"Modern Times"

Directed by Charles Chaplin
Script and musical score: Charles Chaplin
Released 1936
With Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and others

The first shot of the film shows a huge clock on which the seconds hand moves inexorably toward the top of the hour. The symbolism is clear: People live under the tyranny of mechanically measured time--the dictatorship of the clock. "Time is money,” after all, and people are supposed to hurry. They strain to keep up with their schedules and deadlines, and with crowds of people on the move.

Workers pour out of a subway station and hurry toward factory gates—much like a herd. The point is driven home by a shot of running sheep. One of the sheep, however, is black: a first hint at the outsider role that the protagonist of the story is to play.
Work starts inside the spotless and highly automated factory of the Electro Steel Corporation. Under the supervision of the top manager (Allen Garcia), who observes the entire operation on big television screens, a foreman (Sammy Stein) sets in motion the central machine and the various assembly lines. We see the nameless protagonist of the story (Charles Chaplin) at a conveyor belt as he tightens screws on boards that pass by. Like those of his fellow-workers beside him, his repetitive movements are machine-like and tense. The slightest distraction would disrupt the even process of production. There is no time to even scratch an itch. When a lost bee starts circling Charlie's face, he inadvertently ignores one of the boards passing by. To catch up he has to run down the line to do the required tightening, and in the process he impedes his fellow-workers. The men are annoyed; tensions build up along the line.

The manager, sitting at his desk, orders a speed-up; the operatives have to redouble their effort. They do not think, nor pace or control the motions of their bodies. They are extensions of machines; they are turned into robots. The factory strips them of their humanity.

What we see in these scenes is a parody of "Fordism." In 1914 Henry Ford had introduced the automated assembly line, the device that led to unprecedented increases in productivity and production, and that was destined to become standard procedure in much of the industrial world. Because of the enormous efficiency of his plants, Ford became not only the number one car maker in the world, but also one of the richest men on earth—in spite of paying his workers unusually high wages. His show piece plants were modern, well lit, and exceedingly clean, and workers were well cared for in terms of company housing, medical services, and all sorts of benefits. Because of his successful innovations Henry Ford became something like a prophet of modern industrialism, and enthusiastic writers at the time went so far as to compare his historical significance with that of Napoleon and Jesus.

During the 1920s, however, other car makers began to catch up with this industrial giant, and Ford had to think about ways to become yet more competitive. One of these ways was a general speed-up at his assembly lines. The already tight supervision of the workers became stricter. Operatives were not allowed to talk to each other while working, or to walk at will to water fountains or bathrooms. When workers tried to organize to defend certain rights, unionism was categorically forbidden, and a private police force, including undercover detectives, kept close control of the entire workforce. The pace of production became ever fiercer. Individuals who could not keep up because of age or other reasons were mercilessly weeded out and fired. As time went on, Fordism revealed its negative sides ever more clearly, and the figure of Ford became a rather controversial one. It is the dehumanizing aspect of Ford's production methods on which Chaplin's hilarious factory scenes are a comment.

The conclusion that Chaplin's depiction of the modern workplace suggests (a conclusion amply supported by psychological research) is that such mechanized industrial production is unhealthy for workers, and generally at odds with the natural constitution of human beings. The tyranny of the clock, the hurried pace of production, the monotony of mindless work--they all do lasting damage to the employees who are subjected to such regimented routines. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of “Modern Times” becomes a nervous wreck. But even the manager of the plant, is a victim: His regular consumption of pills suggests that not all is well at the top.

When Charlie tries to sneak in a cigarette break in the bathroom, he is still more or less healthy. When the manager discovers him there by means of a surveillance camera, and when he rudely orders him back to work (it is the huge Big Brother image of the executive that speaks to the surprised employee), Charlie can still jump and run. By the time noon-break comes around, however, and the operatives unpack their lunch pails, Charlie walks like the proverbial working stiff. The motions of his arms have become spastic. When he tries to reposition the soup bowl of his colleague, he splashes the liquid all over the place, thus increasing the tensions among the workers.

As necessary as breaks seem to be for workers to temporarily regain their humanity, they are costly from the standpoint of industrial productivity. The corporation would be better off if lunch breaks could be abolished. A never ceasing increase of productivity is a necessity in an economy that is based on cut-throat competition and the survival of the fittest. A company offering a new device has approached the manager of the Electro Steel Corporation with the promise to abolish the need for breaks. The device is a machine that feeds the worker while he continues working at the line. It will incorporate the operatives still more firmly into the semi-automated production process, and thus make them yet more like cogs in the giant production apparatus.

Significantly, the sales pitch for this machine is itself made by a machine. While the inventor and his staff of engineers stand by proudly, the machine exhorts the manager: "Don't stop for lunch. Be ahead of the competition!” Charlie, who is chosen as the guinea pig for testing the feeding machine, is strapped to its seat.

At first everything goes smoothly. A tray is lifted to the level of Charlie’s face, and pieces of food are shoved into his mouth by a mechanical arm. This is followed by a mounted cob of corn that slowly rotates between Charlie's parted teeth. Each feeding process is followed by the action of an automatic mouth wiper. When a plate of soup reaches Charlie's mouth, however, the machine starts to malfunction. Sparks are flying, and the soup lands on Charlie's shirt. While the inventor and the engineer go to work on the motor, the machine shoves two iron nuts into Charlie's mouth. After he spits them out, the corn cob approaches again and starts spinning wildly under Charlie's nose. Kernels fly in all directions; more soup is splashed into Charlie's face. The mouth wiper, out of control, keeps beating his head. Bigger sparks shoot out of the motor; the whole machine is going berserk. The manager finally sends the inventor and his crew packing. "It's not practical" is his comment.

It does not matter, of course, whether the machine is “practical” or not. Even if it had functioned as intended, it would have been offensive. The philosophical point of the sequence (surely one of the funniest scenes ever filmed) is the denunciation of the logic of automation and total industrialization. In the interest of efficiency and productivity ever more activities of human beings become either regimented or replaced by the actions of machines. Human beings are still necessary to keep the automated production process going, but their activities are more and more subordinated to the requirements and rhythms of automatons. Although workers are still busy and expending their energies, they become increasingly passive: they have no opportunity to take real initiatives. Their very activity is passive. Even their most personal undertakings, such as eating, become regulated, administered, and finally automated. Human spontaneity is incompatible with mass production and modern efficiency.

After the lunch break work at the assembly lines continues. The monotony of the process is interrupted only by occasional speed-ups. The men can barely keep up. Charlie's nerves finally snap: he suffers a break-down. He finds himself prostrate on the conveyor belt, and he disappears into a chute. In a phantasmagoric scene he moves through a labyrinth of turning wheels, while his co-workers frantically try to extract him from these bowels of the factory. When Charlie is finally back on the factory floor, he does not go back to tightening nuts and bolts at the line, but insanely looks for objects that look like these objects: buttons on women's clothing, noses of other workers, fixtures of a hydrant, and so forth. He starts pulling knobs and levers, causing massive electrical shorts and rumbling explosions at the control center. Getting a hold of an oil can he squirts the black liquid into faces. His joy is tremendous. This is a rebellion against machines and regimentation, a dance of freedom and wild celebration of spontaneous living. While colleagues and managers chase him through the plant, the orderlies of a Red Cross ambulance finally get a hold of him and haul him off to a mental institution.

After some weeks the patient is released. The doctor in charge kindly admonishes Charlie to avoid any sort of excitement. But the world into which Charlie is released hardly allows him to stay clear of stress: There are the closed factories and empty offices of the Great Depression, long breadlines, protest demonstrations, attacks by mounted police, larceny, and occasional shootings. As grueling and inhuman as work at the assembly line is, the consequences of not finding work hit the majority of people even harder. As he wanders through the streets, Charlie sees a red warning flag fall off a truck with oversize lumber. He picks it up and waves it to signal the driver to stop. The driver does not notice him, but a protest march of unemployed workers happens to come around the corner, and they end up marching behind Charlie who keeps waving the flag.

It does not take long before the police attack to break up what seems to be a Communist march. Charlie is arrested as a ringleader and sent off to jail. While trying to fit in and to protect himself from the bullying behavior of his cell mate, he accidentally ingests a large dose of smuggled cocaine--which suddenly gives him enormous courage and physical strength. While under the influence he foils a jail-break of some armed inmates, and after that is given luxurious privileges by the appreciative guards. Enjoying good food, an open cell door, and chats with his jailers, he reads in the newspaper about unemployment, labor unrest, and other dramatic events in the outside world. Life in America, as in the rest of the industrial world, is hard enough to make a safe place in jail look like a blessing.

To his dismay he is released once more into the outside world. A letter of recommendation from the Sheriff gets him employment at a ship yard. Because of his inexperience he does not do very well at that job, and he is fired. Again he drifts through the city--hungry and without a place to stay. He finally decides to go back to jail at any cost. To get arrested he orders an opulent meal at a restaurant for which he cannot pay.

While Charlie eats we are introduced to a second protagonist: a spirited street kid (Paulette Goddard) who is shown stealing bananas for herself and her younger siblings. Her father cannot find work. Her brother and sister go hungry. When she gets caught stealing bread, she finds herself in the same paddy wagon as Charlie--both on their way to prison.

The indomitable young woman attacks the guard of the wagon, and she succeeds in escaping with Charlie. Her father is shot dead by police during a riot; and her siblings are picked up by the juvenile authorities. She herself is to be nabbed and sent to a home as well, but she keeps getting away. She finds a dilapidated shack in the wasteland near the industrial waterfront, and she and Charlie start living there. (Their relationship is romantic, but very proper: at night Charlie sleeps in the doghouse adjacent to the shack.) They dream of a regular life in the suburbs, and Charlie redoubles his efforts to find work. By sheer luck he is employed as a night watchman in an upscale department store.

During his first night on the job Charlie sneaks his sweetheart onto the premises, and together they enjoy the luxuries of which the Depression generation kept dreaming: Delicious cake and lavish sandwiches at the soda fountain, a mink coat at the clothing department, a comfortable bed in the furniture section, and more. Their splurge is a vivid reminder that the Great Depression was not simply a time of great poverty, but also a situation of glaring inequality as far as the distribution of wealth is concerned. While large numbers of workers lost their jobs, much larger numbers of workers were still working, and most industrialists were still making fortunes. (Henry Ford, at this time, remained one of the richest men in the world. He continued building luxurious estates for himself and his family, while ruthlessly and sometimes needlessly closing plants and laying-off employees when he deemed his enterprises not profitable enough.)

The nocturnal party of the pair ends with Chaplin's famous roller blades antics above an unnoticed abyss, and his tucking the young woman into bed for the night. After that he takes care of his nightly rounds--only to discover that burglars have entered the store. The burglars intend to tie him up, but they recognize him as a former co-worker. They explain that they are not really criminals: they are desperate men who cannot find work and need food for their families. Their reunion ends in a drinking party, from which Charlie does not wake up until the first customers find him snoring among the fabrics of a sales table. Once more he is fired and hauled off to jail.

When he gets out a week later, the young woman has found him a new job: He is to wait on tables at a cafe where she performs as a dancer. As a waiter Charlie is a disaster, but the proprietor hires him as a replacement when the singer of the cabaret does not show up for work. Charlie is a splendid performer, but he has trouble remembering the lyrics of the song he is to sing. His partner writes the lyrics on his cuffs. When he makes a vivid motion with his arms, however, the cuffs fly off. In this predicament Charlie (whom we know only as a mime in a silent movie) makes up new “words” as he sings:

Se bella pew satore, je notre so katore,
Je notre si cavue, je la ku laqui la kwa!
Le spinask a le busho, cigaretto toto bello
Ce rakish spagoletto, si la tu la tu la twa! ...


The patrons of the cafe have a ball; Charlie's performance is a roaring success. The proprietor offers him a permanent position. Just then, when the story seems to move toward a happy ending, the detectives of the juvenile office emerge from the audience. They have a warrant of arrest for the young woman. Leaving their newly found place of employment behind, the pair makes a narrow escape. We see them, at the end of the film, on the side of a highway one early morning. The young woman is discouraged. "What's the use trying?" she says. Charlie attempts to console her. "Buck up," he says. "We'll get along." With that they get up—weary, but perhaps with some hope. They walk down the empty highway into the sunrise.

Individuals—Powerless and at a Loss

Critics and commentators differed widely with respect to the value of Chaplin's film. Some praised Chaplin's genius for successfully entertaining movie audiences with yet another presentation of his famous character, The Tramp. These critics were glad that "Modern Times," in spite of its references to problems of the Great Depression, did not attempt to convey any social or political message. Other reviewers expressed disappointment that a film of such an important artist as Chaplin, and with such an important topic as indicated by the title, did not make a clearer and politically more significant statement about the society of which the film seemed to be a portrait. Still others thought that the film was unpatriotic, and their resentment did much to further the reputation of Chaplin as some sort of Communist sympathizer and dangerous subversive. (During the years of Joe McCarthy's notorious hunt for Reds this reputation created such an unpleasant situation for Chaplin that the director exiled himself from Hollywood and the United States. He spent the rest of his life in the Swiss Alps.)

There is little doubt that the primary purpose of most of the episodes in "Modern Times" is to get the audience to laugh. Chaplin's vocation, after all, was that of a first rate comedian and producer of entertainment. Scenes like the protagonist's attempt to navigate a roasted duck from the kitchen to a patron's table at the cafe are brilliant highpoints of silent comedy, and they can hardly be said to convey any political message, let alone a subversive one. Other scenes and episodes, however, clearly refer to problems and issues that for many carried a good deal of political weight. No viewer could possibly overlook the social significance of Chaplin's parody of alienated work at Ford’s assembly lines, and most people who lived through the Great Depression would surely have taken note of the fact that Chaplin chose to depict such things as protest marches and police brutality--instead of offering pleasant escapes into the sort of fantasy dramas that were typical for Hollywood productions at the time. The coexistence of plain hunger and luxurious consumer goods in the story will also have reminded viewers that there was a widely discussed problem of fairness and justice with respect to the distribution of income and wealth in America.

The political Left was generally disappointed by Chaplin's film. For "Modern Times" does not point to any causes of the misery that many people experienced during the Great Depression. Nor did the film suggest any remedy for the problems that the protagonist and the audience kept encountering everywhere. Clearly, specific and timely remedies were available, according to the Left, and Chaplin's critics found it disingenuous on the part of the director that he did not make any significant reference to them. Labor Unions, after all, were engaged in massive and militant organizing drives, and several political parties were vociferously calling for the abolition of an economic system that wrought such havoc on the country. Socialists and Communists in particular were advocating an alternative system in which the industrial potential of modern societies would be used to satisfy the needs of all members of society, and not just the desires of those who happen to be able to pay.

Little of all this appears in "Modern Times." Not even the measures of Roosevelt's New Deal were mentioned (although Chaplin was a great admirer of the reform-minded President). And while left-wing parties and unions kept pointing out the necessity to organize collectively, Chaplin's film pointedly depicts an individualistic response to the Great Depression and its hardships. Nowhere does the protagonist of the story sit down and think about the whole of the situation and its causes, and nowhere does he get together with other victims of the economic calamity to demand or work for meaningful social and political change. Although Charlie is clearly part of the herd of sheep shown at the beginning of the film, he is a black sheep, and thus characterized as a maverick who tries to find his own separate way in a situation that calls for collective action.

In the factory of the Electro Steel Corporation Charlie does not act in unison with his fellow-workers, but rather profiles himself as a lone trouble maker who can in the end be isolated and removed from the premises. He is a character who never fits in. And when for once (in the red flag scene) he finds himself marching with the workers who demand work, his seeming solidarity with the marchers is a misunderstanding, an unintended joke. The red flag scene is, in fact, funny because Charlie is the exact opposite of a socially conscious activist. There is no hint anywhere in the film that Charlie would be prepared to join a political movement or even to look at the situation from a social and comprehensive point of view. His perspective is always that of an isolated individual who looks for short-term solutions for his recurring problems.

The film's depiction of the juvenile authorities, too, may indicate an anti-social bias. The conclusion that some viewers may draw, when they sympathize with the run-away youngster, is that it is generally better that orphans be left to their own fate in the streets, rather than being fed, housed and educated by a government organization. Chaplin seems to concur with a view that sees all public institutions as bureaucratic, heartless, and worthy of contempt. It is not surprising, then, that the final image of “Modern Times” is that of a solitary pair of helpless drifters who try to make their way not in a community or the larger context of reliable social structures, but as two social atoms in search of their isolated niche.

It may not be fair, however, to use the individualism of “Modern Times” as a reason for disparaging the film. Charlie’s failure to see his situation from a comprehensive point of view, and to integrate himself into a political movement that could bring about meaningful change, need not necessarily be seen as advocating an ideal, but could also be taken as a description of what typically happens to individuals in modern times. In situations where individuals live in relatively small communities, as in pre-industrial societies, it is much easier for individual citizens to become genuinely active in communal affairs. In a mass society, by contrast, where labor unions, municipalities, or other organizations have grown into huge, impersonal bureaucracies, individuals feel themselves much more easily as isolated, powerless, and disoriented social atoms. "Modern Times" does not necessarily glorify the life of a hapless drifter and his companion, but simply depicts the basic condition of individuals lost among giant corporations, masses of people, indifferent bureaucracies, and the impersonal forces of markets and money. It is, indeed, along the lines of Marx’ Theory of Alienation that Charlie’s individualism can be described most succinctly:

As an industrial worker Charlie is thoroughly alienated from his own activity at the work place. He does not determine the pace of his work, nor the way the final product is assembled from its constituent parts. His mechanical and repetitive motions are void of any thought. The necessary planning and thinking that underlies the industrial process takes place somewhere else; as a hired hand Charlie simply follows the directions of management and the dictates of machines. His daily work is not his work; his exhausting activity is essentially passive. While working at the plant he is anything but an autonomous human being.

As hired labor power Charlie is also estranged from the product of his work--both in an immediate and in an extended sense. What he helps to manufacture for the Electro Steel Corporation is a matter of total indifference to him. The final product, in fact, never comes into view in the film--which is an appropriate expression of the protagonist's separation from and indifference toward it. He certainly does not lavish any love or care on the objects that pass through his hands--unlike an artisan or artist, who works attentively and with care on an individual project. All that matters to anyone at the plant is the quantity of uniform objects that are processed in a given amount of time.

The alienation of workers from their products in an extended sense is equally important. As an industrial worker Charlie is involved in the collective and comprehensive replacement of the natural world by a human-made world. This human-made world in which he works and lives is obviously not under the control of its makers and operators; it is something alien that confronts Charlie and the rest of the workforce in an oppressive and threatening way. Charlie in particular is constantly pushed around by forces and events that are far beyond his personal control and understanding; he is basically nowhere at home in the human-made world that surrounds him. Why people are starving in a country that produces as much food as the United States, why men and women are not working in the midst of well-equipped factories and offices, why the masses are rioting, fighting, or consumed by worries and fears in a land that could be a sort of paradise—all that is a mystery to the protagonist of the story, as well as to the people around him.

The individual's alienation from other workers is a logical consequence of such conditions. Workers who cannot talk to each other on the job, who are strictly supervised by a Big Brother management, and who have no inherent need to think and communicate about what they are doing in their daily routines, tend to become solitary beings--even though modern work is characterized by a high degree of social cooperation, and even though the solitary individuals move together as a crowd. It is one of the paradoxical facts of modern life that there is much more alienation and loneliness in cities, where people live together in great numbers, than in pre-industrial villages, where populations were small and communities often isolated. It is significant that Charlie as well as the young woman is a lonesome figures, in spite of the fact that they constantly have to deal with other people. And although they find solace and pleasure in their partnership, the pair represents in the end a state of deep isolation in the midst of a crowd.

At the beginning of the film a written note projected on the screen announces the film as "A story of industry, of individual enterprise, of humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness." Reviewers have never been sure what to make of the note, but it does seem to say that the film is about the nature of modern industry, about the endeavors of an individual in a mass society, and about the life of all people in modern times. If Charlie thus represents the human condition in modern times, we see him basically as a helpless being--locked into and dominated by a world of machines, pushed around by authorities and bureaucratic institutions, victimized by an economy over which he does not have the slightest control, and deprived of any coherent understanding of the world in which he and everyone else is trying to secure some sort of happiness.

Most of Charlie’s activities are neither deliberate nor planned: the “hero” of the story reacts far more than he acts. Charlie is rather the opposite of someone who develops to become the master of his fate. As imaginative and endearing as he is as a battered and struggling individual, he lacks what should be the essence of an authentic existence: informed deliberation and active self-determination. In light of the Enlightenment idea of active, strong, and self-determined individuals, The Tramp in “Modern Times” represents a failure. The enormous popularity of Chaplin’s figure may well find its explanation in the deep truth expressed in the laughable adventures of Charlie: the longing to live a life worthy of human beings, and the apparent impossibility of finding such a life under modern conditions.

(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies )

Marx: Capitalism and Alienation

Philosophical Films