The final outing for Charlie Chaplin’s beloved Tramp character finds him enduring the pratfalls and humiliations of work in an increasingly mechanised society.
“The film becomes a satire on the mechanization of thought and industry, a plea for the reinstitution of human individual values over those of industrialization and mass production.”
Doug Tomlinson, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1990
Nine years after the arrival of film sound, the silent cinema’s biggest star remained reluctant to leap into the new world. While City Lights (1931) was almost wholly silent however, Charlie Chaplin’s new film incorporated some sound effects and voices, alongside the by then archaic use of intertitles in place of dialogue.
Chaplin admitted he didn’t know how to make the Tramp work in sound, but his ambivalence about the new technology was appropriate to the theme of Modern Times, which distils anxiety about the dehumanising effects of mechanised labour into inspired comedy.
Sequences including the Tramp unable to stop his assembly-line bolt-tightening (to the alarm of passing women with temptingly placed buttons), or being conveyed helplessly through the cogs of a giant machine, found the director’s comic genius undimmed.
Modern Times was an influence on Jacques Tati, whose films Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967) find his Monsieur Hulot character similarly aggrieved by modern (in)conveniences.