If City Lights represents Charles Chaplin (1889–1977) at his romantic zenith, Modern Times most admirably displays his prescient satirical gifts. The relationship he began in the early 1930s with Paulette Goddard, which culminated in a secret marriage in China, began to relieve his obsessive loneliness and self-absorption. This, together with extensive travels through Europe and Asia, caused him to turn outward and consider problems beyond the personal. America and the world were in the midst of the Great Depression, and Chaplin felt a need to speak out, on-screen and off. To some (in a pre-Reagan era), an actor’s involvement in politics seemed highly pretentious. Chaplin biographer David Robinson has cogently pointed out, however, that “no one before or since had ever had such a burden of idolatry thrust upon him. It was not he or his critics, but the crowd that mobbed him everywhere…that cast him in the role of symbol of all the little men in the world.” These throngs sensed that Chaplin, the man who made them laugh and cry, was one of their own, and Chaplin willingly accepted a leading part in (as the subtitle to Modern Times says) “humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.”
The appellation Tramp was, of course, misleading, for Charlie had had dozens of jobs in the two decades since 1914, although his primary skill of “pluck” made him something less than a careerist. Typically, Charlie does not resent dehumanizing work itself, but rather the little indignities imposed upon his person; the boss spies on him in the toilet, and there is no time to scratch an itch. Chaplin risks crudeness with a reminder that we are all bodies and not just souls. Even the most fundamental of physical functions, eating, is threatened when he is used as a guinea pig to demonstrate a maniacal feeding machine. For Chaplin, a hallmark of modernity is the contemporary role-reversal of normality and insanity, society’s passive acceptance of values that, by all previous standards, were considered barbaric. He lays a strong claim to prophecy in suggesting man’s ultimate self-destruction lay in his obeisance to his tools. Already, Chaplin was conscious of being “Red-baited” for such views, and it is thus with delicious irony that he had the Tramp innocently pick up a red flag just as a labor protest rounds the corner behind him. Eventually, Charlie solicits arrest as shelter from a world gone berserk. Only his accidental collision with Paulette Goddard’s gamine, “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons…two joyous spirits living by their wits,” allows him to proclaim at the end of the film: “Buck up _ never say die. We’ll get along.”
Modern Times has been criticized for its loose construction, but it compensates for this via its persistent inventiveness. Chaplin was quite aware that he now stood alone as a maker of silent films. Regardless of its success or failure, this was almost assuredly going to be the Tramp’s last hurrah, and Chaplin’s farewell to the form. The complexity and ingenuity of the comic set pieces reflect an obvious desire to go out in style. In the roller-skating department store inspection sequence and the scene in which Keystone-buddy Chester Conklin is gobbled up by the machines, Chaplin is insisting one last time on the superior fluency of the visual over the verbal. Words could do nothing to enhance the grace of his movement; nor could they be more articulate than his facial expressions as he dutifully attempts to provide lunch to Chester’s disembodied head, which protrudes perilously from the mechanism. Sound (other than music) in Modern Times comes essentially from machines: the factory boss on the two-way television, the recorded sales message for the feeding machine, a gastritis commercial on the radio. Sound thus becomes identified with the process of dehumanization—mechanical sound denaturing life as, he believed, it did the cinema.
Finally, the dire straits of poverty force to Tramp to succumb to the role of singing waiter, and Chaplin’s voice is heard for the first time. His animation causes him to lose the words written on his cuffs, which go flying off into the far reaches of the cabaret. Charlie is left to sing in gibberish, a final defiant comment on language’s lack of salience. For, in spite of his incoherence, or perhaps because of it, Charlie the singing waiter is a great hit. The audience responds to the elegance of his movement, the effulgence of his face, the sublimity of his mime.
Charlie and Paulette run from the machines and the city and escape to the open road. We last see them walking toward the distant mountains, their flight a symbolic nod to the struggling “little people” of the world. On the soundtrack is the wistful, Chaplin-composed “Smile.” (“Smile, though your heart is aching…You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you’ll just smile.”) Chaplin’s life must have seemed to him more worthwhile than ever, even at the moment he was unmistakably aware that the métier that had sustained him for a quarter-century was now irrevocably an artifact of the past. In his maturity—he was by this time approaching fifty—he looked toward new challenges: making “talkies” and saving the world.