Over the past month, the eyes of the nation has been transfixed by the fight going on in Wisconsin for workers to preserve their right for collective bargaining. Workers have gradually been losing bargaining powers as unions have been in decline for the past 30 years. As I read about the protests in Wisconsin, I began thinking of Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times.
When Chaplin was creating Modern Times, the United States was deep in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Great Depression had its starting point in the Wall Street Crash of October 24, 1929. From October 24 to October 29, 1929, the market lost $30 billion in value. In July 1933 some $74,000,000,000, or five-sixths of the value of the stock market of September 1929 disappeared. The American Federation of Labor recorded the rise in unemployment: unemployment in October 1930 was 4,639,000; in October 1931 unemployment was 7,778,000; in October 1932 unemployment was 11,586,000; in early 1933 employement was over 13,000,000. The nation’s industrial production in 1932 was 47 percent below normal. Between 1929 and 1932, farm values declined 33 percent and farmer’s gross income declined 57 percent.
Howard Zinn noted in his book A People’s History of the United States about the suffering that Americans went through. People who were evicted from their homes set up “Hoovervilles” near garbage dumps. Dispossessed migrant farmers moved from the midwest to California to try to find work. Five hundred unemployed men rioted in 1931 in Detroit. Fifteen thousand jobless men stormed the plant of the Fruit Growers Express Company demanding jobs to keep from starving in Indiana in 1931. In April 1932 five hundred school children marched in Chicago to demand that the school system provide them with food. More than twenty thousand veterans joined the march of the Bonus Army to Washington D.C. to pay their government bonus certificates.
Charlie Chaplin was sympathetic to the plight of the poor because of his upbringing in the poverty of Victorian south London. His father was a British music hall performer who took to drink and eventually abandoned his family. Chaplin’s mother tried raising two children as a seamstress, but eventually was confined to a hospital for mental instability. The absence of his parents forced Charlie and his brother Sidney to live in a workhouse. Though Chaplin eventually escaped the poverty of his youth, Chaplin kept a sympathy for the plight of the poor. His sympathy for the poor shaped his political views, which were to the left of the political spectrum.
Another influence on Chaplin’s political viewpoint, according to the book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance, were four radical friends whom he met when he first came to Hollywood. One was Frank Harris, a journalist, biographer, and novelist. Max Eastman was a well known radical and the publisher of the leftist magazines The Masses and The Liberator. Rob Wagner was a writer who frequently contributed to left wing magazines. Upton Sinclair was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author who wrote socially critical works like The Jungle.
Before Chaplin began filming Modern Times, he took a world tour to see first hand the effects of the Depression on people and to talk to some of the most influential thinkers of the time. He talked to Winson Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi about their thoughts on the world situation. His observations and conversations instilled in him a responsibility to make some sort of statement about world affairs, as the most popular entertainer in the world.
All of these influences helped shape Charlie Chaplin’s conception of Modern Times. Not only did Chaplin act, he also directed, wrote the screenplay and wrote the music to all of his movies. This gave Chaplin complete control over how his movies turned out, and Modern Times reflected his political views. In the book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Jeffrey Vance wrote:
Chaplin’s Modern Times is a meditation on the dehumanization and angst of the industrial working class. Through the stark visual imagery, he conveys his fear that capitalism will reduce workers to faceless drones, stripped of their individuality in the grind of mass production. In the opening moments of the film, Chaplin, not so subtly, dissolves a shot of a herd of sheep into an image of workers hustling off to their trades. Later, as the Tramp struggles to keep up with the pace of the assembly line of which he works, he is cruelly sucked into the machine itself and carried through its gears, as if he himself has become a mere cog in the wheels of production. Because of the film’s themes, particularly the veneration of the working man in a mechanistic age, a few columnists reported rumors prior to its opening that the film was communistic.
Simon Louvish wrote in the book Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey:
What one recalls from Modern Times is its steady drum roll of episodes satirizing what a stream of radicals upto the present day would call ‘The System’. Charlie as automaton, getting literally caught in the machine- an image used far beyond the realm of Chaplin or movies. The feeding machine. Charlie berserk with an oil can. The red flag- here more than perhaps elsewhere Chaplin’s idea of Charlie as a fallen English gentleman peeks through, as who else might try to restore a dropped rag from a lorry? The prison scene, with its hulking cell mate trying to thread a needle, and the dope scene, with his tablemate at the mess hall hiding his stash of white powder in the salt cellar. Charlie becoming more and more excited, smearing white stuff on his nose and grabbing back his slab of bread from the hulk; an unexpected gag to find in a picture made during the white heat of the hays Code, the renewed censorship rules that tightened up the chains upon the talkies.
When Modern Times came out in 1936, it was one of the most popular and discussed films of the year. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy banned the film because of the political ideas within the film. The critical reaction was mixed, and one of the more perceptive critics was Graham Greene, the film critic of The Spectator. Green wrote in the February 14, 1936 edition of The Spectator:
Mr. Chaplin, whatever his political convictions may be, is an artist and not a propagandist. he doesn’t try to explain, but presents with vivid fantasy what seems to him a drazy comic tragic world without a plan… He presents, he doesn’t offer political solutions.
Chaplin would’ve approved of the fight of Wisconsin workers to keep their rights of collective bargaining. Modern Times is Charlie Chaplin’s tribute to the workers of the world. As Jeffrey Vance wrote:
Modern Times is perhaps more meaningful now than at any time since its first release. The twentieth-century theme of the film, farsighted for its time- the struggle to eschew alienation and preserve humanity in a modern, mechanized world- profoundly reflects issues confronting the twenty-first century. The Tramp’s travails in Modern Times and the comedic mayhem that ensues should provide strength and comfort to all who feel like helpless cogs in a world beyond control. Through its universal themes and comic inventiveness, the film remains one of Chaplin’s greatest and most enduring works.
Here are two youtube videos of the first part of Modern Times and a youtube video of a scene in the Wisconsin workers’ rallies