s persona, declared, “All of us flow from [Chaplin,] whom I admire[,] and I am honored if he was inspired by my film.”

I love a number of Clair films (Paris qui dort, Entr’acte, The Italian Straw Hat, Under the Rooftops of Paris, Le million, Quatorze Juillet), but for all its formal brilliance I find A nous la liberté very cold and arch. The best thing about the film is that it helped bring us Modern Times.

* I know, I know: Chaplin professed such excitement about Vertov’s Enthusiasm. Nonetheless, his Modern Times criticizes some of what Enthusiasm exalts.

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