How did the great silent film star Charlie Chaplin respond to the Great Depression? With his seminal film, ‘Modern Times’, which is not only seen as one of Charlie Chaplin’s best films but has also been seen as one of the greatest films of all time. Not only is it the last film featuring Charlie Chaplin’s character, The Tramp, but it is also a commentary on life for those trying to get by during the Great Depression, while still maintaining Chaplin’s well-known comedic style. The film follows The Tramp, who at the beginning of the film, is a factory worker. After suffering from a nervous breakdown, losing his job, going to jail, accidentally taking cocaine, and then being freed from jail, he then meets a homeless girl, played by Paulette Goddard, whom he convinces to join him to find a better life together. They both then start taking various jobs to get money. One of the jobs the Tramp takes is as a singer in a cafe which results in a musical number at the end of the film.
Given the time era, ‘Modern Times’ excels with its use of sound and the genre of the film itself. While ‘Modern Times’ is a largely silent film, it still has a recorded score and during certain scenes, for example, while The Tramp is still a factory worker, the boss of the factory appears on a giant screen, barking orders at the multiple workers in the factory. This scene was the first use of audible dialogue in the film. Another example of the film’s use of sound is the previously aforementioned last scene where Chaplin sings. Because of this scene, ‘Modern Times’ was the first film where the audience got to hear Charlie Chaplin’s voice. In terms of genre, being that this is a Charlie Chaplin film, it excels in being a comedy. Much like his previous films, the humor in ‘Modern Times’ is largely physical, like, for example, the famous scene of Charlie Chaplin sliding between giant gears, which has since then become synonymous with the film. Given the film is largely silent, its humor needed to be more focused on visuals, like a scene where Chaplin’s character is seen inadvertently leading a communist march, when all he’s doing is trying to return a flag to a driving truck that dropped it. The sight gag was meant to be humorous while also shedding light on some the current events of the time.
Speaking of which, there are also elements of the film that reflect the era it came out as well. ‘Modern Times’ was released in 1936, during the Great Depression, and of course, being that the film is titled ‘Modern Times’, it would act as a representation of what modern life was like back then. For example, the homeless girl whom The Tramp interacts with throughout the film appears to represent the people who the most affected of the Great Depression. More specifically those who lost their homes, money, and in some cases, jobs due to the stock market crash and the events that followed. In one scene, she is seen attempting to steal a bunch of bananas. This seems to represent how much food was valued for those who didn’t have enough money to get it at that time. The other big element that alludes to the Great Depression is the central plot of finding a job to have a better life. For many during the Great Depression, having to take whatever jobs they can find for money was unfortunately common. While the reasons for Chaplin’s character to continuously losing his various jobs is more comedic in nature than how it was in real life, the struggle of finding work would still relatable for many of the viewing audience at that time.
As mentioned before, ‘Modern Times’ has been considered to be one of Charlie Chaplin’s best films and has widely been considered one of the greatest films of all time. In case anyone reader hasn’t pick up on it yet, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, ‘Modern Times’ is Charlie Chaplin’s best, even when rivaled against his other great works like ‘The Great Dictator’. If any of those reading this review have yet to see ‘Modern Times’, then by all means, see it. It’s one of the best films out there.
Article by Kincade Bischoff
Robinson, David. “Filming Modern Times.” Charlie Chaplin : Filming Modern Times, 2004, www.charliechaplin.com/en/films/6-Modern-Times/articles/6-Filming-Modern-Times.
“Modern Times.” IMDb, www.imdb.com/title/tt0027977/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt.
“1936, Modern Times: Set Design , Cinema.” Set Design , Cinema | The Red List, theredlist.com/wiki-2-20-777-779-view-1930-1940-profile-1936-bmodern-times-b.html.