This is post #23 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry.
Without further ado, #78 “Modern Times”
Leave it to a Brit to accurately assess the problems the United States’ working class faces in a stinging yet humorous fashion.
No, not John Oliver, it’s the Tramp himself, Charlie Chaplin, and although the film was released in 1936, “Modern Times” is a remarkable look at what the average blue-collar worker in the U.S. faces. Though this isn’t generally regarded as science fiction, it might as well be, as Chaplin basically invented the dystopian society so commonly seen in literature and film for decades. It could also be called prophetic, as the corporate-driven world he envisioned basically became reality. Even though he saw society through the lens of the Great Depression, the film still resonates today, and maybe even more so, taking its age into consideration.
Chaplin plays a man simply known as The Factory Worker, and he’s apparently tasked with tweaking screws on an assembly line that goes a bit faster than he’s able to handle. The factory itself is constructed of a maze of levers and gears. The president of the company sits in his office and keeps an eye on the different areas of the plant through the use of two-way video screens he can control with a dial. Chaplin was generous in allowing the president to be kindly enough to afford his workers the courtesy of seeing him too, as factory surveillance only goes one way in reality. The boss even keeps tabs on the Worker when he’s taking a smoke break in the restroom, telling him to get back to work!
The Worker goes through a number of jobs over the course of the movie, never finding a place where he can manage to not wreak so much havoc and somehow get himself thrown in prison. Along the way, he meets a poor woman (Paulette Goddard) who steals for a living to provide for her two daughters after her father is shot and killed during a Communist protest. The “threat” of a Marxist uprising always looms in the background, as there are several flare-ups throughout the film. The worker even gets himself arrested for accidentally leading a protest.
At one point, the Worker finds he prefers prison to trying to make it out in the real world. That’s after he mistakenly shakes a bit of his fellow prisoner’s “nose powder” all over his food after the guy hid it in a salt shaker. The Worker is understandably a bit disoriented and gets himself locked out of his cell. Then, he stumbles his way into preventing a jailbreak, and the police name him a hero. Thus, he is afforded a more comfortable cell, and considering his situation, one can understand why he’s not so quick to return to the world.
So, of course, once he’s out, he makes every attempt to get himself put back in prison, but to no avail. He goes to a restaurant and has himself a feast, then declares he can’t pay. He goes to a cigar salesman, grabs a one of his wares and starts puffing right in front of him, but somehow manages to elude capture despite his best efforts. It’s obvious the world does not work in a way the Worker understands, as every attempt he makes at doing something he believes will improve his situation, ends up working completely counter to what he’d hoped. But meeting the woman gives him some direction, as they fall in love after he helps her flee after being arrested herself for her thievery. So, he becomes determined to work for a living in order to be able to afford a better life for the two of them.
So, in his attempts to find good work, he winds up back in jail a few times. By the end of the film, he finally discovers that he could make a living at singing, but the police catch up to the woman for fleeing arrest earlier, so the pair must once again go on the run. They head off into the sunset with the bleak, but hopeful belief that they’ll find a way to make it. Unfortunately, Charlie didn’t know World War II was just around the corner, which ironically, would be the catalyst to bringing the U.S. out of the Depression.
The film is extremely cynical of the idea of the free market, which the first title card describes as “Humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” The first shot of the movie shows a herd of sheep trying to move through a narrow space, which then bleeds into men coming up a subway stairwell. An inventor comes to the worker’s factory touting a machine that would automatically feed the
cattle workers, so they would never have to take a break for food. In testing it on the Worker, of course, the machine’s process goes horribly wrong, especially with the spinning corn-on-the-cob feeder, as you might imagine. Graciously, as far as the workers are concerned, the president sees that this contraption isn’t feasible and cans the idea. Today, if a company buys into a network or system or program built to improve efficiency, the company will continue to tout it and keep pushing it on its workers. If the workers complain that the thing doesn’t work, then the company will send out memos telling them they are doing something wrong, and it’s their fault the system isn’t working, even if they follow all instructions to the letter. So, even as cynical as Charlie was, he still wasn’t cynical enough for the real world.
For Chaplin, the film also likely represented his own misgivings about the industrial revolution and what it would mean for a silent film producer, like him, especially with the advent of talkies. Certainly, in many ways, modernization and technology can produce wonderful tools, but only for people who can afford them, while the rest are left in the dust because they can’t keep up for one reason or another.
The film is naturally presented with all of the glorious slapstick Chaplin is most known for, but even for people who don’t enjoy that form of comedy, it’s only window dressing for the intelligently plotted situations and the world that he has “created” for its resemblance of reality. Some of it is only funny because if you didn’t laugh at it, it would just be so depressing.
At one point, the Worker gets a job as a night watch at a department store. On his first night, a gang of burglars breaks in. One of them happens to be one of his coworkers from the factory. Recognizing the Worker, the coworker says “We aren’t burglars. We’re hungry.”
The film is a good depiction of the struggle of being poor in the U.S. although the Worker is much more clumsy and careless than the average employee. It’s unlikely anyone could manage to accidentally sink an entire ship while working at a shipyard. But work is not steady for everyone, and it’s not always easy to find. Unlike in “Modern Times,” when a company lays off its workers, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be called back in to work again, at least for that same company. Prison is probably not a preferable option anymore, but then again, at least your needs are taken care of there. One man did steal a single dollar from a bank a few years ago, just so he could be put in prison where he could get healthcare. Thankfully, that situation’s been improved since then.
“Modern Times” is a classic film that accurately represents the struggles of working people in a capitalistic society, with a wink and a nod and a pie to the face. It serves as an interesting bridge between silent films and talkies, as viewers can observe a man who was a master of his era as he struggles to adjust to the modern age.
Next up #77. “All the President’s Men”