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Modern Times (1936) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

tramp chaplin girl poverty

Principal social themes: homelessness/poverty

United Artists. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sanford, Hank Mann, Chester Conklin, Richard Alexander, Stanley Blystone, Louis Natheaux, Allan Garcia, Lloyd Ingraham, Edward Kimball, Wilfred Lucas, Mira McKinney, Cecil Reynolds, Murdoch McQuarrie, Ed Le Sainte, Fred Malatesta, Juana Sutton, Sam Stein, John Rand, Walter James, Ted Oliver, Gloria DeHaven. Written by Charlie Chaplin. Cinematography by Rollie Totheroh and Ira Morgan. Music by Charlie Chaplin. Produced and directed by Charlie Chaplin. B&W. 87 minutes.


Modern Times is a truly unique motion picture, basically a silent film released seven years after the demise of the form. In this picture, Charlie Chaplin added a backdrop of social issues, homelessness, poverty, and unemployment, which although subservient to the comic routines, broadened the canvas of his presentation.


Modern Times is essentially a hybrid talking film, as voices are heard on television monitors and over the radio, but when people speak on screen, they are silent and their words appear in title cards. This changes at the finale of the film, when the tramp is required to sing a song in a cafe but misplaces the words. He improvises nonsense words in fragments of various languages (thus preserving his international appeal), but his character returns to silence after finishing his number. Modern Times is constructed as a series of loose episodes. Charlie’s character first appears in a factory production line, tightening bolts on products as they pass by on a conveyer belt. He eventually “cracks up” from the tedium of the work and is taken away to a mental hospital. Released when he is cured, the tramp saunters down the street and notices a red warning flag that falls off an overloaded truck. He picks up the flag and waves it to catch the driver’s attention. He does not realize, however, that a Communist rally had just turned the corner behind his back. When the police arrive to break it up, the tramp is arrested since they assume he is their leader. In jail, the tramp accidentally ingests cocaine, which was hidden in a sugar jar in the mess hall. Feeling fearless, he intervenes when the other prisoners riot and helps restore order. The grateful guards then treat the tramp more like a guest than a prisoner.

Outside, the camera starts to follow another character in the poor waterfront district, a teenage girl stealing bananas for her two little sisters. Title cards identify her as ‘the gamin,” although later in the film her name, Ellen Peterson, appears in a document shown on screen. Her father is unemployed and desperate to feed his children. Later, he is shot during a bread riot, and the authorities take away the three orphans, but Ellen escapes. The tramp is pardoned from jail, and the sheriff provides him with a testimonial letter to help him find work. His job attempts, however, all end in disaster, and the tramp resolves to go back to jail. The gamin steals a loaf of bread from a baker, and the tramp intercedes when she is arrested, claiming he stole the bread. The girl is arrested nevertheless, so the tramp buys a huge meal at a cafeteria. When presented with the check, he waves a cop passing by into the restaurant to arrest him. He meets the girl in the paddy wagon, but they fall out when the vehicle turns a corner. As they pass by a residential community, the tramp fantasizes with the girl about living in a real home. Becoming inspired, the tramp pledges he will work hard to make this dream a reality. He obtains a job as a night watchman in a department store. He lets the girl into the empty store so she can spend the night sleeping in one of the model beds. Some homeless men break into the store and recognize the tramp; they had also worked in the factory before it closed. They get drunk on the liquor they steal from the store. The next day, the tramp is discovered drunk when the store opens, and he is arrested. The girl, however, awakens early and escapes. She finds an abandoned shack in a marsh area and tries to fix it up. When the tramp is released from prison, she takes him to the rundown shanty, which he describes as “paradise.” Learning the factory is going to reopen, Charlie rushes to apply for the start-up crew. He is assigned to be the apprentice to the master mechanic testing the long-idle machines. However, due to low wages, the other workers call a strike, and they are forced to leave the building. When the cops think the tramp deliberately tosses a brick at them, he is again arrested. While in jail, the gamin manages to get a job dancing at a cafe. When the tramp is released from jail, the cafe owner promises him an audition to be a singing waiter. Meanwhile, the juvenile authorities receive a tip that Ellen is working at the cafe. The tramp keeps forgetting the words to his song, but the girl writes them down on his cuffs. As he dances around before starting his number, the tramp accidentally tosses away his cuffs. He then sings his nonsense song and is a hit. The owner hires him, but at this moment of triumph, the juvenile officers step in to take custody of Ellen. She and the tramp escape. By dawn, they prepare to set off down the road to another town. Tired by their struggle against homelessness and poverty, the gamin sees no point in going on. The tramp tells her to “buck up” and smile, and they head down the road together at the fade out, accompanied by Chaplin’s tune “Smile” on the soundtrack.


Chaplin’s earliest comedies, such as The Vagabond (1916), The Immigrant (1917), Easy Street (1917), and A Dog’s Life (1918), all touched on such themes as poverty, immigration, and crime. The usual approach of many critics, however, has been to ignore or downplay the social issues aspects of Modern Times , which are considerable. Charlie’s tramp character had been homeless in many of his earlier films, but that aspect was never really highlighted. With the addition of his companion, the gamin, homelessness and poverty become paramount in the character’s concerns. No other comedy of the era even mentioned the Great Depression or touched on such issues as poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, rioting and civil unrest, unjust imprisonment, or juvenile delinquency. To classify all this as mere window dressing for Chaplin’s routines is both myopic and specious. Let us examine one of the most intricate routines, that of the Communist rally. Even though the film is in black and white, Chaplin establishes the red flag by its function, a warning signal indicating the overhang from the rear of the truck. The tramp picks it up to do a good deed by alerting the driver that his flag had fallen. Yet, as the Communist agitators flock around the corner, it would certainly appear that the tramp is leading the march. In seconds, Chaplin created a perfect sight gag to illustrate both Red-baiting and jumping to mistaken conclusions. Years before the actual McCarthy era, Chaplin had created the ideal visual metaphor satirizing it. This gag, however, only works because of its social context, that the audience recognizes that reputations have been ruined by charges of being a Communist. It is also ironic that Chaplin, who was one of the biggest capitalists of his era, was so often branded a Communist by political commentators.

Another remarkable episode is the shanty. When the tramp exclaims, “It’s paradise,” the line drew only a modest reaction from middle-class audiences but absolute howls in poorer neighborhoods. Again, the gag only works if the viewer understands the joke’s context. Modern Times should provide ample material for students to analyze and study the social framework of the film’s plot and humor.

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