Two of the most well known silent film stars had deeper messages for their audiences beyond their humor and physical comedy. While Keaton was the king of the outcasts, Chaplin was the champion of the workingman. Buster Keaton was much quieter about broad political concerns. He tended to focus on the struggles of the individual. In the films that I have reviewed previously, Buster focuses on family dysfunctional relationships. Although, he does depict himself as unemployed in his short film, The Goat. His follies are often a result of missing the social cues. In the Goat, there is a scene with a breadline. Buster goes to the bread window cutting the long line of fellow jobless. Upon learning of his mistake, he heads to the back of the line or so he thinks. He gets behind some mannequins placed near the line. By the time he figures out the stationary line he’s standing in is merely an illusion the bread window closes. The breadline depicts desperate times. And the dummies are a depiction of the dehumanization of the impoverished. The line is really just an example of those who understand the system, which eludes Buster.
Chaplin on the other hand was particularly supportive of the plight of the working class, and uses his films to impart his criticism of post war and newly industrialized society. Utilizing his character “The Tramp” Chaplin would vocalize his distaste in the treatment of the lower class though his physical comedy. As one of Chaplin’s first non-silent films, Modern Times depicting the hardships experienced by the impoverished was an important message to be communicated by Chaplin. In the film’s opening scene, sheep are squeezed together as they travel along a chute. Then, there is bird’s eye shot of men emerging from a subway, crowded together on a sidewalk rushing to their jobs in a factory. This quick intellectual montage creates a feeling of hopelessness as the faceless crowd of workers shuffle into the factory. One cannot help but notice the comparison Chaplin has made between the sheep headed to a distasteful destiny and the workers heading to mindless, meaningless monotony. Furthermore, the only consistent sounds in the film come from the machines in the factory, while the characters are silent. Chaplin is further asserting that machines rule modern society and there is no longer a place for the individual.
In Modern Times, Chaplin is a worker on the conveyer line with two other men. His job is to tighten the bolts on a plate before it gets to the others who have other simple tasks. Of course as precursor to other future conveyer scenes such as Lucille Ball’s famous chocolate factory foible, this scene pans over to “The Tramp” out of sync with the others and the rhythm of conveyer belt. He encroaches on the other workers who never seem to move from their spots. At one point later in the film, he lands on the belt and goes through and around giant gears before the belt is reversed. Of course, there is more going on than just the work delay in section five where the Tramp is stationed. We see the boss who unlike his workers is reading a paper and working on a jigsaw puzzle, which symbolizes more of a puzzle as to why he seems to be out of touch with anything other than production matters. Certainly, management is not interested in the worker only the whirl of mechanical production. In a Wizard of Oz like fashion, the boss is able to see and be seen by the workers in order to speed up production at his whim. In attempt to give his workers more time on the line, he is shown a mechanical feeding machine that can make mealtime more efficient. Of course, the Tramp extracted from his job on the assembly line is the test candidate. A close up of the Tramp strapped into the machine provides hilarity when it malfunctions shoving bolt into his mouth instead of pastries, and finally hits in the face with a cream pie. The boss deems the prototype a failure-“It’s no good-it isn’t practical” as shown by the title card. After a mental breakdown and a stay at a mental hospital, the Tramp returns to the factory which has shut down; so although he is cured, he is now unemployed. There is footage of crowded streets crammed with others who are jobless, yet another intellectual montage depicting desperate times. Grim, gray masses move without direction.
After his dismal portrayal of factory life and workers, Chaplin shows us how he prefers life in prison to being unemployed and starving in the streets. Chaplin makes a bold socialist statement by having the Tramp “mistakenly” lead a workers protest. After picking up a red flag that falls from a construction vehicle, he gets caught in a worker demonstration and mistaken for its leader by the police. Once in jail, he discovers a prison is a place where he is happy and comfortable. Although he has a few comical altercations with fellow prisoners, he stops an escape attempt and wins the favor of the guards. Unfortunately he is not able to stay in prison forever. He repeatedly tries to break the law to get back in prison to get back to the better life. As a perk for heroism, he is given a letter by the warden attesting to his superior character. Chaplin is suggesting that perhaps the prison offenses are unjust. Just in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, the poor suffer wrongs and are incarcerated because they are poor. Perhaps, Modern Times is the Chaplin American film version of the Hugo story as there are many similarities.
Chaplin continues to highlight the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots. As Gamine and Chaplin pass a department store, the night watchman is being carried to an ambulance with a broken leg. Gamine encourages Chaplin to apply for the position. With his letter, he is given the job. Once all the employees have left, he brings Gamine into the store where they have the good life. The Tramp and his love interest Gamine dress in furs and live the good life in a department store after hours. The good times are coming to an end. In his rounds, he encounters burglars who are his former steel workers who have hit the store in hard times-“We ain’t burglars, we’re hungry”. Rather than call the authorities as The Tramp can relate to their predicament, the group begins opening champagne. After drinking in the department store café with his friends in solidarity, he passes out. Discovered among the fabrics, he loses his job and is thrown in jail. Released, he finds Gamine has waited for him. Gamine has managed to build a shack so they can try to live the life they envisioned. It looks like their luck has improved when the factory has reopened. Their fortune is short lived when the workers go back on strike the same day the Tramp has been hired, and again the Tramp is jailed. Again released, Gamine is transformed. Gamine has landed a cabaret job and also gets Chaplin hired a singing waiter. Within this turn of events is rare scene of Chaplin singing. This film had been planned to be the first talkie, but he abandoned that idea as it was feared that a departure from the silent genre would ruin his film career. As ever, the love birds luck disappears with an arrest warrant for vagrancy for Gamine. The film concludes with their escape from the police and with the Tramp and Gamine free from society’s restraints to walk hand in hand into the sunset hoping still for a better life.
It was in this film, Modern Times, that Chaplin made his last appearance as the “little tramp”. Chaplin was viewed as someone with very strong views on economic and social problems of this era. He was well read on the subjects. He created his own economic theory, and used this film to turn his concerns into comedy. For many reasons, this is a film that is worth watching as entertainment and as a historical societal commentary.