Written by Forrest Maynock
Watching Modern Times (1936) was like watching a satirical take on the current age we live in. A world run by machines and grumpy looking businessmen? Well, replace the grumpy businessmen with eccentric billionaire’s naming their babies X Æ A-12, and then add some mind boggling technology, and more people spending their lives in “leisure” and you have a reality resembling Modern Times.
This 1936 Charlie Chaplin film is a must watch for cinefiles and lovers of comedy alike. The influence of this film is quite widespread with many scenes being replicated in other media such as the 1950’s American TV show I Love Lucy which features a scene in one episode strongly influenced by the factory line scenes in this film. More recently the film was featured as background footage in the 2019 box office sleeper hit Joker.
When first watching this film I was lost trying to find a central theme; this is after all the most political that Chaplain ever went with the Tramp. Above all, one theme captured my soul: Enjoy life, and relish in the small miracles of life. There were many other themes to be had in this film, but for me personally the more “simple” message showed brighter than any critique on modernity, class or capitalism ever could (in the context of comedy).
This is not to discount those other themes and messages, but when putting my focus on these other themes I found myself enjoying the comedy and story of the film less, and getting lost in trying to find “meaning” in every gag or face made by an actor. I then watched the film a second time with only these ideas and themes in my peripheral vision, and found myself taking much more enjoyment and meaning from the “simple” story of a man and woman on an adventure.
If this film were made as a predictor of times to come, then I see it as a moderate success. Elements ring true to current workplace environments, but other elements are much more tied to life in the great depression and/or industrial revolution. The cleanliness and moderness of the factory stand out as an excellent view into how many modern warehouses are set up and operated. Having worked in a warehouse I can say that the look is still applicable to this day.
The “business” side of factory work from my perspective seems to be much friendlier and personal than what was presented in the film. Part of it must be the pressure that these companies are receiving to create safer and friendlier work environments, but an element of it is also related to life being easier than when this film was made.
One element that I think this film nailed was the advancement of automation. The scene where The Tramp is force fed plays as both a mockery and subtle warning of things to come. Slowly we have to rely more and more on machines to complete tasks and make life easier.
I always prefered Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin, but the overall influence of Chaplin in cinema and comedy as a whole is without doubt. To say that Charlie Chaplin’s appearance as The Tramp is iconic would be a gross understatement. A simple outline of The Tramp with his hat and cane is enough to trigger any average movie-goer’s brain into action, and even the uninitiated may have a vague understanding of the importance of this character created over a century ago.
Viewing Modern Times as the final entry in the journey of The Tramp is both heartwarming and tragic in a way. Seeing The Tramp walk off hand in hand down the road into a bright new future with The Gamin was a perfect ending for a character whose presence spanned over 20 years and a multitude of screen appearances. At the same time a tinge of tragic melancholy may enter the hearts of longtime Chaplin viewers who know there will never be another entry in this little man’s adventure.
Modern Times is neither the funniest or most heartwarming of The Tramp’s films, The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931) are strong contesters for those titles, but I think it has the most to offer overall, and it delivers.
Acknowledgement: This article was originally an assignment for the course of Film and Literature, Term 1 & 2, 2020. I would like to thank Dr. Chung and everyone from the course for their participation.