An Appreciation – Modern Times
One of the most iconic images Charlie Chaplin ever gave to the world came in Modern Times (1936). It happens early on in the movie. The Little Tramp, working diligently on an automated assembly line, gets distracted and starts to lag behind. Desperate, he jumps on the moving conveyor belt and gets sucked into the machine. Then, we see him being dragged and twisted through the moving gears inside of it, while still checking and working on any nuts and bolts he can find. This is one of the most remembered shots in all of Chaplin’s work, a loud and clear sign showing his feelings about the rise of industrialization and the loss of the human individual. It only goes to show how much of a craftsman he was, incorporating this message within a very funny and entertaining film.
I think what makes Chaplin so endearing to audiences—especially the ones that were alive during the release of his films—is that he made movies that represented the everyman. The Tramp was a character that was always an outsider. He was always very poor, and many of the films he was in involved him simply trying to earn money to survive, the definition of the blue-collar worker. The Tramp was seen many times in tattered clothing, and staying in very meager living conditions. At the time this film was made, the country was well into The Great Depression, and I can only imagine how this must have spoken to them. It treats modernization as a force to be reckoned with, turning human beings into nameless cattle herded into mindless work. Chaplin says this literally, as the opening shots juxtaposes the images of cattle along with images of workers lining up to enter a factory. But what a great place to insert The Tramp, to bring a little bit of mischief and chaos to this strict and structured world.
The opening scene involves The Tramp trying to cope with working in this monotonous and soulless place, and eventually going crazy as a result. Notice how The Tramp continually rejects being part of the machine, even when he isn’t attempting to do so. When picked to test a state of the art feeding machine, The Tramp becomes a victim of technology gone amok, with food splattering on his face relentlessly (interesting side note: Chaplin was actually controlling the machine himself while shooting this scene). After twisting bolts for hours on end, he cannot prevent himself from continuously doing the same motion, even when he is on a break. This leads to some very funny moments of The Tramp twisting anything that resembles a nut or bolt, whether it is the knobs on a fire hydrant or the buttons on a woman’s dress. He eventually goes haywire, and causes a ruckus that stops the entire production of the factory. What’s interesting is that, even though he gets fired and sent to a hospital to recover, this all happens because of the working conditions of the factory itself.
What we see for the majority of the film involves The Tramp doing whatever he can to get a job and make a living. I find it funny that during a lot of instances, he ends up in a bad situation, but does what he can to make the most of it. For example, in a great sequence, The Tramp gets mistaken for the leader of a communist uprising that leads to a riot. He gets arrested and sent to jail, but in his mind he finds this predicament to be a great opportunity. A place to living is provided, he gets his own room with a bed, and he gets fed regularly—what’s not to love? He ends up spending a lot of time trying to get back in to jail, even to the point of helping officers stop a breakout. But as absurd as that may seem, Chaplin develops that motivation understandably. When not living in the luxury of the prison, The Tramp takes odd jobs, which include being a night watchman at a department store, a ship builder, a waiter at a bustling nightclub, and even returning back to the factory to help one of the resident mechanics. Despite all of these opportunities going hilariously wrong in some sort of hilarious fashion, The Tramp keeps with his positive outlook on life. He is the constant optimist, and I feel he may have been that way to in order to speak to audiences: no matter how bad things may seem, with the right attitude they would eventually all find happiness together.