Modern Times, 1936, Charles Chaplin

In many ways, Modern Times was both an ending and a beginning. For Chaplin, it was the end of his silent movie star career and his popular character, the tramp. It was also the last major silent film release. It was at the height of the depression, and the underlying themes represented Chaplin’s critical feelings of industry and the exploitation of the working man. Little could he know that everything would change in a few years with a war, which would devastate the world and end the depression. Yet, the changing times did not date the picture. With historical perspective, Modern Times can be seen as a nostalgic and sentimental transitional film.

modern times big brother 2

modern times big brother machine

If there are any questions about Chaplin’s thoughts about industrialization, then they are answered within the first 15 minutes. Chaplin effective turns a social issue (one that we felt strongly above) into comedy, and as expected, he was completely successful. The early factory scene delivers the laughs. Chaplin becomes both obsessed and complacent with the act of riveting. Occasionally he’ll sneeze or otherwise be forced to miss an item and the assembly line will go out of whack, forcing the two other employees working behind him to get frustrated with his antics. The Tramp keeps on turning knobs with his two wrenches, sometimes even when his hands are not over the assembly line. He gets distracted by a woman’s attire with dark, loud buttons, and tries to turn them too. This scene works flawlessly. There are not many cuts, so the action must have been carefully rehearsed and difficult to carry out, and the speed at which the scene flows thanks to the customary 16 frames per second in silent films make it seem all the more hurried and manic.

modern times lunch machine corn

chaplin lunch machine

The scene with the most laughs, at least for me, is the lunch efficiency machine. Again, Chaplin is poking fun of industrialization, specifically the fact that they value production so highly that they will compromise the worker’s free time and convenience by automating their lunch process. The machine dumps soup on Chaplin, forces him to eat corn on the cob at a rapid fire pace, and smacks him on the face when it is intended to merely wipe his chin. The device itself is funny simply due to its absurdity, but it is Chaplin’s performance that cements the scene as being so memorable in his cannon. He recalls the lunch machine later in the film by becoming a lunch machine himself, yet he is just as effective (or ineffective) as the automated version. Again, this is funny, but he is still making a cultural statement. People do not need external assistance, whether from a machine or a human, to perform basic duties.

Chaplin’s politics seem clear in some instances and hazy in others. He is clearly portraying modernity from a leftist perspective, and that echoes some of the activism he was undertaking outside of the film industry. However, he was careful not to go too far to the left. There is another scene where he takes a flag from a truck. A communist mob marches behind him, and he is swept up with them. As the flag waver in the front, he is mistaken as the front-runner in yet another hilarious gag. Despite the scene’s humor, he is distancing himself from the Communist movement. He was leftist, but not that left wing.

Paulette Goddard as the Gamin.

Paulette Goddard as the Gamin.

Unlike other Chaplin pictures, in Modern Times he has a co-star – a trampette if you will – in the form of Paulette Goddard, his off-screen lover. Even though Chaplin is always the funniest, she provides a welcome equilibrium to his antics, along with a motivation for him to pursue his character arc. Before meeting her, he was perfectly content being in jail because, after all, they served food and gave him a roof over his head, which wasn’t always the case on the outside (and this was another comment about modern times.) After meeting Goddard as The Gamin, he wants to succumb to the lures of society. He wants a good job so that he can afford a nice house, even if his dream house still rejects modernity by extracting milk directly from a passing cow rather than buy the processed product.

Skating in the department store.

Skating in the department store.

As Chaplin and Goddard pursue normal lives, and even find themselves living in a crude, fragile shack, they cling more to a life of poverty. In Chaplin’s vision, having less allows one to live in opposition to the modern trappings of society. They find themselves in plenty of other comic scenes, including a department store and most famously, a restaurant where Chaplin sings for the first time, but this is not the life for them. As everything they aim for falls apart, they are content simply walking away, hand in hand, comfortable in each other’s company.

modern times ending

Film Rating: 9.5



  • Modern Times definitively identifies Chaplin’s transition from silent films into sound. He had intentions of making a talkie and even wrote a script, but trashed the idea after filming a couple scenes.
  • After City Lights, he went on an 18-month world tour where he was treated as a celebrity. He saw economic collapse and nationalism. He published a number of social articles when he returned, including those about the tyranny of the assembly line.
  • The lunch machine scene took 7 days. It isn’t known for sure because Chaplin never revealed his methods, but it is thought that there was an operator somewhere, although stills show Chaplin operating the lever.
  • He was accused of ripping off Rene Clair’s À Nous la Liberté. Some argued that the similarities were obvious with any industrial story. Clair was not pleased with the lawsuit because he respected Chaplin. He didn’t think Chaplin was guilty, and if so, was flattered. The suit was out of Clair’s hands and went on. It didn’t resolve until 1947, where Chaplin paid a modest settlement.
  • Goddard had been a struggling actress and a divorcee when she met Chaplin, when their affair and collaboration began. He convinced her to go back to her natural brunette color instead of the platinum blonde.
  • One of the few critical complaints is that Modern Times is a series of 2-reelers, which is true to an extent (factory, furniture store, factory again, restaurant).
  • Like City Lights, he was credited as composer. People have criticized him for taking too much credit away from his arrangers. He could play instruments, but could not read music. The arrangers all confirmed that he directed the compositions through them.
  • The FBI, trying to establish a link with him and the Communist Party, investigated Chaplin. It was more that he found left leaning individuals to be better dinner companions. The FBI never found anything despite their pursuits. He was never tied to the party, so their efforts were futile.
  • Chaplin’s song became famous. In 1939 it was released as a song about who had the better mustache, Chaplin or Hitler. It was most famous as being the first time his voice is heard on screen. He sings a gibberish of his own invention.

Modern Times: A Closer Look: Visual essay from Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance.

Chaplin was highly secretive about how he worked. He did not allow people to film him during the process. “If people know how it’s done, the magic is gone.” Still photos survive as the background of the making of Modern Times.

He spoke with great minds (Churchill, Einstein, others), and wanted to make some sort of social cinema. He nixed the idea of a Napoleon film when he befriended Paulette Goddard. This would begin an 8-year collaboration with Chaplin and Goddard, which included a common law marriage. They treated each other as equals, and he cast her in that manner in the film.

The film was steeped in the political and social realities of the time. He met Henry Ford in 1923 and found that people who were hired from farms to factories often had nervous breakdowns.

Goddard later called it her favorite film. “Charlie could be difficult at times, but charming” and he gave her valued education and experience. Their collaboration would end due to a falling out after The Great Dictator.

A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte: Craig Baron and Ben Burtt talk about visual and sound effects.

Chaplin isn’t thought of in terms of visual effects, but he used them effectively. He was a visual director because of his roots in silent film. He used techniques like miniatures, rear projection, glass shots, matte paintings, and many more. He built large sets, like he did with the factory. He used a lot of hanging miniatures, even during the factory sequence. They are smaller, yet they give the impression of appearing full-size, and they make the set look larger.

Sounds were used as needed for dramatic or comic effect, but no more. He preferred to use them only when necessary, such as the feeding machine and flatulence jokes.

They show the roller skating shot in detail. Chaplin used a glass matte painting shot. Camera shoots through a sheet of glass with a painting. The empty “cliff” is the painting. Chaplin was an exception skater, but was never in any danger.

Silent Traces: Modern Times: Visual essay with John Bengtson as he tours the locations that Chaplin used.

Chaplin began in Los Angeles, and many of the locations still exist today. He filmed factory scenes near gas storage tanks. The north of which was demolished in 1973. The landmark also appears in The Kid, Buster Keaton’s The Goat. The southern plant was smaller and used in the worker lineup scene.

Today the Chaplin studio in Hollywood is home to Jim Henson company, where Kermit pays tribute to Chaplin by dressing as the tramp.

David Raksin and the Score: 1992 interview with the composer for the film..

Alfred Newman did the conducting and was brilliant. Raksin was credited as music arranger. Charlie was autocratic, not used to people disagreeing with him. Initially he did not get along with Raksin because his taste and authority were challenged. Raksin was at one point fired due to these disagreements. Later Newman was looking at his Raskin’s sketches and thought they were marvelous, and he talked Charlie out of firing him. Charlie and David had to talk privately and work things out before he could come back.

Charlie did not know how to develop music, but he was excellent at working it out with someone who knew about music. He had an understanding of instruments that most non-musicians wouldn’t have. Raskin would generally like what Chaplin did, and prior disagreement were his just acting out of instinct.

Two Bits: These are two deleted scenes.

Crossing the Street – Funny scene with the tramp not understanding the stop and go signs, and the cop chiding him along. Even though it is funny, it does not fit too well with the theme of the film. I understand why it was cut.

The Tramp’s Song, unedited. – The last verse was removed when Chaplin re-edited the film. This 4-minute full sequence restores it. The last verse doesn’t add much and I expect he cut it for brevity.

All At Sea: This is a short filmed by Alistair Cooke of a yacht trip with Chaplin and Goddard with an added film score.

We see their mugs playing to the camera. Mostly it is Charlie doing the comic antics, but we also see Alistair showing a sense of humor that would surprise most fans of Masterpiece Theater.

It is strange seeing Chaplin out of his element, dressed well with perfectly combed hair. He looks just like a wealthy man on a yacht and nothing like the tramp. That doesn’t mean he isn’t funny. He does a series of routines with a broom, impersonating people that were in the headlines such as Gaynor, Garbo, and Harlow.

This documentary really is a treasure and I’m glad they added it to the disc.

Susan Cooke Kittredge Interview: When her father died in 2004, she was responsible for sorting through his old belongings. She found a treasure trove. Behind everything was a reel of film labeled “Chaplin film.” He had told his children that he had made a film with Chaplin, but they thought he was making it up. Cooke thought had he lost it, and it was unfortunate that it was found after his passing.

Cooke wanted to be a film critic early. He approached Chaplin and told him he was with the London Observer and asked to schedule an interview. Chaplin says yes, and Cooke pitched it to the Observer to get them to hire him. They hit it off well, and the interview turned to lunch and then dinner, and then they became inseparable.

They spent the weekend cruising around Catalina Island. Cooke happened to have a 8mm camera so they just thought they would shoot a film. It was just something to do.

Their friendship did not continue because their careers went in different directions. They saw each other occasionally and would reminisce, but the intensity of the friendship passed.

The Rink: – This has plenty of slapstick comedy and subtle gags. Some jumped out at me, like when he is working at a restaurant and tells his boss,“I’m going to lunch,” and promptly leaves the restaurant. The antics in the skating rink make it a fitting companion to Modern Times. This short shows off Chaplin’s skating ability, which was quite impressive.

For the First Time: 1967 Cuban documentary about showing motion pictures to rural communities that haven’t ever seen a movie. They showed Modern Times.

This was my second favorite supplement on the disc, with the Cooke film as the first.

The crew traveled to rural areas near Guantanamo and Baracoa. Many peasants had never seen a movie.

There is ecstatic laughter at the lunch scene! When the corncob goes in his mouth, people seem about to lose themselves with joy. Some kids yawn and then fall asleep. Some people are so blown away by what they are seeing that you can see tears in their eyes. My only complaint is that they don’t have interviews afterward to hear their thoughts.

Chaplin Today: “Modern Times.”: Philippe Truffaut documentary in 2003 with the Dardenne brothers.

The famous filmmakers dissect the film. They identify that he uses hunger in most of his films, and bread brings him together with the girl and is a prop in prison. Even the furniture store “burglars” are only looking for some food.

The assembly lines of Ford’s auto plants were mechanized labor, and during the depression that was no hiring because there was no demand for product. Chaplin was inspired by the assembly lines in Detroit to make the movie. Dardennes: “Man becomes a cog in the machine.” Chaplin sabotages the system, which is the ultimate rebellion. Dardennes talk about how when he does his ballet, he distracts the men from the machine, but they are still chained to it and resume work when he reminds them.

Criterion Rating: 10/10

Posted on June 14, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. The corn on the cob scene is a classic.

  2. Wow – That’s quite the trove of info!

    I have to admit that Chaplin doesn’t always click with me. Putting aside his unsavory personal quirks, I find a lot of naïve narcissism in his work. Modern Times (and City Lights, which I think is his best work) are instances where things worked well for him, because he is not quite so out in front with his sermons. As a polemist, I think he was tiresome, and in those cases where he was really up on a soapbox, like in Great Dictator of Monsieur Verdoux, I pretty much tune out.

    • Interesting. A lot of people have reservations with Dictator and Verdoux. I like both, although not nearly as much as City Lights, The Gold Rush or Modern Times. I haven’t seen Limelight yet.

  3. Dude the cleaner

    My favorite of Chaplin.

  1. Pingback: Top 20 of 1936 | Criterion Blues .....

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