Charlie Chaplin was not only the most prolific star of the silent film era, but also the most beloved and celebrated. Chaplin starred in over 80 silent films throughout the period’s golden years as well as five feature length films that he himself directed. The last of these, Modern Times (1936), was made almost a decade after The Jazz Singer (1927) took the world by storm, introducing the advent of synchronized sounds and the talking picture. Moviemaking was changed forever, and all of silent cinema’s greatest stars either transitioned into making “talkies” or were cast aside and forgotten about. Chaplin’s two biggest contemporaries, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, made the immediate switch-over, with their last silent features being Spite Marriage (1929) and Speedy (1928), respectively.
Chaplin, however, was stubborn, and insisted that talking films would be nothing more than a gimmicky phase. Adamant about preserving the integrity of silent pictures, Chaplin pushed ahead with his next project, City Lights (1931), refusing to adhere to Hollywood’s changing expectations. Though he was ignorant of the rapid evolution of Hollywood filmmaking, Chaplin was no fool. He utilized this revolutionary technology to enhance his new film, including an accompanying score he had written and composed. Chaplin also saw it as an opportunity to take a jab at talking pictures. In the opening scene of City Lights, a statue is being unveiled at the town square. The town’s mayor and other dignitaries step up to make speeches, which are only heard as a comical kazoo-like noise. Chaplin clearly meant it as a statement against sound films, boldly mocking them with his defiant new film.
City Lights was a massive success despite the aggressive new enthusiasm for talkies. Chaplin spent the following year touring the world with his latest film, and made many observations during his travels. At this point, the world had long settled into the Great Depression. Chaplin saw firsthand the fallout of this economic crisis, and even met with various political figures to discuss the ongoing issues, including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi. After he returned home, Chaplin wrote a series of articles based on his observations. In a 1931 interview, Chaplin commented on the state of unemployment:
“Something is wrong. Things have been badly managed when five million men are out of work in the richest country in the world. If we continue to view the present condition as inevitable, the whole structure of our civilization may crumble. The present deplorable conditions certainly can’t be charged against the five million men out of work, ready to work, anxious to work, and yet unable to get jobs. If capital represents the genius of America it would seem obvious that for its own sake the present conditions should not continue or ever again be repeated.”
These observations, in addition to a visit Chaplin once took to Henry Ford’s auto plant where he learned about the nervous breakdowns men would have working on assembly lines, formed the first ideas that would become his next picture. Modern Times was to be Chaplin’s first talking picture, one that reflected his own negative feelings about the industrialization and automation of America’s working class. As history would have it, Modern Times did not end up as a talking picture. Chaplin went as far as to write an entire script with dialogue, and even recorded several test scenes, but ultimately decided against it, largely because he feared tarnishing the reputation of his universally beloved “Little Tramp” character by giving him a voice. He felt the magic would be lost, so he elected to make Modern Times the concluding film of his silent days, and thus of silent cinema as a whole.
However, Modern Times is not a completely silent film, although it is categorized as such. Like with City Lights, Chaplin used the technological advantages of synchronized sound to improve his silent feature, but with more than just an accompanying score. Modern Times is true to silent cinema form in its use of title cards, slapstick humor, and being filmed at a rate of 18 frames per second, but it’s also filled with sound effects and even occasional dialogue. Modern Times is unique in that it is, by all definitions, a silent feature, but still uses the conventions of sound to tell its story. Chaplin’s reluctance to enter the age of sound pictures inadvertently enhances the themes of his film. His ardent refusal of talkies reflected his own philosophy regarding the implementation of evolving technologies around the world, while the compromise in using sound to still improve his film proves the inevitability of the growing innovation. However, Chaplin was acutely aware of this, and used sound in Modern Times to highlight the evolving world, and the dangers it presented.
The film establishes its political subtext from the very first moment. After the introductory title card, footage of sheep being herded together is juxtaposed with workers pushing through the exit of the subway, implying that they are already domesticated like farm animals. There is a lone black sheep in the middle of the crowd, obviously meant to be none other than Chaplin himself. Immediately, the inherent thematic purpose of sound in Modern Times is felt. The thundering score gives a sense of imposing threat when paired with the colossal machinery in the factory. A brawny, masculine worker approaches a hefty lever, engaging it with violent sparks and turbulent whirring.
Though set clearly in the midst of the Great Depression, Chaplin infuses some science-fiction elements into the film to further enforce the themes. The president of the factory barks orders at the burly worker through a projected screen, introducing the first instance of spoken dialogue in the film. Throughout the film, Chaplin only allows the audience to hear dialogue through various mechanical devices, typically as a way to emphasize the oppressive abilities these advancements provide. The president is constantly monitoring his workers through these Orwellian means, even in the factory’s bathroom where the Tramp is caught trying to take a quick break.
The Tramp works on an assembly line not too dissimilar to the ones Chaplin saw at Ford’s automobile factories. His repetitive and mundane job consists of wielding two wrenches to quickly tighten bolts on a seemingly purposeless piece of metal. Like every other piece of machinery in the factory, it is intentionally designed to make the audience question what it would even be used for. The music accompanying this scene is rapidly paced, frenetic, and repetitive: just like the task these workers are performing. The machine moves faster than the Tramp can keep up with, causing him to often lag behind in his work and impede the assembly line worker next to him.
It’s not long before the film’s famous feeding machine makes its appearance, introduced by an ironic fanfare from the film’s score. Three men wheel the large contraption into the president’s office. They wind up a record player, which informs the president of all the ethically violating capabilities of the Billows Feeding Machine, another source of an oppressive voice coming through a machine. The Tramp is selected as the unfortunate victim tasked with testing the machine, forcibly shoved into the device by the eccentric inventor. The sounds produced by the machine raise no alarm, just the soft hum of the motors turning and the clicks and taps of each tool. At first, the device seems to serve its purpose, serving soup and wiping the Tramp’s mouth with ease. The machine makes its way to the corn, lifting it up to the Tramp’s face and slowly sliding it from side to side. Suddenly, a few sparks are heard and the machine begins to spin the corn faster. Its speed drastically increases, and an intensive whirring indicates there is a terrible malfunction. The feeding machine becomes a torture device, violently slamming all manner of machinery and meal alike into the poor Tramp’s face. The president dismisses the feeding machine before any further damage can be done, but the scene demonstrates the willingness to sacrifice a humane working environment for the sake of profit.
The deafening ringing of a bell signals the transition to the next scene. After lunch, all of the workers are back on the assembly line again, which has been sped up yet again through another telephoned command by the president. The Tramp is sweating bullets, working as fast as he can, which isn’t nearly fast enough. The music has also picked up its pace. Violins and xylophones run up and down their musicals scales, as if they’re struggling to keep up just as much as the workers. Obsessively determined to keep up with his work, the Tramp races after a fixture he missed, plunging himself into the cogs of the machinery, and thusly producing one of the most famous cinematic images of the 20th century: Chaplin gracefully riding through the turning gears of the factory’s machines. The score relents here, changing from an aggressive onslaught of strings to an angelic lullaby-like tune. The sounds of a flute whistles accompanying the Tramp’s tightening of two bolts before he is grinded through the machine again; chewed up and spit out.
The Tramp emerges entirely hysterical, simulating the kind of nervous breakdowns Chaplin was informed about during his time at the Ford plant. The Tramp’s delusional state has him dancing around the factory, armed with his dual wrenches, tightening any and everything even remotely bolt-shaped in his sight. Noses, ears, and the buttons on a lady’s bosom are all twisted, gnarled, and ravished during the Tramp’s sudden frenzy. The offended woman alerts a police officer, who chases the Tramp back into the factory. Even in his neurotic state, the worker is still a slave to the system; he remembers to punch his time card during the frantic pursuit.
The Tramp’s reign of terror continues, flipping all kinds of switches and levers that overstimulate the machines and cause irreparable damage. The large machines in the background erupt into balls of fire, accompanied by the sounds of explosions and gunfire. By this point, the Tramp is clearly out of his mind; running around the factory equipped with an oiling can, like some unhinged agent of chaos, spraying the various factory workers in the face. This section of the film has been referred to as “The Tramp’s Ballet,” signified by the his prancing and the whimsical sound of the film’s score. The factory workers chase after him in an attempt to end his erratic behavior, but the Tramp is able to forestall them by turning the conveyor belt back on, causing the subservient workers to race back to their positions, where the Tramp continues to antagonize them. This gag continues for some time before the Tramp is finally caught, and with the howling siren of an ambulance the Tramp is taken away. The proceeding title card informs us that the Tramp is cured, but now without work, like many other Americans at the time.
With the Tramp removed from the industrial environment of the factory, Modern Times switches gears, changing its focus from the tyranny of the machine to the struggles of The Great Depression. Because of the lack of a mechanical presence throughout the rest of the film, the metaphorical usage of sound in Modern Times dissipates slightly. Sound effects during the jailhouse segment are reserved for enhancing the slapstick and conjuring up some stomach gurgles, an effect that Chaplin himself performed by blowing bubbles into a bucket of water. The use of sound in Modern Times returns to a point of thematic importance once again near the end of the film, but rather than reinforcing Chaplin’s political ideology, he instead uses the platform to confront his own trepidation about the evolving times. After stumbling through the penal system, a bout of homelessness, an assortment of different jobs, and another stint in the jailhouse, the Tramp is fortunate enough to get a position as a singing waiter at the Red Moon Café.
Chaplin realized Modern Times would be the Tramp’s final time in the spotlight, so he made sure to include several callbacks to some of his earlier silent shorts as a way of paying homage to the history of the Tramp’s escapades. The department store sequence featured prominently in the third act recalls his earlier film, The Floorwalker (1916), while the final sequence in the restaurant builds on the jokes seen throughout The Rink (1916), which also sees plenty of roller skate antics like in the memorable sequence from this film. The culmination of these foundational moments build to the finale of Modern Times. Chaplin chose not to make a sound picture due to his fear of the modern age, and of ruining the Tramp’s universal appeal by giving him a voice. Reluctant as he was, the entire film was a way for Chaplin to dip his toes into the world of sound and push his limits as an artist. Modern Times is not a film of compromise, but one of transition.
The ultimate act of transformation occurs here, where Chaplin allows the Tramp to be heard for the very first time. He is to sing a song in front of the dining audience, but cannot remember the words. From offstage the Gamin, his adoring partner throughout the film, instructs him to go on anyway. “Sing!” she says, “Never mind the words!” As with all of Chaplin’s films, the words don’t matter. The Tramp is an immortal character, preserved in the comedy he provides to people of all races, colors, and creeds. And so the Tramp sings; he sings his song of incoherent gibberish, making up an entire language worth of nonsensical words to go along with the movements that tell the song’s story. The audience roars in laughter and applause at the Tramp’s performance, celebrating his successful adaptation into the world of sound.
The end of the film sees the Tramp and the Gamin walk hand in hand down a long stretch of road that disappears in the distance. Before now, the Tramp was always left alone, bound to start another adventure by himself. For his final outing, Chaplin felt the Tramp deserved a happier ending. Originally, Modern Times was set to end with the Tramp being released from a mental hospital to discover the Gamin had become a nun, and then watch her leave forever with her Mother Superior. Instead, with a more upbeat and optimistic ending, the life of the Tramp feels more complete. Throughout the film, the two discuss having a home of their own, and even have an extended dream sequence where they happily live together without a care in the world.
With his time entertaining millions across the world done, one can imagine the Tramp lives a happy life this way, as Chaplin had envisioned. In the end, for all its political text and critique, Modern Times feels most like a satisfying conclusion to the enduring spirit of Chaplin’s most beloved creation. He continued to use film as a means of commenting on his perspective of the world, maintaining a political stance with The Great Dictator (1940) and later reflecting on his career as a whole with Limelight (1952). Chaplin’s usage of his platform as an empowering tool of influence didn’t start with Modern Times — he was making political statements in his films as early as The Immigrant (1917) — but with the utilization of all the cinematic tools available to him, and the history of his illustrious career in hand, Modern Times feels like the first time Chaplin’s ideals were truly given a voice of their own.