An Early Modern Masterpiece: Chaplin’s great black-and-white film Modern Times, on friendship and survival, factory life, labor strife, unemployment, and war

By Daniel Garrett

Modern Times
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Criterion/Janus Films, 1936

It is often said that Chaplin was a genius. Any doubts can be eliminated with a viewing of Charles Chaplin’s black-and-white film Modern Times, a film with some spoken narration and dialogue cards and music, an imaginative film that uses dreams and fantasy and speculation as part of its story, that of a beleaguered little fellow, a factory worker who loses his job and is arrested and jailed and befriends a gamin in a time of social turmoil. It is an age of industry and workers’ agitation for rights, and of hunger and poverty, and of international war. Modern Times is a remarkably comprehensive film, and it looks great.

In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin, a master of gesture, merriment, and pathos, a brilliant performer who became a storyteller, is the little fellow; and the little fellow’s work in a factory is attendant to automation, and he tightens screws on items on a moving assembly line, the repetition of the work rattling his nerves. It is the age of industry, and industry is more than a form of manufacture: it is a social organization, a plan for exploitation and profit, a method of domination. Large populations are regimented by the factory. Surveillance occurs, as does the attempt to control a worker’s entire workday. The routine is broken by whimsy and romantic attraction. Yet, the little fellow begins to taken on the responses of a machine, and malfunctions. (There is an erotic joke involving a matron with buttons on the chest of her dress that look like screws to the addled assembly line worker—and he chases her.) He breaks down, and is put in a hospital. After the little fellow, a gentle figure, an androgynous spirit, leaves the hospital, and he walks on the street, encountering the lives of others; first, laborers marching in a parade for their rights, and secondly, he sees a plucky ragamuffin, a young woman (actress Paulette Goddard), accused of stealing bread, and he claims he is the thief. The little man has acted on his compassion.

The labor rally is a surprising but accurate eruption of politics, a direct response to the industrial life we have observed earlier in the film. The little fellow, after picking up a flag, is mistaken by the police for a labor leader and is jailed, where he is bullied by a larger man, and there helps to stop a criminal breakout and is himself freed by the authorities and recommended for work. The little fellow gets a job at a boat construction yard but sinks a project; and soon after he claims the girl’s crime, the theft of bread, as his own, a theft that is a sign of the times, that of the Great Depression, and might have been his own desperation, as he misses the bread and board comforts of jail. The little tramp eats in a restaurant, alerting a cop to his inability to pay, wanting to return to jail; but when the tramp finds the girl in the patrol wagon, they escape together, finding refuge in a shack, where they stay—Chaplin makes this relationship with a much younger woman natural, admirable—and then the little tramp reads that factories are opening again and he gets a job. There the mechanic he is helping is caught in a large machine’s gears, a symbol. There is more trouble, but the girl gets a job as a dancer in a café and gets him one too as a waiter. Their ups and downs reveal a world in which the problem of social inequality is less controversial than proposed solutions—but the little fellow and the gamin have become friends, partners; and their friendship survives various opportunities and disappointments, and in the end they hit the open road together.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared inThe African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.