The Little Tramp and the Big Machine
Modern Times is an emotional response, based always in comedy, to the circumstances of the times. In the early films, the Tramp was knocked around in a pre-war society of underprivileged among the other immigrants and vagabonds and petty miscreants. In Modern Times he is one of the millions coping with poverty, unemployment, strikes and strikebreakers, and the tyranny of the machine (Robinson 458-9). When we first see the Tramp in his last film, 1936's Modern Times, he is, so to speak, "one of the millions:" he is not wearing his Tramp clothes. Charlie is working at the Electro Steel Company, dressed in overalls. If he is still recognizable as the Tramp it is because of his movements. However, these, too, have acquired an uncharacteristic jerkiness. He is dressed in the clothes of the other Electro workers; he moves like the Electro machinery. The opening shot of Modern Times is of a herd of sheep, an image which fades into a stream of workers entering the factory gate. The subtitle, "A story of industry, of individual enterprise--humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness," sets us up to believe that the Tramp will embody that individual enterprise; the opening scene conveys the enormity of his opponent in that undertaking. Modern Times is a Chaplin film with talking. But it is talking that is never done by humans: the boss speaks through a microphone; his face appears via a screen on the bathroom wall. The speech in Modern Times is a parody of speech (and perhaps a very pointed attack on the talkie); it indicates the displacement of people in a society in which the machine is dominant. The machinery at Electro Steel is massive: immense blocks of gears tower over and surround the human workers. Since the boss speaks through a machine to dictate the speed of the assembly line, it is as though the machinery is a contained system, all but capable of running itself. The workers in the factory are at its mercy. The issue of...
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