Modern Times (1936), written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp, is widely regarded as a classic film which, although mostly silent and black-and-white, effortlessly entertains contemporary audiences.
The film begins with Chaplin’s well-known character of the Tramp, as a factory worker laboring on an assembly line. Eventually the stress of the job, mainly having to move faster than humanly possible to keep up with the assembly line, causes Chaplin’s character to suffer a mental breakdown and be sent to a hospital. Upon release from the hospital, the Tramp notices a red flag fall off of a truck. He goes to pick it up with the intent to return it. However, a group of protesting workers march up behind him, making it appear as if he is the leader of a communist rally. The protest is brutally put down by the police and the Tramp is arrested as a communist leader.
In prison, the Tramp accidentally prevents a prison break, is hailed as a hero and is allowed to leave jail. When he gets to the outside world, he finds it is very difficult to become employed or make a living. The conditions the working class had to endure during the Depression are highlighted here. The Tramp concludes life in prison was better, so attempts to get arrested again. While attempting to do so, he encounters the Gamine, who becomes something of a love interest for the Tramp (although when they have places to live, they always sleep apart).
Their first plan to live a better life involves the Tramp getting a job as the night watchman for a department store. While no one is there, they can have the place to themselves. The plan works well until a group of criminals break into the store. The Tramp recognizes one of them as a former co-worker form his old assembly line job, and it is revealed that the burglars are only looking for food since conditions have become so harsh. The next morning, the Tramp is arrested apparently for the poor job he’s done as night watchman.
Skip ahead ten days. The Gamine locates the Tramp and takes him to an abandoned shack she found by the beach. They live in poverty until the Tramp gets a new job at a recently-opened factory. After a comedic scene where his boss becomes trapped in some machinery, the factory workers go on strike. Unfortunately for the Tramp, he accidentally aggravates the police and the riot is put down and the Tramp sent off to prison once again for two weeks.
After his release, the Tramp gets another thankless low-wage job as a waiter at a café where the Gamin now works as a dancer. After failing to take a roast duck to the table of some easily annoyed bourgeois patrons, the Tramp is given a chance to entertain the clientèle of the café by singing to make up for his failed (but hilarious) waiter work. Despite losing the lyrics, the Tramp manages to entertain everyone in the café by singing lyrics composed of absolute nonsense. Of course, the success isn’t to last, as the police again show up to arrest the Gamine for the last time she evaded them. Since this is a comedy, the police are buffoons and the protagonists escape again. The film ends on a positive note when the Tamp encourages the Gamine to remain hopeful that the future will be better, and they walk off into the sunrise. Politics
Politically, the film has many themes that will have progressive-minded individuals nodding in agreement, touching on the poor conditions workers have to endure, the brutality of police, the repression of socialists and unions, the issues unemployment, homelessness, the increase of exploitation with industrialization under capitalism and so forth, all of which are presented in a way that makes the viewer sympathetic with the working class.
There is no doubt that this movie would not have been released if Chaplin wasn’t so widely known. It should not surprise anyone to hear that Chaplin was accused of being a communist, both for the themes in this film and in later politically-charged works such as The Great Dictator (which satirized fascism) and Monsieur Verdoux (which satirized capitalism).
Politics aside, it is also a great film technically and critically, as it was made partially as a send-off to the silent movie era, but also contains several scenes with audible lines, which worked well for it. Chaplin wore many hats during the production, writing, directing, producing, starring and even writing the music for his film. The screens used by the bosses to check up on their workers and the scenes where Chaplin and later his immediate supervisor get trapped in giant machines were astoundingly well-done for 1936 and still are impressive today. The film is also very funny, making use of the trademark humor one would expect from Charlie Chaplin.
Modern Times has aged very well, and still entertains modern audiences just as well it did in 1936. That, alongside the entertaining antics of Chaplin and progressive ideas inserted throughout the plot, makes Modern Times a film we would recommend to just about anyone.