Within the progressive and often turbulent political and economic frameworks of the 1930’s the Charlie Chaplin film ‘Modern Times’ is an ideological stance against the technological advancements of the time. The film is a silent protest and avid satirical swipe at the ‘mechanized workplace’ and the post-Ford industrialization of everyday life (http://www.guardiancentury.co.uk). In two of his inspired films, ‘Modern Times’ and ‘The Great Dictator’, Chaplin offers a new concept to a technologically advancing generation; a new ideology of avoiding greed, mass production/consumption and thus warning incessantly of the dangers of mechanical automation.
In order to fully comprehend ‘Modern Times’ one must be aware of the era in which the Great Depression and considerable technological advancements took place. The achievement of modern technology in the 1930’s had been considerable, leading many to raise disturbing questions as to technology becoming a dominant influence in society (Britannica CD Rom 2000 Millennium Edition). Many voices from fields such as literature; (Aldous Huxley forcefully expressed disenchantment with technology in ‘Brave New World’ 1932) allowed this concern to be adequately expressed. In ‘Modern Times’ Chaplin depicts the depersonalising effects of the mass production assembly line and indeed such images as these were given special potency by the international political and economic conditions of the 1930’s when the “western world was plunged into the Great Depression and technology suffered by association with the tarnished idea of inevitable progress” (Britannica CD Rom 2000 Millennium Edition).
Therefore, it is unsurprising that many feared technology as an unwelcome change, questioning whether society was becoming more machine-like and the individual spirit becoming lost in mass society whilst labourers worried that mechanisation would make work obsolete. (‘The Age of the Mass’ 1914-39′ in ‘History Today’ Aug 2001, Vol. 51, Issue 8: PG 44). In America the Model-T Ford was the symbol of the mass-production age. The Ford Factory functioned as an efficient integrated machine with assembly lines and conveyors delivering components to workers at a controlled pace. In the ‘Machine Age’ that followed and was greatly influenced by Ford, work became a new focus of interest, especially the nature of work in mass-production lines. (‘The Age of the Mass 1914-39’ in ‘History Today’ Aug 2001, Vol. 51, Issue 8: PG 44).
The film ‘Modern Times’ was made during the Great Depression, thus the film’s main concerns are those of unemployment, poverty and hunger or “the frustrating struggle by proletarian man against the dehumanising machine in the industrial age” (Tim Dirks: http://www.filmsite.org/mode/html). The Great Depression of the thirties was seen by many as a product of technological change. The western world when plunged into the Great Depression appeared to have forfeited the chance to resume the world order shattered by World War I (Britannica CD Rom 2000 Millennium Edition), therefore the advances in technology only served to heighten fears of progress and change, especially as many people of the time participated not in the benefits of the industrialisation but only in the tedium and labour of mass production.
The factory workers are likened to sheep in the opening shots of the film as they journey en masse to their respective factories. The sheep dissolve into a similar shot of industrial workers pushing out of a subway station as the clock face approaches six 0’clock. The foreword of ‘Modern Times’ describes the film’s theme as “A story of industry, individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness (http://www.filmsite.org/mode.html). Therefore the opening scene symbolizes this emerging participation of post-ford industrialization in everyday life.
In ‘Modern Times’ the alternating scenes of Charlie portray him working as an assembly-line worker as well as a shipyard worker, night watchman, singing waiter and finally an occupant in jail; indeed echoing the pursuit for jobs the Great Depression had created. Nevertheless, it is as a factory worker that Charlie presents a powerful and coherent indictment of the mechanized workplace and thus expresses the fears the workers encounter of being cogs in the machine.
In one of the film’s influential scenes – the conveyor-belt sequence – Charlie as a factory worker is given the job of tightening bolts on an endless series of machine parts. Consequently, Charlie would appear as a small cog in a factory that exploits its workers. The task involves performing movements with precision and accuracy and indeed this illustrates the American factory obsession with time and automation.
The factory worker has been reduced to the object of a robot, his individuality diminished. The foreman forever urges Charlie along to keep up with the incessant conveyor belt. When Charlie pauses to itch for a moment or brushes away an irksome fly, the result is a tremendous disruptive chaos for his fellow workers further down the production line causing, Charlie to frantically rush to resume order. How poignant that such innocent, personal behaviour should have larger consequences; yet another example of the loss of individuality as personal characteristics disrupts the automation process and how the film illustrates how the mechanised factory setting is in direct conflict with the people that work there.
The effects of production line work are far-reaching. Whilst on a break, Charlie is unable to stop the jerky, rhythmic movements of this nut tightening. Indeed it would appear that the trauma of his work has left Charlie with a nervous tick and “the treadmill of industry has not only psychological but also physical effects” (http://www.filmsite.org/mode.html – Tim Dirks). Charlie becomes a ‘human machine’ unable to stop his involuntary tweaking with a spanner of anything knoblike.
The progress and advancement of technology also has the potential for out-of-control mayhem. The machines are dependent on human concentration on the production line and the frequent machine malfunctions show however that man is serving his machine more that the machine is serving man. The feeding machine exemplifies perfectly the shortcomings and occasional malfunctions of modern technology. The machine is a method of shortening the lunch break thus aiding productivity and improving worker turnover.