One way to interpret the several sequences where characters, most notably Charlie Chaplin’s famous tramp, are engulfed or controlled by machines is that industrial reliance has made the modern individual engulfed in materialism and accept their roll as a cog in the machine that produces these materials. Then there is another interpretation, one that goes straight into the psyche of Chaplin, himself. The tramp becomes trapped in a machine he slowly realizes he can never get out of. This comes twofold: not just in the literal cases, including the famous shot where the tramp rides the gears, but in a more real sense rooted in socioeconomic hardship. The summation of these scenes become the reflexive voice that illustrates the time of the tramp is over. The artist, though, must move on.
This artist is the great Charlie Chaplin and the film that marked the end of an iconic era is the 1936 film, “Modern Times.” Yet, what a way to end an era to go out in a headstrong, albeit jovial, manner. The film allows the tramp to literally face the Depression-era hardships of unemployment and uncertainty with a sense of hope and defiance, despite being down on his luck. And this parallel’s Chaplin’s position of uncertainty as he sees the end to the thing that made him a universal star; he takes it with his own creative authority. This film was released nine years after the advent of talking pictures and it is mostly a silent film, with some talking and sound effects, so the idea that sound looms over the world of the tramp is actually a prominent theme of the film, with some gags revolving directly around it, culminating in one of the most bizarrely incredible musical performance in the gibberish song.
Taking a step back, what was Chaplin trying to do here? It is certainly true that Chaplin as a filmmaker was an insane perfectionist with a high degree of a control freak. He wanted the world in his films to be calculated to his liking and the events that transpire must all fit perfectly. It is no surprise that his films can easily stray into the personal realm and ‘Modern Times’ is intensely personal (not as much as the tormented “The Circus”). The series of gags in the film all continuously dislocate the tramp and the gamin (played with the usual gusto of Paulette Goddard) as if they don’t fit with the weathered societal structure of Depression-era America. Indeed, the tramp’s simple courtesy to return a red flag that had fallen from a truck ignited a communist or radical socialist march. The tramp remains oblivious to this scene but was singled out as the leader of the march; thus, he was thrown in jail.
This detachment from societal’s mechanisms is what ultimately does it for the tramp, who with the gamin, the classic Chaplin idealized love interest, wander down a road into history and memory. “Modern Times” showcases Chaplin as a performer making a change, albeit his own silly way (when the tramp loses the cuffs that he had written the lyrics on, the gamin screams, “Never mind the words, just sing!” a piece of dialogue that reverberates to Chaplin’s tease and suspense before he utters his first words on screen) but it also showcases the tramp fading into the past and accepting his now obsolete role. “Modern Times” is a funny film, one of his funniest, but there is this strong sense of personal vindication that seems both vulnerable but empowering as Chaplin makes way for the modern cinematic age. And it goes back to all those gags where the tramp dueled with the many pieces of machinery…he ultimately lost, his place in society evaporated. Nevertheless, what a way to go out.