Modern Times (1936) is a funny comedy; however, this silent film presents a very serious socialist critique of twentieth-century society. Chaplin portrays a factory worker on an assembly line that his tight-fisted employer keeps accelerating beyond the laborer’s capacity to keep up. The control-freak owner values only efficiency, so he spies on his workers via a television screen. He scolds them when they smoke during their five-minute breaks. The employer resembles Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984 (published in 1949). Also, the boss has Chaplin’s character test a new efficiency machine that enables a worker to eat while still doing his job. Obviously, the capitalist does not want to give workers any time for relaxation. But the machine malfunctions, mauling Chaplin, and the boss decides not to use it after all.
Machines with many large cogs dominate this movie as a symbol of the modern world. Chaplin includes many scenes in which the workers get caught in these cogs, representing their being ensnared in the capitalist enterprise that has no concern for workers’ safety, welfare, or happiness. Chaplin’s small stature provides a sharp contrast to his taller co-workers and to the gigantic machines.
Chaplin’s factory worker character has a nervous breakdown due to his oppressive and overwhelming job. He gets hospitalized but leaves the hospital unemployed. In one subsequent scene, the starving worker eats a tableful of food at a cafeteria but cannot pay for it. This marathon eating is hilarious but also emphasizes the precarious situation of the unemployed during the Great Depression. The factory worker gets arrested again for not paying for his food.
Rather than helping him, the police and other authorities keep throwing the tramp into prison. At one point, he joins a march of workers protesting their conditions, and the police arrest him again, claiming that he is the leader of the Communist march. Ironically, the factory worker likes prison because his needs get met.
Chaplin’s partner Paulette Goddard portrays Ellen Peterson, “the gamin,” a young woman who is also caught in the unfairness of modern society. She is an orphan trying to support her younger siblings when the authorities arbitrarily take them away from her. In another scene, police arrest Ellen for stealing a loaf of bread when she is starving. Chaplin tries to assist her, and they fall in love.
Ellen finds the couple housing, a small ramshackle wooden shack that is literally falling apart. Pieces of wood keep hitting the couple as they move around their home. This is a good satire of shantytowns during the 1930s.
The tramp and Ellen struggle to find work. He keeps losing jobs and facing unemployment and prison. While Chaplin is in prison, Ellen finds a decent job dancing to entertain people at a café/restaurant. She gets her boyfriend a similar job, and he waits on tables, dances, and sings to entertain the diners. However, this temporary success ends when the police come to arrest Ellen for stealing a loaf of bread some weeks earlier and escaping arrest. Clearly, Chaplin emphasizes that modern society makes life very hard for women.
The movie originally ended with Ellen joining a nunnery, but Chaplin rewrote this ending to make it more optimistic. Ellen and the tramp walk together down a road at dawn. Their future is uncertain, but they have some hope.