Modern Times - Charles Chaplin - gears - machine - factory

Modern Times
1936, directed by Charles Chaplin

The opening of Modern Times cuts from a flock of sheep pressing forward to a crowd of commuters emerging from a subway. The comparison is not too subtle, and it’s obvious that the one black sheep will correspond to Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, here credited as “a factory worker”, but those opening shots do not capture the full depth of Modern Times, and the Tramp will prove to be more than a simple nonconformist. For that matter, those are not the actual opening shots. Behind the titles is the face of a clock, which makes a much better clue to the movie’s substance. The film’s critique of modern life is not so much economic or political as philosophical. Its point is to oppose a particular view of time that governs the industrialized world, and the title tells us as much, at least if we’re willing to read the word “Times” as more than just a part of a stock phrase.

The clock in the titles is rectangular, but its dominant form is the circle formed by the Roman numerals and the motion of the hands, reinforced by the crescent counterweight on the second hand. There will be an extraordinary profusion of circles in the scenes ahead, but they are not distributed evenly. To be precise, there’s a distinct correlation between circles and labor. The Tramp vacillates constantly between work and unemployment – we see him at five different jobs, and that’s where the circles are concentrated.

Modern Times - Charles Chaplin - feeding machine - lunch

His first job is at a steel factory, and the set has about as many circles as a bubble bath – wheels, gears, buttons, dials, turbines, even the pair of bolts on steel plates that the Tramp must tighten so repetitively on the assembly line. The feeding machine that’s tested on him is a crazy assemblage of circular plates, bowls, and trays that turn in circular motions, including the spool for corn on the cob that goes into overdrive. The job drives the Tramp to his breaking point, making spasmic circular motions and chasing after round buttons on women’s dresses. Circles are also prominent at the department store – plates, jars, a cake holder, barrels of wine in the wall, the wheels of roller skates, and the looping motion of the Tramp skating around. The second factory’s centerpiece is a massive set of gears and rollers. Finally, at the last workplace, dancers spin around in circles, and waiters carry round plates on round trays to round tables, sometimes spinning like the dancers as they navigate the crowded floor.

The one exception literally proves the rule. The Tramp’s second job is at a shipyard where he’s immediately told to look for a wooden wedge – a triangle. The task disorients him so much that he unwittingly sends an unfinished ship into the ocean and quits after barely a minute’s work. Away from the workplace there are far fewer circles, and the dominant motion is linear. Protesters march through the streets, prisoners walk in single file, the Tramp and the Gamin run away from police or social workers. At the end they’ll walk down a straight highway.

Modern Times - Charles Chaplin - Paulette Goddard - department store - cake

All the circles, of course, are echoes of the big clock that starts the movie. They imply an oppressive vision of time – not the cyclical time of Eastern religions or generational turnover, but an internalized “clock time” in which hours and minutes weigh heavily on workers alienated from their own labor. We don’t need to think of it as circular, but digital displays of clock time were rare in 1936, and contemporary viewers would have recognized in the Tramp’s work the tedium of counting seconds on a clock. It’s not the sweeping motion of grand cycles of time, but the twitching neurotic motion of the Tramp’s hands after hours on the assembly line. All the circles reinforce the idea, but we also see it in the repetitive punching of time cards, in the orders to speed up production, and in the contrast with the big boss who’s doing a jigsaw puzzle in his office. Upper management clearly lives in a different mode of time.

The idea of alienated labor owes much to Karl Marx, and it clarifies the alternatives in Chaplin’s argument. Before industrialization, workers may or may not have been materially poorer, but their lives had a more tangible sense of meaning because their activity gave them a sense of creative control. A farmer or an artisan creates something from scratch, exercizing both mind and body, but a factory worker or a coal miner lacks that satisfaction of accomplishment. The insight of Modern Times is that this new way of life distorts a person’s sense of time, making life feel measured and mechanical. It strips life of its joy.

Modern Times - Charles Chaplin - Little Tramp

Of all the images of circles in Modern Times the most memorable is surely the gigantic set of gears the Tramp gets sucked into when he dives onto the conveyor belt. The force of that moment goes beyond its comic or iconic impression. For one thing, the Tramp’s journey through the machine evokes an infant’s passage through the birth canal. He emerges reborn, a new man, unwilling to accept the life he had before. As soon as he comes out he begins creating chaos in the factory, living on his own terms. Even in prison he’s liberated, in the sense that he prefers his cell to life in the steel plant. He’ll return to work again and again, but never as the slave he was at the beginning. In each scene he’ll rely more and more on his own resources, until the climax at the dinner club when he invents his own language, replacing the clichéd words of his song with a nonsensical but delightful blend of English, Italian, and French that brings down the house.

A birth canal is not the only image suggested by the famous picture of the Tramp caught in the gears. It’s also like a digestive tract, swallowing the Tramp and spitting him out the way industry consumes and discards its workers. The image joins a broader pattern of food in Modern Times, not always as a metaphor for exploitation or consumption, but grounding the film in the arena of economics, where daily bread stands for the basic elements of life. The Tramp and Big Bill sit in bowls of soup, and the Tramp gets his lunch from the feeding machine. There’s a lunch scene at the prison where the Tramp accidentally laces his food with cocaine. The Gamin steals bananas and a baguette. The Tramp and the minister’s wife get digestive problems in the waiting room. The Tramp gorges himself in a cafeteria to get himself arrested. The department store has cake, cheese, and wine. The Tramp and the Gamin enjoy fantasy meals in the bungalow and again in their hut, and their final job is in a restaurant. The movie’s preoccupation with food, and by extension with the struggle to keep living, must have resonated with audiences during the Great Depression.

Modern Times - Charles Chaplin - Paulette Goddard - ending - highway

It’s not easy to make a film about an oppressive mode of life, especially about an unlivable sense of time, without the movie becoming tedious itself. Chaplin is of course adept at lightening the subject with comedy, but Modern Times also expresses the repetitiveness of modern life with its own repetitions, made palatable through variation. The Tramp gets two factory jobs, and in the second one his supervisor, a mechanic, gets fed with a funnel and sucked into a machine, echoing what happened to the Tramp before. There are two strikes, three trips to jail, and two escapes from the police. The Tramp and the Gamin walk twice up a long straight street (once going to the bungalow and once at the end), and they play house thrice – in their imaginary bungalow, in the department store, and in their ramshackle hut – each time pretending to live a comfortable bourgeois life that throws their reality into relief.

Modern Times - Charles Chaplin - Paulette Goddard - ending - highway

The fantasy scene in the suburban bungalow begins at the precise midpoint of Modern Times, with a wall clock set to noon. From there on the Tramp and the Gamin will join forces, striving to build a happy life together. Their happiness in the bungalow is imaginary, and their happiness at the end is left for the audience to imagine, but it’s an open ending without any sign of future troubles or future bliss. The point of the ending is neither to comfort us nor to incite us, but to present an alternate sense of time. In place of the clock time that dominates modern working life, it offers a sense of eternal time, a state of life that’s not acutely conscious of the ticking of seconds, always waiting for the work bell to ring. As the couple walks into the distance they can finally hold onto the present moment and savor it.


Sherlock Jr. – Protagonist enters a symbolic womb and emerges reborn

City Lights – Second word of the title points to the film’s key

The Eighth Day of the Week – Couple suffering through hard economic times finds a semblance of happy domestic life in a department store

The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Food as an economic metaphor