Modern Times begins as a whimsical diatribe against the dehumanizing quality to the mechanicalized ‘modern times’ of the 1930s. Chaplin’s antics are set first in a sadly automated factory and then in a series of jobs, each of which he fails to keep for one reason or another. The concept of a loser protagonist is pretty common in slapstick comedies, but when stuck into the Great Depression, it works better than normal: Chaplin’s nameless character could be anyone having a tough time finding work.
The movie isn’t subtle. After the opening shot’s joke about sheeple, the film mocks the modern era even in the dialogue cards. One reads “Time marches on into the late afternoon,” taking the optimistic concept of humanity marching forward in a constant improvement, and turning it into a phrase about the mundane. The dismal effects of the depression are unflinchingly addressed in the narrative, as kids forage for food, and laid-off workers turn to robbery, but always end happily, with no permanent damage falling on anyone whether they deserve it or not.
Chaplin himself even realizes the dehumanization of his world. In my favorite scene, Chaplin hilariously uses the factory’s ever-moving factory line in his own favor: when being chased by factory workers, he turns on a conveyer belt, forcing them away from him and back to the demands of the machinery. In doing so, Chaplin sees the reality of a senselessness world of menial jobs, and makes the best of it. That seems to be the point of the entire movie, too. Chaplin never seems very fazed by his problems, but never fails to acknowledge them, either. In the end, as he walks down a road with his creepily young love interest beside him, he remains positive despite his omnipresent lack of an occupation. He’s an example to those who find themselves in a similar situation of economic independence. If Charlie Chaplain can stay happy, anyone can.