Modern Times: Assembly Lines, Worker’s Rights, and Middle Class Dreams

“Modern Times” is Charlie Chaplin’s greatest film; it was the perfect combination of comedy with social commentary on mind-numbing assembly line work, worker’s rights, and middle class suburban dreams. It also marked the last screen appearance of The Tramp, Chaplin’s “everyman” persona who had been entertaining audiences all over the world for more than 20 years.

The Historical Context

Automobiles were first introduced in the early 1900’s, but originally were just toys of the rich; the USA was changed forever when Henry Ford began building cheap Model T’s using assembly line labor that was soon to let the cars sell for as little as $400. Workers on his assembly lines performed the same task over and over and over again; they were paid well, but had to do the exact same task thousands of times a day. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out the banks and people’s personal savings, and resulted in massive unemployment; large employers responded by cutting the wages of middle class workers, who were just supposed to feel grateful that they still had a job. The USA was still trying to come out of this era in 1936 when “Modern Times” was released. The many strikes and riots at textile factories and other manufacturing plants around the country often had deadly results. CEO’s and political leaders were horrified by the specter of Communism, which had gained its first foothold in Russia in the Revolution of 1917. J. Edgar Hoover, then the Assistant Director of the FBI, wrote an internal memo where he referred to Chaplin as Hollywood’s “Resident Bolshevik”; he even had met with Chaplin and urged him to stop mocking authority figures, but Chaplin laughed and refused. Henry Ford was said to have been outraged that the CEO in Modern Times physically resembled him.

The Film

Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, starred, and wrote the musical score for “Modern Times.” His acid humor is on display starting in the very first shot, a group of sheep being herded into a slaughterhouse that dissolves into a group of workers being herded into a large factory. The Tramp’s job on the assembly line is to tighten these two bolts on a metal plate over and over and over and over again, all day long. Meanwhile the CEO drinks his coffee, puts puzzles together, reads his newspaper, and spies on his employees, forever trying to think of ways to increase their productivity. In a savagely funny scene, the CEO invites a crackpot inventor to demonstrate a “feeding machine” for assembly line workers, potentially letting the CEO get more productivity out of his workers by not even letting them eat lunch. The Tramp ends up being hauled off to a mental institution; upon his release, he picks up a red flag in the middle of the street that has fallen off a truck; he starts waving it, just as a Communist Worker’s Rights Parade comes around the corner behind him. This gets him hauled off to jail for the first of several times in this film for being the “Leader”. While in jail, he foils the escape attempt of some fellow inmates and ends up with a comfy cell; he doesn’t have to work, gets 3 good meals a day, and is very happy with his life. When forced to leave, he eats a 50 course meal at a cafeteria that he can’t pay for so he can be sent back to jail. The Tramp and The Gamin (a young woman living on the street) escape on the way to jail when the paddy wagon crashes; they end up in front of the perfect American dream cottage, dreaming of their own middle class life in the suburbs; he picks grapes growing just outside the window, and milks a cow that comes by the back door on command; she pan fries a pair of 20 ounce Porterhouse steaks for them to eat. He wipes his hands on the drapes. Ah, the joys of being rich.

When the Tramp gets a job as a Night Watchman in a department store, they “eat cake” at the fountain restaurant, she models the furs, and then she goes to sleep on the satin sheets in the bedding section. The Tramp has a run in with some of his former assembly line colleagues when they come in to rob the store, and he ends up in jail again. Upon release, he learns that the Gamin has found them a dream house –– a shack where the roof and the floorboards collapse, the table loses its legs, and the Tramp can dive off the “dock” into their one foot deep “lake”.

What we can learn from this Film today

The debate over the fair distribution of wealth is at the center of the Presidential race in 2012; it was also something on Chaplin’s mind when he made “Modern Times.” In the past 4 years, millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes in what has proven to be the biggest financial crisis since the time when this film first came out; at the same time, the “1%” at the top of the food chain have seen unparalleled increases in their own wealth. The issues at stake haven’t changed much in the past 75 years, but it’s as important as ever that we model what we saw from The Tramp and the Gamin – to “smile”, to stay optimistic despite everything, and continue to believe that good will somehow prevail.

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About The Film Professor

Thomas J. Anderson develops and teaches online film classes at Perimeter College/Georgia State University. He started making Super 8MM films as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and made documentary and experimental films while getting his MS in Film from Boston University. He helped start the Atlanta Film Festival in 1976 and worked in the A/V Rental and Staging Industry for 10 years as the President of CAV, a company he founded in 1981. He and wife Maggie owned The Production Shop and produced award winning corporate videos in the 1990's before he got involved in higher education as an AVID editing teacher and the longtime Department Chair of Media Production at AIU-Buckhead. Since then he has taught not only at Perimeter College/Georgia State University, but also at Reinhardt University, Kennesaw State University, and Le Cordon Bleu.
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