How Modern Times is still relevant eighty years on
Never has a film title been more fitting than Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. First released in 1936, the silent comedy shows no sign of aging. The story of a factory worker and an orphaned woman trying to get by in a cruel, jobless world, Modern Times is still shockingly relevant and relatable eighty years on.
Opening with his most beloved character, The Little Tramp, working in a dauntingly vast metal factory, Chaplin captures the repetitive nature of physical work better than any filmmaker in history. As the Tramp works on an assembly line, wrenching endless bits of metal, his mind quickly unravels; His eyes are locked to the conveyor belt, his hands only capable of wrenching, whether that be bits of machinery or his co-workers’ noses. Forced to work as fast as his hands can carry him, he becomes hypnotised by the endless repetition of his job.
Even his lunch break offers no respite. As the volunteer asked to test the new ‘feeding machine’ (harshly designed so factory workers can continue their jobs while eating), he suffers the indignity of having the malfunctioning machine batter him with food items and spoil his lunch. It’s no surprise that he suffers a nervous breakdown before the day is over, attacking his bosses and destroying any machine he can find.
Modern Times’ opening factory sequence is recognisable to anybody who’s ever worked a menial, repetitive job. The majority of us have worked a boring, physically-demanding job that taxed our brains and drained our energy; whether that be restaurants and cafés, or building sites and factories, we’ve all felt like Chaplin one time or another as our minds begin to slip from tedium and tiredness. The fact that Chaplin creates such a dark reflection of our own lives and still manages to make it a slapstick masterpiece is a testament to his comedic skill.
The cruel-but-realistic world portrayed in Modern Times is shown even more harshly through the eyes of Paulette Goddard as Ellen “the Gamin”, a young orphaned girl attempting to get by while looking after her siblings. Like a miniature version of Jean Valjean, she is arrested while stealing bread to feed her family. Even the Tramp’s selfless attempt to take the rap for her doesn’t work, both ending up carted off in the paddy wagon. This isn’t the first or last time the Tramp ends up arrested; just about any good deed he tries to do ends with his hopes being crushed and his carcass thrown in a cell.
However, Modern Times is very much a comedy, and it’s in the hilarious, heart-warming segments that the film really represent the world as we know it. Teaming up as underdog urchins, the Tramp and the Orphan treat every setback and failure as a new opportunity. The ramshackle shed they live in may not be “Buckingham Palace”, but they still call it home. Chaplin may lose his factory job by virtue of simply being unable to do the work (a position many of us have faced), but he’s sure another opportunity is around the corner.
Soon, he finds work as a night-watchman in a department store, leading to a joyful scene of he and his young companion wordlessly rollerblading around the empty shop; the two enjoy a rare moment away from the misery of the world to take the pleasure in the simple things.
Work and poverty is a subject rarely tackled away from grim independent cinema, so it’s strange to find a slapstick comedy so devoted to such depressing scenery. What Chaplin understood more than any other silent comedian, and the reason his films have been popular for nearly 100 years, is that the best comedies rely on pathos.
Slapstick and silliness is all well and good, but when audiences truly care about the characters, the stories work so much better. Scenes like the department store skating rink and the Tramp’s climactic song-and-dance routine only work as set pieces because they offer rare respite from the doom and gloom, and give our scrappy heroes a victory that feels earned after losing every other encounter.
Every crushing defeat and cruel twist of fate leads Modern Times to its ending, which surely ranks as one of the greatest in all of cinema. Chased away from their well-paid jobs and home by the police (still pursuing Ellen for stealing bread), all hope seems lost for our heroes. As a downtrodden Ellen says, “What’s the point in trying?”. 1936 or 2016, it doesn’t matter, we’re all still searching for a reason to keep going. Ellen’s hopeless message is lost on the eternally sunny Tramp, who tells her to never give up and gives her the courage she needs to stand up and face whatever the world throws in their way. Modern Times ends on the most positive of notes, with the Tramp telling the Orphan to do the only thing they can: Smile.
Eighty years on from the release of Modern Times, the Tramp’s moral of smiling in the face of adversity continues to stand the test of time. Cynics may scoff, but the world needs more idealists like Chaplin. While the film’s subject matter is bleak, the Tramp and the Orphan always look for the bright side of life. Work may be repetitive and mind numbing, bureaucracy will always be nasty and unflinching, and the world is as cruel in our modern times as in Chaplin’s. What else can we do but laugh away the pain and look to better days? As the final title card of the film reads:
By Harry J. Ford
Follow Ford On Film on twitter: @Ford_On_Film
Like Ford On Film on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FordOnFilm/