Though Modern Times was made in the mid 1930s, many of its themes and situations are just as relevant today as they were back then. Men are still slaves to machines in more than just the workplace. We strive to keep up with the latest, fastest technology, though these days our machines are much smaller. And earning a living is still not easy to come by or easy to keep. Much of the working class is still toiling and scraping by working to make the machines of industry turn.
In the film, Charlie Chaplin plays a factory worker. His job is to mindlessly tighten bolts on a conveyor belt assembly line. The work is fast paced and makes for some great gags, some of the most memorable scenes in the film. After the worker suffers a nervous breakdown and is released without a job, he accidentally gets in a union protest parade and arrested for being a communist leader. His time in jail is peaceful and happy once he wins over the guards. Being released back into society, with no job or home is tough and he tries to get back in jail. But a young girl (Paulette Goddard) trying to make it on her own helps him make another try in these harsh modern times.
There is a wonderful daydream scene in the film that inspires the worker to get back to work when he and the girl are down on their luck. He imagines owning a cozy little home with the girl. There is comfy furniture, a big piece of meat in the skillet, ripe grapes to pick right out the door and a cow that walks up and automatically dispenses fresh milk. Everyone has their pie in the sky fantasies of the American dream, and this one is more sweet than outlandish.
My favorite scene in the film is testing out the feeding machine. With the feeding machine, workers will not have to stop working to eat their lunch. To keep up production, the machine will feed them, brilliant! Our innocent Trampy worker is the guinea pig for the machine and can’t move as the machine pushes bites of food into his mouth and malfunctions splashing soup all over him. When the rotating corn cob feeder goes haywire and spins against his face so hard it must have nearly rubbed off his iconic mustache, I laughed much more than I expected. The whole scene is hilarious and wonderful fun.
What Modern Times is to me is Chaplin’s commentary on where he thought the world was heading. Henry Ford’s assembly line was still a new concept and the depression was leaving men desperate to do any work they could. Tensions over unions made work even harder to find and less secure. Too much industrialization was making men lose their individuality and become parts of the machines. How wonderful that Chaplin didn’t have to say a word to convey that idea, he just needed an image of a man moving along the massive gears and still bent on tightening those nuts.
“Hey you! Get back to work!”