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Film / Modern Times

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"Modern Times. A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."
— The film's introduction

Modern Times is a 1936 American comedy film by Charlie Chaplin that has his iconic Tramp character struggling 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, and was written and directed by Chaplin.

The movie begins with the Tramp working at a factory, screwing nuts and bolts on a conveyor belt, where he eventually suffers a nervous breakdown. He's sent to a mental hospital. After he recovers he soon finds that he's out of a job. He's soon mistakenly accused of being a Communist after accidentally and unknowingly happening to participate in a socialist march and pick up a red flag someone had dropped, and is thrown in jail. Ironically he finds jail to be more hospitable than the outside world. Throw in a poor orphan girl (noted in the credits as the "gamin") as a love interest and you have one of Chaplin's most critically acclaimed feature films.

The film was Chaplin's last-ditch effort to stay loyal to the style of the silent films that had made his career. There is audible dialogue, but only from artificial sources; whenever people talk face to face, it's done silently with caption cards, as a clear statement of Chaplin's view on the new filmmaking tool.

Modern Times includes the following tropes:

  • Absurdly Dedicated Worker: Chaplin goes berserk working on an assembly line tightening bolts in an ever-accelerating conveyor belt. He eventually gets caught inside the machinery (where even there he's busy tightening bolts), and after he gets rescued he continues going through the motions, tweaking noses and buttons with wrenches on both hands.
  • Accidental Hero: Chaplin thwarts a prison break by dodging bullets and pummeling the escaping prisoners. But he only does so because he was high on cocaine—another prisoner hid his stash in the salt shaker to avoid getting busted, and Charlie sprinkles it all over his lunch.
  • Alcohol Hic: The Tramp does this when drunk.
  • The Alleged House: The house that the Tramp and the Gamin share at one point is the very definition of "ramshackle". It doesn't even has water of its own, forcing the Tramp to bathe by dipping in the nearby lake (and "nearby" is "part of the house is in it and the Tramp improvises a diving board out of it").
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Tramp's "singing waiter" number near the end of the film, which sounds like a mixture between French and Italian, but really is gibberish. It was the first time that the Tramp's voice was heard in a movie, and Chaplin wanted the character to continue to transcend all language boundaries.
  • Assembly Line Fast-Forward: The Trope Maker. The Tramp has a job tightening some kind of widgets with a wrench. When the conveyor belt speeds up, he winds up jumping on top of it, and he is sucked into the gears of the machinery.
  • Author Tract:
    • Against the problems caused by the things meant to solve problems, as well as the artificiality of sound film.
    • The factory has television screens (a stated dream Chaplin often had), used by the boss to communicate with workers.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Goddard's character is barefoot for most of the film because she's so poor she can't afford shoes.
  • Bawdy Song: The Tramp is to sing one as part of a musical act... only he loses the paper on which the lyrics are written, and has to use pantomime and gibberish. He brings the house down.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: In the factory, the company president has a two-way video screen that can watch all areas of the factory - including in the restrooms. (The idea of television in the future was something Chaplin had predicted, although he was only partially right.)
  • Bindle Stick: Downplayed. The gamin and the Tramp wear one of these in the final scene though not on a stick.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with the Tramp and the girl on their own, fugitives from the law, walking into the distance—although the Tramp is still upbeat enough to not let their troubles get them down.
  • Butt-Monkey: The Tramp, of course, but the mechanic he works with after returning to the factory even more so.
  • The Cameo: In the toy Department, the Gamin is excited about some exhibited toys. She picks up one of them, and a close inspection reveals that it is a Mickey Mouse doll.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Chaplin was a devoted leftist, and the film is perhaps the most clear-cut demonstration of that in his work. The factory the Tramp works at openly dehumanizes its workers and tries to find ways so that they can work even more, poverty and unemployment are rampant, and even a normal worker is forced to turn to theft to survive.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Big Bill, the burly worker at the factory next to the Tramp, shows up much later at the department store, having turned to theft after being laid off.
  • Clockworks Area: The factory. One famous scene has The Tramp moving along the wheels of a machine.
  • Crapsack World: Pretty much a sign of the times.
  • Crash-Into Hello: Chaplin meets his love interest in the movie this way; she had just stolen a loaf of bread, and ran at full speed around a corner before crashing straight into him.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: When the Tramp goes up against three armed prisoners with nothing but his fists and a nearby door. And wins.
  • Department of Child Disservices: The truant police, who chase the gamin with more dedication and intensity than the FBI chases serial killers. They eventually ruin everything just when it seemed as if the gamin and the Tramp had found jobs and a bit of security.
  • Disastrous Demonstration: The Billows Feeding Machine is demonstrated with the Tramp, which goes memorably awry.
  • "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: Chaplin composed the film's music score, including the classic "Smile".
  • Drugs Are Good: Charlie winds up accidentally ingesting some cocaine that another prisoner hid in a salt shaker. It helps him foil a jailbreak.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The Tramp in gets high on cocaine while in prison. It's not referred to as cocaine, only as "nose powder", but there's no other way to interpret that scene! While Section I.3 of the Hays Code at the time only specifically forbade portrayal of the drug trade, using drugs in prison plausibly falls under that.
  • Ground by Gears: Subverted. Charlie gets caught inside the machinery, but the gears only move him around without harming him. Ditto goes for the mechanic later in the movie.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: The gamin, after her father gets shot.
  • Hope Spot: Near the end of the film, the Tramp and the girl finally have a stable and happy job working at a cafe as a singer and dancer. Then the police arrive to arrest the girl, and the two are forced on the run again.
  • Imagine Spot: An extended one after the Tramp discusses with the girl the happy life they could have in the suburbs.
  • Intoxication Ensues: While in prison Chaplin mistakes cocaine for salt and ingests a generous dose. In the ensuing frenzy he ends up foiling a prison break and is hailed as a hero.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: A couple of comments that could double as Chaplin's attitude towards talking films. The record player that advertises the Billows Feeding Machine says, among other things, "actions speak louder than words". And when the Tramp can't remember the words to his song, a title card has the gamin saying "Sing! Never mind the words."
  • Luxury Prison Suite: Chaplin's character regards his prison as this, though it is only luxurious in comparison to how much worse it was to be living on the streets during The Great Depression. Of course, the fact that after he accidentally prevents a prison break he's treated extra nicely by the guards and the warden helps.
  • Match Cut: A shot of cows running in a field match cuts into many people exiting a subway.
  • Mistaken for Terrorist: Some nearby cops interpret The Tramp swinging a red flag as him being a Communist revolutionary rather than him simply gesturing to a driver that it fell off his truck.
  • Mocking Music: In one scene, The Tramp is awkwardly sitting on a bench next to the parson's wife, and her stomach keeps gurgling loudly. Charlie turns on the radio for a distraction, and a commercial says, "If you are suffering from gastritis..."
  • Mood Whiplash: The girl's half of the story is quite sad and morose in sharp contrast to the whimsical Tramp side, with her family struggling to survive intense poverty and her father being killed in a sudden burst of violence. It's not until she meets the Tramp that things lighten up.
  • No Name Given: For any of the main characters. Although if you look at the arrest warrant, Goddard's character is apparently named "Ellen Peterson".
  • No OSHA Compliance: OSHA hadn't been made yet at the time, but any real factory where you might end up being a literal part of the machine traveling between the cogs would have been thought a bit much, even back then.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The Tramp and the gamin are at the side of the road at dawn, after they were forced to flee from the truant police. The gamin breaks down and cries in despair. Charlie tells her "Buck up! Never say die! We'll get along." After she flashes him a smile, the film ends with the two of them walking arm-in-arm down the road, the Tramp swinging his rattan cane.
  • Pie in the Face: Near the end of the Disastrous Demonstration of the feeding machine, Tramp gets a pie thrown in his face for dessert.
  • The Pollyanna: The Tramp refuses to look down in spite of how difficult life is. This is demonstrated perfectly come the ending, when he and the girl are left on the streets again. She's resigned to give up in despair, but he simply tells her they'll be able to get through this.
  • Pretty in Mink: When the Tramp and the girl try to squat in a department store, the girl tries on a white ermine coat, and she clearly adores it.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The Gamin and the Tramp are penniless and on the run, but the Tramp refuses to let that get him down and cheers up the Gamin by telling her that things will get better.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Charlie's cellmate spends his time knitting.
  • Rube Goldberg Device: In the eating machine scene, a device that makes people eat without using their hands is tested on The Tramp. Due to a malfunction it ends up rubbing a corn in his face and pouring soup on his shirt, among other things.
  • Running Gag: The Tramp gets arrested no less than four times.
  • Sanity Slippage: While Charlie is working at the factory. He begins to try and take a wrench to everything in sight... including a woman's breasts. Justified as being a nervous breakdown.
  • Silence Is Golden: Modern Times was essentially a silent film with a recorded soundtrack. The only real dialog comes from either recordings or loudspeakers (i.e., not natural speech), Chaplin's way of pointing out his opinion of the artificiality of sound film. Released seven years after the rest of Hollywood had gone over to talkies, and the last major release of a silent film for forty years, until Mel Brooks with Silent Movie in 1976. Chaplin was particularly adamant since the advent of sound that the Tramp never speak. He finally acquiesces in this film...only for the Tramp to sing a gibberish song.
  • The Singing Mute: The Tramp, who bursts into song towards the end of the film.
  • Steampunk: Along with Metropolis, one of the Ur-Examples of this genre.
  • Tap on the Head: The police officer lying on the street together with the Tramp and the gamin, is rendered unconscious by a light knock to his head.
  • The Tetris Effect: This effect is demonstrated near the beginning with a factory worker continuously going through the motions of his task even when not working.
  • Typewriter Eating: Played for Black Comedy: The malfunctioning feeding machine subjects the tramp to this, a sign of just how much the factory environment has dehumanized him.
  • Undercrank: Enforced - despite being shot at a modern (sound film) frame rate, the movie is slightly undercranked for a Retraux fast motion effect.
  • Undying Loyalty: The Tramp and the Gamin end up forming this relationship for each other, to the point that the Tramp is able to quit a steady job at a cafe, to save the Gamin, even if it means running away together.
  • Unkempt Beauty: The smudges of dirt artfully applied to Paulette Goddard's face do not conceal the fact that she is exceptionally good-looking.
  • Video Phone: The factory the Tramp works in has this in the bathroom.
    "Hey! Quit stalling! Get back to work!"
  • "Wanted!" Poster: Juvenile Hall is looking for Paulette Goddard.
  • Whatever Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the girl's two younger sisters?
  • With Lyrics: "Smile" (a standard popularized by Nat King Cole) was adapted from an instrumental theme from this film. It's been covered by Michael Jackson, who said it was his favorite song, amongst others.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The Gamin escapes from a couple of police officers who were going to take her to an orphanage early in the movie and after a very long time being homeless or just barely, she gets a nice job as a waitress... and the cops find her again, forcing her to go on the run (this time with the Tramp).
  • Your Television Hates You: The film has one, even though the movie itself is Older Than Television. In one scene, the Tramp is in a waiting room sitting near a woman with a terrible and noisy gas problem. Eventually, he turns on the radio next to him, to a commercial for antacids. He turns it off quickly.