Modern Times is slapstick with a Marxist bent. It is the 1936 silent comedy directed by legendary British comedian Charlie Chaplin, who still made silent films well into the sound era. It is not a film of belly laughs, as, say, Buster Keaton’s sublime The General, which ranks among my favorite films; Chaplin’s broad physical comedy is tempered by sly but lacerating social satire. As his Tramp gambols through joblessness, poverty, and romance, Chaplin emphasizes the plight of the working man, the proletariat up in arms.
The film opens with images of the rat race: the citizenry off to work at the beginning of the day. When we meet the Tramp, he is a factory worker on an assembly line. The only spoken dialogue is from the factory owner, a Big Brother-like figure who is seen barking orders on video monitors throughout the facility, even in the bathroom, where he orders the Tramp to get back to work. The comedy comes out of the monotonous work; the Tramp must tighten bolts so swiftly and repeatedly that his arms twist the motion even when he’s not on the line; at one point he chases down a woman wearing a coat with a pair of bolt-shaped buttons in dangerous places.
The last straw is an automated feeding machine that will eliminate the need for lunch breaks. The Tramp is strapped in, the machine malfunctions, and hilarity ensues. But the real crux of the scene is at the end, when the factory owner dismisses the barbaric device as “impractical.” Not worth the time or money. What a guy!
There is a parallel story involving a “gamin” (Paulette Goddard). When we meet her, she is stealing bananas to feed two younger sisters and an unemployed father. After their father dies suddenly, the sisters are taken into foster care and the gamin runs away. She will cross paths with the Tramp, and their love story will unfold against the backdrop of economic unrest.
To summarize more would simply give away the setups and payoffs. The film develops as a series of comic set pieces — independently staged gags connected narratively by the efforts of the characters to get ahead. We see the Tramp in prison, the Tramp as a night watchman, the Tramp as a singing waiter. These gags by themselves are frequently delightful — especially worthy of note is a foiled attempt to deliver a roast duck to an irate diner — but taken together we feel a melancholy underneath, a rising anger. When he is told he is to be released from prison, he asks if he can stay. This works as comic irony, but is also a sign of the times. In prison, the Tramp has regular meals and a place to sleep. Outside he is degraded, devalued, and struggles for food and shelter.
The romance is the heart of the film. The gamin and the Tramp form a bond based on their common struggle and fall in love, and their attempts to forge a life together lend gravitas to the comedy. A fantasy sequence imagines them as a suburban, middle-class married couple; later she tries to make that dream a reality by bringing him to a shanty so deep in disrepair that a chair falls straight through the rotted floorboards.
I won’t reveal the ending, except to say that it is surprisingly clear-eyed: hopeful but not naive, jovial but not tidy. It remains true to the rest of the film, whose comedy serves as a palliative for Depression-era social commentary that might otherwise have been shocking. A key scene shows the Tramp accidentally leading a Communist rally, but it’s not hard to imagine Chaplin himself waving the flag and taking to the streets. Modern Times is warm and funny, but it is revolution disguised as revelry.