M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas
The British-born Charles Chaplin is widely regarded as one of the few true geniuses of American cinema. The son of music hall performers, Chaplin himself began as a child performer in British music halls, first coming to the United States with a touring troupe in 1910–1912. During a second tour of the U.S., Chaplin was seen by pioneering filmmaker Mack Sennett and signed to a contract to appear in films for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company. After a slow start, Chaplin debuted his “Little Tramp” character in the 1914 silent film Kid Auto Races at Venice. This character would go on to become his signature role and one of the most beloved characters in film history; he was the key figure in a large number of classic silent films, including such comedieswritten and directed by Chaplin as The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times, the latter of which marked Chaplin’s belated farewell to the silent era and the beginning of his move into sound.
The vast majority of Chaplin’s films were made for Keystone and other studios before he founded United Artists—along with D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford—in 1919 in order to give artists an opportunity for greater creative control over their work. After that point, Chaplin made fewer films, putting more time and effort into both the creation and the marketing of each, though even his earlier, more hasty productions featured many well-remembered classics, such as The Floorwalker (1916) and The Rink (1916).
Having finally (and reluctantly) joined the move to sound film in Modern Times, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, and starred in another comedy classic, The Great Dictator (1940), which lampooned Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis and sought to generate sympathy for the Popular Front effort to mobilize international opposition to fascism. Though a recognized classic, this film would contribute to Chaplin’s reputation as a leftist sympathizer, which would eventually draw the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and drive Chaplin into European exile; he lived in Switzerland from 1952 until his death.
Chaplin made the dark comedy Monsieur Verdoux in 1947, alienating many of his fans with his portrayal of the title character, a sociopath who is willing to kill to make money. The overt critique of capitalism embedded in this film added to Chaplin’s troubles, as did controversies over his personal life. The 1952 film Limelight, his last film made in America, was hardly released at all in the U.S. until 1972, winning Chaplin his only competitive Academy Award at that time for co-writing the film’s musical score. However, Chaplin was given honorary Oscars in both 1929 and 1972, the latter of which he accepted on a triumphant return to the U.S. after 20 years of exile. He also won Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director for The Great Dictator and for the screenplay of Monsieur Verdoux.
Chaplin’s last two films as a director, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), were made in Great Britain and were not widely seen in the U.S. However, while he also starred in the first of these, he appeared only in a brief cameo role in the latter, which featured Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren in the lead roles and was Chaplin’s only film to be made in color.
Modern Times, which is in a sense both Chaplin’s final silent film and his first sound film, is one of the classic landmarks of American film, both because of its place in the evolution of film technology and because of its crucial commentary on the place of technology within the modern world as a whole. The film was released seven years after the advent of integrated sound technology, and only someone with Chaplin’s clout in Hollywood—gained from his stupendous success in the silent-film era—could have possibly gotten such a film made (both because it is still largely silent and because of its suggestions of leftist politics).
In some ways, Modern Times is a dystopian work that describes the potential horrors of mechanization and industrialization in a mode reminiscent of earlier films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), while suggesting the political oppression that might accompany growing technologization in a mode that anticipates later works such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). Yet Chaplin’s Tramp, carried over from the earlier silent films, remains his lovable self, and Modern Times conducts its social critique in a charmingly comic mode that is entirely lacking in most dystopian works, including an upbeat ending. Moreover, Chaplin’s film is quite specifically set in the midst of the Depression of the 1930s and thus has a direct contemporary topicality that sets it apart from most dystopian satire, which may involve a critique of contemporary society, but which typically does so through a mode of defamiliarization achieved through settings in times or places distant from those being commented upon.
Modern Times begins with a symbolic shot of a giant clock face, followed by suggestive parallel shots of a herd of sheep and a stream of workers going into a modern factory to begin their shift. We are thus immediately introduced to the notion of the tyranny of the clock in the modern factory, which reduces workers to the status of a herd of sheep, blindly following the tasks that are given to them but having no opportunity to exercise creativity or ingenuity of their own. One of the crucial points made by Modern Times concerns the notion of the routinization of life under modern capitalist, and Chaplin’s diagnosis of this phenomenon is very much in line with that of the pioneering German sociologist Max Weber, who felt that—in the interest of greater efficiency and productivity—capitalism had, over time, stripped all sense of magic from the world, leaving a coldly rational economic engine in its place.
Chaplin’s lowly Tramp can be seen as a figure who, despite his seemingly humble status, stands as a sort of culture hero because he has refused to lose his sense of wonder in the face of this rationalized world. Thus, no matter how hard the factory attempts to make him just a cog in its machine, he retains his humanity, even if it nearly costs him his sanity. Indeed, in the course of this film, he will encounter one blow after another but will never lose his ability to believe in love and romance and in the possibility of a better life.
The film continues as the workday begins in the factory, though the emphasis briefly shifts upstairs to the management offices of the Electro Steel Corporation, owners of the factory. This segment is also important because of its introduction of sound. It is significant that the first recorded human voice to appear in a Chaplin film is the voice of the company’s president giving commands over an Orwellian telescreen through which he, Big Brother-like, can keep the entire plant under surveillance. Throughout the film, mechanically reproduced human voices are associated with oppressive authority, while the Tramp continues speechless, his status as a silent-film character who is lost in a sound film further establishing his alienation within modern society.
These telescreens show a suspicion of the possible dehumanizing effects of technology that runs throughout this film—though it is certainly not the case that Chaplin, who pioneered so many innovations in the film industry, was not opposed to technology altogether. The point of Modern Times seems to be that machines should work for humans, not the other way around. Meanwhile, the brief representation of this company president, given to us without overt commentary, is highly telling. For one thing, the president is first shown sitting idly at this desk, attempting (without great success) to work a jigsaw puzzle. This puzzle might perhaps be taken as an emblem of the kind of problem solving that a corporate executive might have to do, but the fact that this president is literally working a jigsaw puzzle rather than solving corporate problems suggests that such high-ranking executives have easy lives with plenty of leisure time—in sharp contrast to the difficult, demanding, and demeaning work that must be done by their employees. The president is also shown reading a newspaper, which might suggest that he needs to keep up with current events in order to make effective management decisions, but the leisurely way in which he handles the paper suggests that he is mostly just idly killing time. We don’t see what he is reading (and he hardly reads at all), but we can see that the back of the paper contains a full-page Tarzan comic, which was at the time a popular comic strip based on the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s a subtle insertion, but a valuable one. Tarzan, however problematic its racial dynamics, is precisely the kind of escapist narrative that might serve as a sort of substitute for the adventure and romance that have been removed from modern life by the demands of capitalism. Beginning with the work of Weber and asking why nonrealist genres such as romance would remain popular in a routinized capitalist world stripped of magic, Fredric Jameson concludes that such genres remained popular as modern capitalism tightened its grip on American society not despite this routinization, but because of it. Amid the impoverished and routinized environment of consumer capitalism, individuals naturally desire something that can imaginatively escape routinization, making the magical worlds of romance attractive as a sign of other possible ways of living in and viewing the world. “Romance,” Jameson concludes, “now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (104).
We next shift to the Tramp working on a Taylorized assembly line, surrounded by huge, menacing machinery while he repetitively tightens nuts in a mechanical fashion that threatens to reduce even the Tramp, that quintessentially human figure, to a machine. Some of the film’s most striking scenes occur during these early moments as the Tramp struggles to keep up with the ever-increasing speed of the conveyors on the line. Some viewers will recognize the futile attempts of the Tramp to keep up with the ever accelerating pace of the conveyer belt as a key inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in the “Job Switching” episode of the classic I Love Lucy television series, in which Lucy and Ethel works in a candy factory and find it impossible to keep up with the pace of the assembly line.
One of the Modern Times’ most comic, but also most telling, comments on the dangers of technology occurs when the Tramp is used to test the new “Billows Feeding Machine,” which is designed automatically to supply workers with food while they stay at work on the line, thus eliminating the need for lunch breaks. This machine thus represents the ultimate in the use of technology to exploit workers, while acknowledging that must eat in order to be able to work. Predictably, the machine goes berserk, pummeling the Tramp and leaving him covered with food.
In another strikingly self-reflexive moment (perhaps the most famous moment in the entire film), the Tramp falls onto the assembly-line conveyor belt and is drawn into the plant machinery, winding through a series of gears in a manner that is unmistakably similar to film being threaded through a projector, suggesting Chaplin’s own sense that, as a filmmaker, he is being overwhelmed by a modern technology that, among other things, forces him to begin using sound in order to survive in the film business. The Tramp emerges from the gears apparently deranged, then runs amok in the plant and finally has to be taken away in an ambulance. The film then cuts to his later release from a mental hospital; we see none of his treatment there, though we can surmise, especially from later events in the film, that the hospital (like the factory and the jail to which the Tramp will later be sent) is a rather carceral institution, in the mode described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish.
Indeed, one of the crucial points made by Modern Times is that the various carceral institutions in which the Tramp finds himself entrapped in the film are not aberrations from mainstream American society but microcosms of it. The harried pace of work in the factory is simply a version of the frantic pace of life in the modern world as a whole. The regimented and controlled nature of life in a jail or mental hospital is not that different from the routinized life that he experiences in the factory—or that we all experience every day.
Although presumably cured, the Tramp is also now unemployed, and he emerges into a Depression world in which jobs are indeed hard to find. On the street, the Tramp picks up a red warning flag that falls off the back of a lumber truck, then waves the flag to try to get the driver’s attention. At this moment, a group of marching workers comes around the corner, carrying signs that demand their economic rights. The police attack and mistake the flag-waving Tramp, because of his red flag, for the communist leader of the workers’ demonstration. The Tramp’s arrest is an injustice, for sure, but the real injustice here is that the police would attack workers who are involved in a peaceful demonstration and would arrest someone simply because they disapprove of his political beliefs, the rhetoric of American political freedom notwithstanding.. Given the restrictions of the Production Code, it was probably impossible for Chaplin to comment here on this fundamental injustice, but any thoughtful consideration of the film makes it clear that a political statement is being made here.
The innocent Tramp does not seem well suited for life behind bars, but we should not forget that he is by this time very accustomed to functioning within carceral institutions. In fact, he gets on well in the jail (while strikes and riots rage outside), which is no more carceral than the factory and the hospital to which he is already accustomed. Indeed, scenes of regimentation of the behavior of prisoners in the jail are obviously designed to suggest a parallel with the regimentation of the workers’ lives in the earlier factory.
After the Tramp is taken to jail, we are introduced to the film’s other major character, the Gamin, fetchingly played by Paulette Goddard, who would marry Chaplin soon after the completion of the film. With her mother dead and her father unemployed, the Gamin is engaged, when we meet her, in stealing bananas to help feed herself, her father, and her two younger sisters, though she shares her bounty with other neighborhood children as well. Soon afterward, her father is killed in street violence; the Gamin and her sisters are sent to an orphanage (another of the film’s carceral institutions), though the Gamin escapes back onto the streets, where she again begins to steal food. The Tramp, meanwhile, has been released as a reward for foiling a jail break while high on an inadvertent dose of cocaine, thus suggesting that no one in his right mind would act in support of modern carceral authority.
Realizing how tough economic conditions are in the outside world, the Tramp longs to go back to jail, where at least he can get free food and a place to eat. He spends the next segment of the film flagrantly breaking the law (an obvious fantasy of freedom from the restraints of modern bourgeois regimentation and routinization) in an attempt to get arrested. In this case, he attempts to take the blame for the Gamin’s theft of a loaf of bread, though a witness foils his attempt by identifying the Gamin as the thief.
The Tramp next goes into a restaurant and eats an elaborate meal for which he cannot pay, again hoping to get arrested, but tellingly doing so in a Depression-situated way that involves a quest for food. He is indeed arrested and taken away in a paddy wagon, in which he is joined by the newly arrested Gamin. The two then escape together after the wagon is involved in an accident. Observing a scene of suburban tranquility, the two dream of someday having a nice home together. The Tramp resumes his search for work toward that end and soon lands a position as a night watchman in a department store. He invites the Gamin to join him inside during his shift, and the two frolic among the abundant commodities that stock the store awaiting purchase by well-to-do customers, in powerful contrast to the poverty that reigns on the streets outside.
The sequence in the department store serves as a clear commentary on consumerism, which was still marching onward for the rich, even as the poor were struggling to feed themselves and their families. Amid the poverty and hunger of the Great Depression, the store is stacked to the rafters with luxury goods—goods that only a small percentage of Americans could have afforded at the time. The Tramp and the Gamin amuse themselves by fantasizing that they are the kind of rich people for whom the posh goods in this department store are intended, but the scene as a whole reminds us of the stark inequalities in American society, inequalities that had been made even more striking within the context of the Great Depression, when most wealthy Americans blithely continued with their privileged lives, while so many ordinary Americans suffered and even starved.
This night in the store includes, among other things, a famous scene of Chaplinesque physical comedy (reminiscent of scenes from Chaplin’s 1916 film, The Rink) in which the Tramp roller-skates blindfolded in the toy department, repeatedly veering dangerously near the edge of a balcony where the safety railing has been removed for repairs. When some hungry workers break into the store looking for food, the Tramp joins them. He clearly identifies with them far more thanhe ever could with this store’s rich customers. He is discovered the next morning sleeping off his revels and is again sent to jail.
When the Tramp is again released, the Gamin excitedly greets him, announcing that she has found a home for them. They then go together to an abandoned shack that contrasts sharply with their earlier dreams of bourgeois suburban bliss. Hoping for a real home, the Tramp again gets work, this time helping to repair the machinery in his former factory, now about to reopen after an extended shutdown. After a few comic misadventures in the plant, he again finds himself unemployed as the workers decide to go out on strike. As he leaves the plant, he becomes inadvertently involved in an altercation with police (presented, again without comment, as an oppressive body opposed to working-class collective action). He is once again taken to jail, and the cyclic nature of his modern life continues.
As the Tramp serves still another jail term, the Gamin is observed dancing in the street to the music of a carousel; she is then hired to perform in a café that features live entertainment. A success as an entertainer, the Gamin is able to get the Tramp a job in the café as well, working as a singing waiter. Predictably, the Tramp is a comic disaster as a waiter, though Chaplin does show off some nifty athletic skills as he proves able to outmanuever a group of college football players, dodging and spinning through them like a running back. Chaplin then shows off his music hall skills by performing a highly entertaining song and dance. Unable to remember his lines, he sings a nonsense song, “Titina,” simply making up gibberish as he goes along, accompanied by a hilarious comic dance. The Tramp’s first words on film are thus sung, not spoken, and they make no sense, suggesting that there is more to communication than words. Just as things are looking up, juvenile authorities show up at the café to take the Gamin back to the orphanage, and the two have to make an abrupt escape. The film ends the next morning as they walk together, smiling happily despite their recent disappointments, down the middle of a road that extends out of sight into the distance.
This apparent romance ending does not resolve any of the social and economic problems that arise in the film, nor does the film address the problematic fact that the Gamin is underage (though that was less an issue then than it would be now). Goddard, by the way, was more than twenty years younger than Chaplin, but she was still an adult, at twenty-six. Meanwhile, there is evidence that Chaplin, seeking to avoid controversy, toned down the ending to avoid making an explicit statement about the need to take political action to resolve the problems that beset Depression-era America (Maland 146). On the other hand, the ending as it stands suggests that these problems are not easily solved, especially by lone individuals like the Tramp. Meanwhile, the ending may be richer than it appears, as much a parody of a romance resolution as a resolution proper. The Tramp and the Gamin walk off together not into the sunset, per convention, but into the sunrise, suggesting that they are going not into the future but against the grain of history, into the past, where they, as silent-film characters, properly belong. Chaplin thus reluctantly acknowledges the ascendance of modern sound-film technology, while at the same time associating that technology with growing regimentation that makes life in modern times increasingly carceral, imposing bourgeois values that make it impossible for free spirits like the Tramp (who can neither conform to the rules of modern work-oriented capitalism nor cooperate in collective action to oppose capitalist exploitation) to continue to survive. The film’s political statement is potentially powerful, even if Chaplin never overtly expresses his own political position in the film, apparently remaining ambivalent about the ability of art to work significant social change. The film received considerable positive critical reception on the Left, as when Kyle Crichton, writing in Communist Party organ New Masses, noted that “I came away stunned at the thought that such a film had been made, and was being distributed. … To anyone who has studied the set-up, financial and ideological, of Hollywood, Modern Times is not so much a fine motion picture as an historical event.” Given the institutional restraints of Hollywood, Modern Times is indeed a striking political statement and one that remains surprisingly relevant even today, nearly a century later.
Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. Verso, 1996.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage-Random House, 1979.
Howe, Lawrence. “Charlie Chaplin the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Reflexive Ambiguity in Modern Times.” College Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 45–65.
Jaffe, Ira S. “Fighting Words: City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940).” Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context. Edited by Peter C. Rollins, Rev. ed., University Press of Kentucky, 1998, pp. 49–67.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press, 1981.
Jones, Josh. “How Charlie Chaplin Used Groundbreaking Visual Effects to Shoot the Death-Defying Roller Skate Scene in Modern Times (1936).” Open Culture, 5 November 2020, https://www.openculture.com/2020/11/how-charlie-chaplin-used-groundbreaking-visual-effects-to-shoot-the-death-defying-roller-skate-scene-in-modern-times-1936.html. Accessed 6 January 2022.
Maland, Charles. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton University Press, 1989.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Translated by Talcott Parsons. 1930. Routledge, 1995.
 Modern Times was self-financed by Chaplin and distributed by United Artists, the company Chaplin co-founded. Few other artists would have had the combination of cash and connections to be able to make such a film.
 Chaplin’s leftist politics would become more overt in The Great Dictator (1940), which lampooned Hitler and the German Nazis in a mode that was very much aligned with the politics of the leftist Popular Front but was very much opposed to the official American policy of attempting to avoid confrontation with the Nazis. (On the relationship between the Popular Front and American culture, see Denning.) The Great Dictator is still recognized as one of the great comic classics of American film, and it certainly seems hard to imagine that criticizing Hitler might be problematic, but this film was the beginning of the end of Chaplin’s career in American film, leading to a decline in popularity that would be followed by effective exile.
 Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) was an American mechanical engineer who pioneered methods of achieving greater efficiency in factory production. His 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management was hugely influential during the rise of American consumer capitalism as American businessmen sought to develop more efficient means of producing goods to feed the expanding consumer markets. At the same time, Taylor was also admired by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, who hoped that Taylor’s efficient methods would allow Soviet production to expand, while freeing up more time and energy for Soviet workers to do things other than work. Chaplin clearly disagreed with this assessment.
 Chaplin was a major influence on Lucy, as can perhaps be gleaned from this clip:
 Chaplin’s skating is very skillful in this scene, but he was not actually skating on the edge of a precipice. The scene was cleverly achieved via some matte paintings in a move that was, at the time, a groundbreaking visual effect, reminding us that Chaplin was not entirely opposing to advances in filmmaking technology. See Jones.
 The final scene is set at dawn. As the Tramp and the Gamin walk along a road, their shadows are cast behind them, suggesting that they are walking eastward, into the sunrise. (On the other hand, they have very short shadows, which doesn’t match the dawn setting, so it could also be that Chaplin really didn’t think much about the shadows or their directions.)
 For a discussion of the general political implications of this and some other Chaplin films, see Jaffe. On the political ambivalence of Modern Times, see Howe.