Modern Times (1936) Review

Modern Times (1936)  Director: Charlie Chaplin

“The story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”


Modern Times is simply a delightful satire lampooning the monotony of our crowded, alienating, efficient, industrialized modern world. In a world of hectic mechanization a lowly, unsophisticated, innocent dreamer like the Little Tramp has no place except perhaps behind bars. The idea for the film was apparently inspired by a conversation between Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi about the potentially destructive forces unleashed by modern technology -imagine that! In the early 1930s Chaplin left Hollywood on a world tour greeting high society everywhere he went. In Europe, he was dismayed by rising nationalism, high unemployment, and increasing technological automation. Modern Times is an amalgamation of Chaplin’s reflections on these concerning trends. The film is one of Chaplin’s towering achievements. It was perhaps the first in a string of Charlie Chaplin films containing certain cultural and political criticisms which brought about accusations of communist sympathies and helped to draw the ire of the FBI ultimately culminating in Chaplin being forced to flee the United States for exile in Switzerland. Interestingly enough, Modern Times predated the publication of George Orwell’s 1984 by thirteen years. Modern Times contains within itself the seed of innumerable science-fiction films.

The story of Modern Times opens with a memorable scene of the Little Tramp being overworked on a Henry Ford-esque factory assembly line. When he sits down to lunch, he is amusingly force-fed by a malfunctioning machine. His overbearing spies on him even in the restroom. The tediousness of his mechanized job rapidly drives him mad as he cannot stop himself from tightening things frantically like the nuts and bolts on the conveyor belt –he has become the embodiment of the anxious, mechanical man. The company sends him off for psychiatric treatment. Once released he decides to start a new life, but he unknowingly picks up a red flag that has fallen off a passing car, which turns out to be a prop in a nearby communist rally. When he is seen waving the flag, the Tramp is arrested and imprisoned by the police. While in jail he accidentally ingests cocaine, a bit of contraband concealed by another inmate in a saltshaker. The Tramp then accidentally wanders into a jailbreak-in-progress, but he unwittingly knocks out the escaping inmates and frees the imprisoned guards who then immediately release the Tramp for his service to the prison’s security. However, his freedom comes much to his own dismay (the Tramp has actually grown to love his comfortable, secure prison life in contrast to the viciousness of the outside world). He long to one day return to the comfort and security of prison. What does this imply about our modern world when jail is preferable to freedom? The rest of the film showcases the Tramp attempting to find his way back to prison. The Tramp’s misadventures lead him into a failed job at the shipyard, he meets a gamine young woman (played by Paulette Goddard who became Chaplin’s third wife) and her orphaned sisters. When the welfare office chases them down the Tramp unsuccessfully attempts to take the blame. He then meanders into a cafeteria, orders a pile of food, and claims he cannot pay for it. En route to jail he reunites with his girl.

Eventually, he lands a job as a nightwatchman at a department store but he loses the position when he is implicated in a burglary and is found sleeping in the women’s apparel section. When he is freed from jail ten days later, we find the Tramp living in a dilapidated shack (which he calls “paradise”) with his girl down by a lake. When new jobs are announced at the factory, the Tramp pushes his way into another job, but he quickly gets his supervisor stuck inside the cogs of a machine and the workers soon go on strike and the Tramp loses his job yet again. Once again, he is imprisoned and when freed, the tramp and the girl get jobs at a restaurant, she dances to show-tunes, while he works as a waiter who becomes a singer of nonsensical tunes (this is the only scene in a Chaplin film in which we hear the voice of the Tramp but he is merely singing Italian gibberish). We are led to believe we will finally hear the Tramp speaks when his girl writes the lyrics to his song on his sleeve, but he still manages to delight audiences with farcical nonsense. However, the authorities track down the couple, forcing them to flee. Dejected, the Tramp and his girl wander off into a comically silly sunset down a country road together as the movie ends. Modern Times is a charming commentary on the absurdity of modern technological efficiency in the face of organic human life. Appropriately, Modern Times is also a social protest against the advent of synchronized sound in “talkie” films. It is Chaplin’s last silent film and the last time the Tramp would grace the silver screen.

Modern Times was one of Chaplin’s longest productions, shooting lasted from 1932-1936. As an auteur, the film was written, directed, produced, and starred Charlie Chaplin. He performed alongside his wife at the time, actress Paulette Goddard. The couple departed for a trip together shortly after the film’s release and then divorced in the 1940s. Modern Times was Chaplin’s first film since City Lights in 1931. Amusingly enough, Modern Times was later caught in litigation with the German producers of René Clair’s, À Nous la Liberté, claiming plagiarism. However, Clair was a great admirer of Chaplin and was embarrassed by the lawsuit. The lawsuit was settled many years later after the end of World War II, and it has been speculated to be an attempt at vengeance on behalf of the Nazis for Chaplin’s critique of fascism in The Great Dictator.

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