Modern Times is a 1936 comedy film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin in which his iconic Little Tramp character struggles to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and fiscal conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in Chaplin's view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization. The movie stars Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford and Chester Conklin.
Modern Times was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress in 1989, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Fourteen years later, it was screened "out of competition" at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
Modern Times portrays Chaplin as a factory worker employed on an assembly line. There, he is subjected to such indignities as being force-fed by a "modern" feeding machine and an accelerating assembly line where he screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery. He finally suffers a nervous breakdown and runs amok, throwing the factory into chaos. He is sent to a hospital. Following his recovery, the now unemployed factory worker is mistakenly arrested as an instigator in a Communist demonstration. In jail, he accidentally ingests smuggled cocaine, mistaking it for salt. In his subsequent delirium, he gets out of the jail. When he returns, he stumbles upon a jailbreak and knocks the convicts unconscious. He is hailed a hero and is released.
Outside the jail, he applies for a new job but leaves after causing an accident. He runs into an orphaned girl, the Gamin (Paulette Goddard), who is fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread. To save the girl, he tells police that he is the thief and ought to be arrested. A witness reveals his deception and he is freed. To get arrested again, he eats an enormous amount of food at a cafeteria without paying. He meets up with the Gamin in the paddy wagon, which crashes, and the girl convinces him to escape with her. Dreaming of a better life, he gets a job as a night watchman at a department store, sneaks the Gamin into the store, and even lets burglars have some food. Waking up the next morning in a pile of clothes, he is arrested once more.
Ten days later, the Gamin takes him to a new home â" a run-down shack that she admits "isn't Buckingham Palace" but will do. The next morning, the factory worker reads about an old factory re-opening and lands a job there. He gets his boss trapped in machinery, but manages to extricate him. The other workers decide to go on strike. Accidentally paddling a brick into a policeman, he is arrested again. Two weeks later, he is released and learns that the Gamin is a cafÃ© dancer. She tries to get him a job as a singer and a waiter. At his new job, however, he finds it difficult to tell the difference between the "in" and "out" doors to the kitchen, or to successfully deliver a roast duck to table through a busy dance floor. During his floor show, he loses a cuff that bears the lyrics of his song, but he rescues his act by improvising the story using an amalgam of word play, words in (or made up of word parts from) multiple languages and mock sentence structure while pantomiming. His act proves a hit. When police arrive to arrest the Gamin for her earlier escape, they escape again. The Gamin despairs that there's no point to their struggling, but the factory worker assures her that they'll make it somehow. In the final scene, they walk down a road at dawn, towards an uncertain but hopeful future.
- Charles Chaplin as a Factory Worker (billed as Charlie Chaplin)
- Paulette Goddard as a Gamin
- Henry Bergman as the CafÃ© Proprietor
- Tiny Sandford as Big Bill (billed as Stanley Sandford)
- Chester Conklin as a Mechanic
- Hank Mann as the Burglar
- Stanley Blystone as Gamin's Father
- Al Ernest Garcia as the President of the Electro Steel Corp. (billed as Allan Garcia)
- Richard Alexander as the Prison Cellmate (billed as Dick Alexander)
- Cecil Reynolds as a Minister
- Mira McKinney as the Minister's Wife (billed as Myra McKinney)
- Murdock MacQuarrie as J. Widdecombe Billows (billed as Murdoch McQuarrie)
- Wilfred Lucas as the Juvenile Officer
- Edward LeSaint as Sheriff Couler (billed as Ed Le Sainte)
- Fred Malatesta as the CafÃ© Head Waiter
- Gloria DeHaven as Gamin's sister (unbilled)
During a European tour promoting City Lights, Chaplin got the inspiration for Modern Times from both the lamentable conditions of the continent through the Great Depression, along with a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi in which Gandhi complained about "machinery with only consideration of profit".
Chaplin began preparing the film in 1934 as his first "talkie", and went as far as writing a dialogue script and experimenting with some sound scenes. However, he soon abandoned these attempts and reverted to a silent format with synchronized sound effects. The dialogue experiments confirmed his long-standing conviction that the universal appeal of his "Little Tramp" character would be lost if the character ever spoke on screen. Most of the film was shot at "silent speed", 18 frames per second, which when projected at "sound speed", 24 frames per second, made the slapstick action appear even more frenetic. Available prints of the film now correct this. The duration of filming was long for the time, beginning on October 11, 1934 and ending on August 30, 1935.
The reference to drugs seen in the prison sequence is somewhat daring for the time (since the production code, established in 1930, forbade the depiction of illegal drug use in films); Chaplin had made drug references before in one of his most famous short films, Easy Street, released in 1917.
According to the official documents, the music score was composed by Chaplin himself, and arranged with the assistance of Alfred Newman. The romance theme was later given lyrics, and became the pop standard "Smile", first recorded by Nat King Cole and later covered by such artists as Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Trini Lopez, Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Michael BublÃ©, Petula Clark, Liberace, Judy Garland, Madeleine Peyroux, PlÃ¡cido Domingo and Dionne Warwick, Michael Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr. (included on the soundtrack for the film Chaplin).
Modern Times was the first film where Chaplin's voice is heard as he performs LÃ©o Daniderff's comical song Je cherche aprÃ¨s Titine. Chaplin's version is also known as The Nonsense Song, as his character sings it in gibberish. The lyrics are nonsensical but appear to contain words from French and Italian; the use of deliberately half-intelligible wording for comic effect points the way towards Adenoid Hynkel's speeches in The Great Dictator.
According to film composer David Raksin, he wrote the music as a young man wanting to make a name for himself. Chaplin would sit, often in the washroom, humming tunes and telling Raksin to "take this down". Raksin's job was to turn the humming into a score and create timings and synchronization that fit the situations. Chaplin was a violinist and had some musical knowledge, but he was not an orchestrator and was unfamiliar with synchronization. Raksin later created scores for such films as Laura and The Day After.
Modern Times is often hailed as one of Chaplin's greatest achievements, and it remains one of his most popular films.
French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merlau-Ponty named their journal, Les Temps modernes, after it.
The film did not perform as well commercially at the US box office but returns in other countries meant it was profitable.
The iconic depiction of Chaplin working frantically to keep up with an assembly line inspired later comedy routines including Disney's Der Fuehrer's Face (Donald Duck alternately assembling artillery shells and saluting portraits of Adolf Hitler) and an episode of I Love Lucy titled "Job Switching" (Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with an ever-increasing volume of chocolate candies, eventually stuffing them in their mouths, hats, and blouses). The opening of a fantasy sequence in the film, in which the unemployed factory worker trips over a foot stool upon entering the living room of his "dream home" with the Gamin, inspired a similar opening to The Dick Van Dyke Show.
This was Chaplin's first overtly political-themed film, and its unflattering portrayal of industrial society generated controversy in some quarters upon its initial release.
The film exhibits notable similarities to a 1931 French film directed by RenÃ© Clair entitled Ã nous la libertÃ© (Liberty for Us)Â â" the assembly line sequence is a clear instance. The German film company Tobis Film sued Chaplin following the film's release to no avail. They sued again after World War II (considered revenge for Chaplin's later anti-Nazi statements in The Great Dictator). This time, they settled with Chaplin out of court. Clair, a huge admirer of Chaplin who was flattered that the film icon would imitate him, was deeply embarrassed that Tobis Film would sue Chaplin and was never part of the case.
The film did attract criticism for being almost completely silent, despite the movie industry having long since embraced the talking picture. Chaplin famously feared that the mystery and romanticism of the tramp character would be ruined if he spoke, and feared it would alienate his fans in non-English speaking territories. His future films, however, would be fully fledged "talkies"Â â" although without the character of the Little Tramp.
Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance has written of the reception and legacy of this classic comedy, "Modern Times is perhaps more meaningful now than at any time since its first release. The twentieth-century theme of the film, farsighted for its timeâ"the struggle to eschew alienation and preserve humanity in a modern, mechanized worldâ"profoundly reflects issues facing the twenty-first century. The Trampâs travails in Modern Times and the comedic mayhem that ensues should provide strength and comfort to all who feel like helpless cogs in a world beyond control. Through its universal themes and comic inventiveness, Modern Times remains one of Chaplinâs greatest and most enduring works. Perhaps more important, it is the Trampâs finale, a tribute to Chaplinâs most beloved character and the silent-film era he commanded for a generation."
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - #81
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - #33
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - #78
- Ã Nous la LibertÃ©
- List of United States comedy films
- List of films featuring surveillance
- Modern Times at the Internet Movie Database
- Modern Times at Rotten Tomatoes
- Modern Times at the TCM Movie Database
- Modern Times at AllMovie
- Filmsite Modern Times page
- Movie stills and bibliography
- Tour of Modern Times filming locations