I’m on a 12-hour shift! I just lost my medical benefits! Whee!
If Charles Dickens had written Metropolis, the result might have been something like Modern Times. In a way, it accomplishes everything Metropolis sought to do, without the overblown symbolism, and delivers bleak truth rather than pseudo-Christian bromides.
Filmed in 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is the very last of the authentic silent films. There are recorded sound effects and mechanical voices, and one song in improvised gibberish, but all spoken dialogue by humans is silent and represented with screen cards. Chaplin was deliberately creating an anachronism, a wistful farewell to the Little Tramp. Modern Times is also a masterpiece of social science fiction.
Many of the opening images echo those in Metropolis. A vast clock face fills the screen; then we see multitudes of shift workers reporting to a vast modern factory. We see a grim-jawed Corporate President who bears a certain resemblance to Joh Fredersen, idly playing with a jigsaw puzzle at his desk. When he can’t make the pieces fit he discards the puzzle, takes his meds, and turns on the closed-circuit TV so he can spy on his factory workers. Now and again he barks an order into a microphone, urging his employees to speed up production.
We see an assembly line on which the Little Tramp as Factory Worker is laboring at a frantic pace, wrench in either hand, tightening pairs of bolts. He can’t work at the speed of a robot, and so is pulled into the machinery. Production shuts down while he is hauled out unhurt. His foreman, noticing that he seems to have a problem with repetitive motion tics, sends him to clock out for a break. No sooner does he relax in the toilet with a cigarette than the Corporate President spots him on the CC TV (yes, there are spy cameras even in the john) and orders him to get back to work. Next, as the workers break for lunch, a group of salesmen attempt to demonstrate a new automatic-feeding device that will improve efficiency by eliminating the need for a lunch break: food can be stuffed down the worker’s throats as they continue to work on the assembly line! The machine is tested on Chaplin’s Factory Worker, but suffice to say there are some design flaws. Having been doused with hot soup, choked, shaken and obliged to spit out steel bolts, the Factory Worker returns to his shift, where things go from bad to worse. He goes berserk, in a brilliantly choreographed sequence, and is hauled off to a hospital, gaily spurting oil in all directions.
Upon being released from the hospital, the now-jobless Little Tramp is himself like one of the discarded puzzle pieces: he doesn’t fit anywhere. His gentlemanly attitude works against him: picking up a red flag that has fallen from a passing truck, he is mistakenly arrested as the leader of a Socialist parade and thrown in jail. Here a prisoner stashes his cocaine in a salt shaker in the mess hall, and the Tramp inadvertently partakes. Wildly coked up, he puts down a prison uprising single-handedly and is rewarded with model prisoner perks. Life is good until he’s dumped back onto the street again. He gets a short-lived job at a shipyard, losing it with one of the neater sight gags ever filmed.
Now we meet the Gamine, a Poor Child of the Streets. I was prepared to wince, but Paulette Goddard is great in the role. We first meet her defiantly stealing bananas from a shipment at the docks and tossing them to other starving kids. Her eyes blaze. You can believe this girl will do whatever it takes to survive, especially after her jobless father is killed in a street demonstration and the authorities show up to take her little sisters into custody. Stealing bread, she is caught; the Tramp intervenes and chivalrously attempts to take the blame, but only succeeds in getting them both in trouble.
Escaping to what looks like a half-empty real estate subdivision, the pair watch a suburban couple in front of their little home, with the fond wife sending her husband off to his job. The Tramp and the Gamine fantasize what life might be like in a little home of their own, until a policeman moves them on. The rest of the film involves their attempts to achieve that little home, and they sort of manage it for a while in a tiny abandoned shed. Some pains are taken to show that their relationship is a chaste one: we are shown that the Tramp sleeps gallantly alone in a lean-to outside the shed. He is a gentleman, after all.
Blameless, innocent and well-intentioned as he is, he can’t get steady employment and keeps winding up in jail through no fault of his own. The Gamine is brave and resourceful, however, and finds new ways to make ends meet. Just when it appears they have both finally found successful employment, however…
Ironically enough, this is the film that got Chaplin in trouble with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It was assumed that to criticize Industry was to be a Communist. Chaplin indignantly denied the charge, and left America for Switzerland, where he lived out his days in peace.
Modern Times is a hopeful film, for all its Dickensian subject matter, airy, even light-hearted. It mocks a gleaming future that requires us to be interchangeable machine parts, with every human quality trimmed off to make us fit into the system. It can’t be said that this is a film about the triumph of the individual, even so; Chaplin was too wise a man to assert that innocence and gallantry will beat the system. His hero and heroine can’t change the world in which they find themselves; no revolution, religion or social service will improve their lot. “Buck up—Never Say Die! We’ll Get Along!” says the Tramp, with the final title card. All they have is hope and each other, as they walk away together down the road into the sunrise.
We are walking beside them, just now. The big gleaming machine broke down. We are redundant, puzzle pieces that no longer fit. Homes, jobs, health care are dreams we may be lucky enough to maintain—or we may not. All we can really do about it is hope for the best, work to survive, and trust that we’ll get along.