In 2012, we decided to ask one of our panelists or an additional scholar to write texts for each of our Action Speaks’ topics. This one by Charles Musser accompanies the 1936 Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ Debuts radio show. We hope that you enjoy it.
Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)
Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) spoke in comedic yet forceful terms about the crushing experiences of so many living through the Great Depression. Seventy-six years later, the film still speaks to many of us mired in the Great Recession. But first, some background.
Charlie Chaplin had not released a film for five years when Modern Times moved into movie theaters in February 1936. Curiosity, skepticism and suspense swirled around its approaching debut. Charlie was of the most famous people in the world; but his good friends Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, movie stars of the highest magnitude in the 1910s and 1920s, had recently retired from acting. The three of them had founded United Artists along with director D. W. Griffith, who was also in forced retirement. Chaplin was a silent comedian–-and determined to remain so––a decade into the era of sound movies. He played an old-fashioned, gentlemanly tramp but there was nothing gentlemanly or old-fashioned about the Depression. It seemed all too possible that the title of his new film’s––Modern Times––would be a sad misnomer—even the final act of his illustrious career.
Reviewers and moviegoers were not only relieved, they were ecstatic. Following the film’s world premiere on February 5th, Frank Nugent wrote in the New York Times
The polls are closed, the returns are in and Charlie Chaplin has been re-elected king of the clowns. In Modern Times, which opened Wednesday night at the Rivoli before an audience of his loyal subjects, his comic majesty was restored to the waiting throne, which he had abdicated five long years ago. When the little monarch returned, still wearing the royal raiment of battered derby hat, bamboo cane and speck of mustache, a might cry went up from the populace. King Charles was back and it was just as though he never had been away.
Writing from New York City to the Los Angeles Times, Norbert Lusk reported,
The magnificent reception given Modern Times by the press and public at last week’s premiere at the Rivoli Theater gains confirmation as the picture settles down for a long run. Every record achieved in the eighteen years the theater has stood on Broadway has been broken. For the first time in its existence, a showing at 2:30 am is a nightly occurrence and it is said that 70,000 persons saw the film over its first week-end. Be that as it may, the critical salvos are virtually without a parallel. There is everything to prove that reviewers consider Charlie Chaplin the greatest artist of the day as conclusively as exhibitors recognize him as the greatest attraction.
Debuts quickly followed in other major cities across the world: London’s Tivoli Theatre on February 11, Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Feb 12th, Boston’s Majestic Theatre on Feb 14th, Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand theater on Feb 21st, and Chicago’s United Artist Theater on Feb 22rd. Charlie was repeatedly hailed as “first among the comedians.” Then, less than two weeks after the New York premiere, Chaplin and his co-star Paulette Goddard left Los Angeles for Honolulu and then went on to Japan, China (they were secretly married in Shanghai) and the Philippines.
Chaplin’s work on Modern Times was bookended by world travel. His ideas for the film perhaps began to develop as he left Los Angeles on January 31st, 1931—one day after the world premiere of City Lights. Stopping off in New York City for that local unveiling on February 6th, he told New York World reporter Flora Merrill: “While crossing the continent I have been talking to all sorts of men—railroad men, workers, fellow travellers––and I heard that times are even harder than before the end of the old year.” These encounters led him to conclude that “The present deplorable conditions certainly cannot be charged against the five million men out of work, ready to work, anxious to work, and yet unable to get jobs.” He was also highly critical of laborsaving devices, which he felt should make people’s lives better instead of generating more profits. These concerns would provide a framework for the film he would undertake four years later.
A week after the New York premiere of City Lights, Chaplin departed for Europe where he met many kinds of people. In England, the filmmaker not only met the Prince of Wales, Churchill and Gandhi but also visited the Poor Law School in Hanwell, where he had spent time as a child, and an old pub in Blackburn where he had lodged while a young struggling actor (for the latter visit he went unrecognized). He arrived back in Los Angeles via Yokohama, Japan, on June 10, 1932. Within a few weeks, he announced an economic plan that was designed to stimulate the economy by increasing the quantity of money in circulation. It was a front-page news story.
Chaplin’s Modern Times seems more or less consciously poised on a semiotic seesaw. Artistically, he was torn between working within the tradition of silent film and pantomime that he had mastered and staying up-to-date by moving into the sound era. The comedy offers an ingenious middle ground as we hear Charlie’s voice in Modern Times, but only at the end and only as he sings a nonsense song. There are other voices, but they are always mediated through technologies such as radio or closed circuit television. Indeed Charlie’s tramp is caught in a similar time trap. Although the film is clearly is set in the modern times of mid-1930s America, Charlie remains the old 19th century gentleman tramp. Charlie had been an old-fashioned tramp even in the Keystone and Essanay films of 1914-15, while The Gold Rush (1925) was cleverly set during the Klondike gold rush of 1897-99. By the 1930s, Chaplin’s tramp character was no longer old-fashioned: he was from another realm of time entirely. This disjunction was further underscored by his use of panchromatic film. The tramp’s white flesh tones in the 1910s and 1920s had depended on pancake make up and orthochromatic film stock: conventions that were shared across the industry. This look had become antiquated with the regular use of panchromatic film by the early 1930s. Chaplin used panchromatic film for Modern Times and bestowed realistic skin tones on his co-star Paulette Goddard. This flattered his leading lady but emphasized his on-screen identity as a silent clown. Likewise the factory settings, the strikes, riots, clothing, and other sets were all current with the times even as Chaplin recycled and reworked many of the gags from his classic films of the 1910s (Work, The Rink, The Floorwalker, Police and so forth). Even the opening credits, which are superimposed over a clock, look backwards to the opening moments of The Pawnshop (1916) in which Charlie enters the shop and checks his pocket watch against a wall calendar. (The clock is the embodiment of industrial discipline and Chaplin starts this film with a clock as a quietly ominous backdrop.) A somewhat distant past (20 years earlier)––recalled nostalgically––and a harsh present are interwoven, but not seamlessly. It is worth noting that Modern Times was the last hurrah for Chaplin’s tramp character. The filmmaker must have found these tensions, both intended and unavoidable, to be at once compelling and unsustainable.
The comedy’s semiotic seesaw operated along several different axes and is strongly evident in its reception. Of course, everyone acknowledged that Chaplin’s story had a contemporary setting and resonated with contemporary events. Charlie, the tramp character, is clearly identified in the film as “a worker.” Just out of jail, Charlie walks down a street and picks up a red flag that has fallen off a truck with an oversized load. A group of strikers fall in behind him, and the police assume that our innocent tramp is a labor agitator: he is quickly clobbered and arrested. So was Chaplin’s tramp now siding with the Communists—despite himself? Another time, our apparently apolitical worker tries to avoid a labor confrontation: as he leaves, Charlie steps on a plank, which sends a brick flying onto the head of a policeman—which again gets him arrested as a labor agitator. Is Charlie slyly, “unconsciously” or perhaps despite his conscious intentions fighting for unions and the radical political groups? This is certainly one possible interpretation. After all, in earlier Chaplin comedies, the tramp seemingly does not intend to hit his boss or supervisor with a ladder or some other handy weapon—but does so with telling consistency.
In fact, Chaplin went out of his way to insist that Modern Times was not political, at least in this respect. One newspaper article, headlined “Chaplin Denies Any Attempt at Propaganda,” read:
Chaplin said before sailing that “a lot of highbrow critics and many professional sympathizers with radical politics have seen in my pictures a significance that is not there. They think the gags about the parade and the strike indicate an antipathy to capital and a desire to present subtle propaganda.”
Chaplin said he disliked to disagree with person so undoubtedly sincere and so intelligent and sympathetic toward him personally as his self-appointed highbrow interpreters who see his comedy as a solemn effort to carry out a mission but feels he has to set himself right.
“Maybe I’m wrong in trying to be funny,” Charlie said, “but all I was thinking of and trying to bring about was something that would induce people to laugh. I have my serious moments, but my movie was only trying to amuse. I want people to laugh at me, not to think big thoughts.”
Mae Tinée of the Chicago Tribune eagerly obliged: “Modern Times… is really great entertainment. The story is utterly fantastical and, contrary to rumors that have been rumbling round and round, preaches no sermons.” Another critic observed, “Whether the little tramp is a comic soldier, a street cleaner, a heroic prospector, a circus performer, or, as in his late picture, Modern Times… a cog in the well-oiled machine of the modern factory system, he remains always the same shabby-genteel waif in a cruel and unconquerable world that will have none of him. And always his uniform is the same: derby, moustache, shoes and cane.” Many but not all critics supported this apolitical reading. Of course, one long-established strategy of political filmmakers is to insist their films are not political. Yet another analysis would note that films are often intentionally ambiguous and even internally contradictory texts such that they can be read differently depending on how one chooses to read them.
Modern Times, nevertheless, seeks to articulate the experiences of millions of employed and unemployed workers in the Great Depression—workers who often suffered intermittent employment as does his character. Recognizing and sympathizing with the workers’ plight in its many dimension was itself a radical act. The first part of the film looks at the employed in these severe economic times even as it offers a burlesque or satire on modern industrialization, the dehumanization of the assembly line and the use of labor saving devices to further exploit those workers lucky enough to have a job. This extended sequence seems more straight forward, though it too is open to a range of interpretations. Charlie is a worker on an assembly line, whose job is to endlessly tighten bolts. It is identified as a steel factory, but the place looks nothing like a steel mill. This naming is an obvious cover or displacement for something else. We never actually see what is produced, but this assembly line in its very abstraction strongly evokes the Ford assembly line. If much of Modern Times offers a backward look, this applies to the assembly line as well. Chaplin began work in motion pictures—for Mack Sennett—in December 1913 at virtually the same moment that Henry Ford was introducing the assembly line for auto manufacturing. Ten years later, in October 1923, Chaplin actually visited Henry Ford and his auto assembly plant in Highland Park, and the large dynamo in the background of the group portrait with Chaplin, Henry Ford and his son Edsel, is recalled in the Expressionistic factory where Charlie works. [photo]
The assembly line provides a crucial starting point and anchor for Modern Times. The idea of the Ford assembling line was transferred from the slaughterhouse in which the carcasses of animals were disassembled. This suggests an intriguing interpretation of the opening shot –a herd of sheep that dissolves to a group of men emerging from the subway and heading to the factory where we will eventually glimpse Charlie tightening bolts on the line. These workers are lambs being led to the slaughter, their humanity to be disassembled through their incorporation into a technology of the slaughterhouse itself. Overseeing it all is the master capitalist who sits in a spartan office. This figure with his white hair again easily stands in for Ford himself. This is further underscored as this corporate mastermind tells the bare-chested man at the controls to increase the speed of the line. In fact, Ford was known for slowly increasingly the speed of his factory assembly lines each week to extract greater productivity from his workers. Much of Chaplin’s comedy in the 1910s and beyond involved resistance to work of all kinds, but particularly to the regimented workplace. Here, in Modern Times, both the regimentation and the resistance are taken to a logical conclusion.
The world of Henry Ford was expressionistically visualized even as it was transposed through the introduction of two other futuristic technologies that are closely linked in terms of the film’s comic, semantic seesaw. One is an automatic eating machine that is designed to feed workers even as they still work on the line. It is meant to be a labor saving device. Charlie is the unlucky guinea pig as the inventor seeks to demonstrate its efficiencies; but as the machine malfunctions, Charlie ends up the comic victim of physical abuse—a comic demonstration of the worker’s reduction to a dehumanized state. The other futuristic technology is less obviously funny and involves the use of close-circuit television as an instrument of pervasive surveillance. This employment of television cameras and screens throughout the factory is a modernized version of Foucault’s panopticon, which allows the company president to monitor his corporate domain, from different sections of the factory floor to the bathrooms—and then chastise or command those in his purview. It is not that everyone is being watched at every moment but that they might be being watched at any given moment, which makes this technology so effective and intruding. Charlie retreats to the bathroom for a quick smoke and via the surveillance system, the corporate president tells him to get back to work. This futuristic technology, which has since become embedded in our daily lives in only slightly modified form, was a mere abstraction of Ford’s Service Department or Internal Security, headed by Harry Bennett (1892–1979). As Wikipedia puts it, “The job of the Service Department was to deal with the growing labor unrest and the labor unions that were starting to form. Ford had instituted a policy called “speed up” by which the speed of the assembly lines were increased slightly every week and employees were feeling the strain.” Farm boys, Chaplin noted in his autobiography, often suffered nervous breakdowns after a few years on the line. The tramp’s nervous breakdown, which leads to the total disruption of the assembly line, has a much more direct cause-and-effect relationship than is the case in his earlier films such as The Pawnshop where the tramp’s resistance and destructive ineptitude have no direct basis in the job itself.
Modern Times takes place in a city that is never specified (and purposefully abstracted) but is effectively Detroit. During 1932-1935 and beyond, Detroit was a center of industrial conflict and violence of the kind that Chaplin was evoking in Modern Times. The father of the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) is killed during a demonstration—leaving his young children destitute and headed to a state institution (like the one Chaplin had himself experienced). One counterpart that took place in Detroit was the Ford Hunger March, which also became known as the Ford Massacre. Workers––organized by the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft and Vehicle Workers of America––marched to the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan—on March 7, 1932. They planned to present Ford with a petition of 14 demands. As they approached, Dearborn Police and Ford’s Security met the workers with tear gas and clubs. The confrontation spilled out of control and four workers were killed (a fifth died from his wounds several months later). Frequent strikes and labor unrest continued not only at Ford but also at the factories of its suppliers. Desperate workers were condemned as Communists even as Ford did everything possible to oppose the unions. Employment fluctuated and there was no unemployment insurance or other elements of a “safety net.” The scene in which ex-workers break into a store—where Charlie found work as a night watchman—again resonated with reality. Charlie and the Gamine (Paulette Godard) live for a time in a Hooverville shack: this emblem of the depression may be a home of sorts but it is a comically dangerous one. The almost comical disorganization of employment and the recurrent obsession with food in Modern Times are all part of the fabric of Depression America–-read undoubtedly through Chaplin’s own memories of desperation as a young child.
Did the unemployed and underemployed find a way to see Modern Times? Looking for any kind of cause and effect between this film and larger political and economic changes would be absurd, but Robert S. McElvaine in his book The Great Depression suggests that it was important for the desperate and unemployed to recognize that the lack of a job was not their failure but a larger collective one—something Chaplin’s film and his personal comments in the press sought to underscore. By the end of 1936, the United Auto Workers had launched a sit down strikes in Flint, Michigan, which would force General Motors to recognize the UAW in a one-page agreement on February 1, 1937—less than a year after Modern Times debuted.
How Detroit residents responded to the film is difficult to tell. It opened on February 20th at the United Artists theater and played for three weeks––an extended run. Tickets were 30¢ before 2 pm—and perhaps some unemployed or underemployed went at these reduced rates, but very few would have had the extra cash unless others in the household were working. The very conservative Detroit Fee Press, undoubtedly in coordination with United Artists and even Chaplin, pretended the politics of the film and the filmmaker did not exist. Advanced publicity declared that Modern Times “is of interest because it reveals an almost firece loyalty to his associates that is an outstanding Chaplin characteristic. Throughout all those years of inactivity Chaplin maintained his complete technical staff and to a large extent the same actors who helped produce The Kid [ed-1920].” The day before it local premiere, the Press ran an article “Chaplin Denies That He’s ‘Red’,” in which Chaplin’s business manager Alf Reeves proclaimed:
For general information, Mr. Chaplin is not Jewish. Neither is he a communist. He has no political affiliations whatever, nor does he intend his comedy to convey propaganda of any kind. He film was made solely for entertainment and laughing purposes and to endeavor to please his great motion picture audienecs everywhere.
Reviewer Ella H. McCormick had a delicate task. Declaring the film to be “Impish in its central figure,” she remarked that it “offers an admired old friend [Chaplin’s tramp] in a new frame.” Astutely but discretely, she declared
The Chaplinesque sense of humor, shrewd showmanship and complete disregard of the conventional has entered so forthrightly into the picture as to make it stand alone in supreme merit among Chaplin’s cinemas. With unceasing action, it tells its dramatic, comic, pathetic, satirical story without benefit of words. Chaplin has taken the restlessness, speed and hardness of current existence to exploit inevitable incidents to provoke laughter, resentment, fear, sorrow, tears. The spectator’s reaction is likely to be sustained admiration for the genius of the man who conceived and accomplished a cinema production so risque and stimulating. “
Without ever suggesting that Modern Times spoke to Detroit residents and auto workers in particularly direct and forceful ways, McCormick’s characterization of the film as risque and unconventional quietly acknowledged the film’s achievement as a social statement.
Despite its enthusiastic reception both critically and at the box office, Modern Times was completely forgotten when it came to the Academy Awards. Chaplin as an independent filmmaker lacked the clout to ensure recognition. Moreover, despite Chaplin’s claims to producing an apolitical film, few were fooled. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to acknowledge the Depression, My Man Godfrey (1936) was a much safer choice and received six different nominations. Its protagonist (William Powell) is a rich Bostonian who goes to live in a Hooverville in a fit of despair over a broken love affair. He finds the spirit of the men living in the shantytown to be inspirational and restorative.
Today’s Great Recession makes it easy for us to look back at Modern Times with a sense of connection. In today’s moment of high and sustained unemployment, the problems and terms are somewhat different. There is unemployment insurance—though it can run out. Older people use up their life savings and fall back on early social security. Younger people again live with parents. Others lose their homes and live in a car. The homeless have become a more common sight as some camp out or live in shelters. Others in despair commit suicide and sometimes take their families with them. Modern Times offers us a way to reflect on an earlier moment when the unemployed were often dismissed as lazy and felt to be failures—when life was different but for many perhaps not all that very different from today.
Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) © Charles Musser 2012
Charles Musser, Professor of American Studies, Film Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University where he teaches courses on silent cinema and documentary. His books include The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (1990). He recently completed the documentary Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2012) with Carina Tautu.
 Frank S. Nugent, “The Reign of Good King Charlie,” New York Times, 9 February 1936, X5.
 “Reception of Chaplin Film Unparalleled,” Los Angeles Times, 16 February 1936, C3.
 “New Film Reviewed,” Daily Boston Globe, 15 February 1936, 11.
 Flora Merrill, New York World, February 1931, in David Robinson, Chaplin, 457.
 Robinson, Chaplin, 424, 438.
 “Chaplin Tells Economic Plan,” Los Angeles Times, 27 June 1932, A1.
 George Shaffer, “Chaplin Denies Any Attempt at Propaganda,” Chicago Tribune, 20 February 1936, 13.
 Mae Tineé, “Chaplin Same Old Comic in His New Film,” Chicago Tribune, 25 February 1936, 17.
 “Charlie Chaplin’s Perennial Tramp,” Boston Globe, 23 February 1936, A38.
 To offer a recent example, cinema verité filmmakers publicly insisted that they have no preconceptions about the Iraq war that they were covering. Their films were not pro-war or anti-war but just trying to show the war “like it is.”
 “Portrait of Charles Chaplin with Henry and Edsel Ford 10/15/23. Edsel Ford, Charles Chaplin and Henry Ford standing in front of a piece of machinery. In 1936 Chaplin would poke a jab at the Ford style assembly line in his masterpiece, “Modern Times.” (“Digital Learning Objects@Wayne State University,” net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/MWRC09_169336.pdf)
 For a perceptive analysis of the way food is mobilized through this film, see Gregory Stephens, “Biting Back at the Machine: Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times,” Senses of Cinema, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/biting-back-at-the-machine-charlie-chaplin%E2%80%99s-modern-times/.
 Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 383.
 “Len G. Shaw, “’Modern Times’ Reveals Charlie Chaplin’s Lyality to Friends of Another Day,” Detroit Free Press, 18 February 1936, 9.
 George Shaffer, “Chaplin Denies That He’s ‘Red’,” Detroit Free Press, 19 February 1926, 8.
 Ella H. McCormick, “Shop Worker Goes Berserk,” Detroit Free Press, 21 February 1936, 13.