In one of my graduate classes we examined the subtext of Charlie Chaplin’s films and the social commentary he presented in a time when it was rather risky to do so. We watched part of Chaplin’s Modern Times in class. I had to put both hands over my mouth to stifle the uncontrollable laughter I was gripped with during the following “eating machine” scene. Tears were coming out of my eyes and my husband, who was also in this class, just laughed at me as I tried to contain my hysterics. Imagine, a silent film causing me to laugh harder than I have laughed at a film in years. That’s what I call a great time-transcending comedic art.
We plan on walking over to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center this week as I am in luck – Charlie Chaplin films are currently being featured.
The context of the clip below: the men are testing out a more efficient way for a factory worker to quickly eat lunch, to maximize productivity. This was blatant commentary on industrial working conditions and employee treatment during the Great Depression.
Modern Times Movie Plot
Modern Times portrays Chaplin as a factory worker, employed on an assembly line. After being subjected to such indignities as being force-fed by a “modern” feeding machine and an accelerating assembly line where Chaplin screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery, he suffers a mental breakdown that causes him to run amok throwing the factory into chaos. Chaplin is sent to a hospital. Following his recovery the now unemployed Chaplin is arrested as an instigator in a Communist demonstration since he was waving a red flag that fell off a delivery truck (Chaplin intended to return the flag to the driver). In jail, he accidentally eats smuggled cocaine, mistaking it for salt. In his subsequent delirious state he walks into a jailbreak and knocks out the convicts. He is hailed a hero and is released.
Outside the jail, he discovers life is harsh, and attempts to get arrested after failing to get a decent job. He soon runs into an orphan girl (the “gamine”), played by Paulette Goddard, who is fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread. To save the girl he tells police that he is the thief and ought to be arrested. However, a witness reveals his deception and he is freed. In order to get arrested again, he eats an enormous amount of food at a cafeteria without paying. He meets up with the gamine in the paddy wagon, which crashes, and the girl convinces the reluctant Chaplin to escape with her. Dreaming of a better life, he gets a job as a night watchman at a department store, sneaks the gamine into the store and even lets burglars have some food. Waking up the next morning in a pile of clothes, he is arrested once more.
Ten days later, the gamine takes him to a new home – a run-down shack which she admits “isn’t Buckingham Palace” but will do. The next morning, Chaplin reads about a new factory and lands a job there. He gets his boss trapped in machinery, but manages to extricate him. The other workers decide to go on strike. Accidentally paddling a brick into a policeman, he is arrested again. Two weeks later, he is released and learns that the gamine is a café dancer, and she tries to get him a job as a singer. By night, he becomes an efficient waiter though he finds it difficult to tell the difference between the “in” and “out” doors to the kitchen, or to successfully deliver a roast duck to table. During his floor show, he loses a cuff that bears the lyrics of his song, but he rescues his act by improvising the story using an amalgam of word play, words in (or made up of word parts from) multiple languages and mock sentence structure while pantomiming. His act proves a hit. When police arrive to arrest the gamine for her earlier escape, they escape again. Finally, we see them walking down a road at dawn, towards an uncertain but hopeful future. (According to Wikipedia)
About Charlie Chaplin
(Born April 16, 1889 – Died December 25, 1977) In 1915, British-born Chaplin burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. … It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most”. George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin “the only genius to come out of the movie industry”. He co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. This meant more freedom in producing his own films. His high-profile public and private life encompassed both adulation and controversy. Chaplin’s identification with the left ultimately forced him to resettle in Europe during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Chaplin the 10th greatest male screen legend of all time. In 2008, Martin Sieff, in a review of the book Chaplin: A Life, wrote: “Chaplin was not just ‘big’, he was gigantic.