Modern Times is a 1936 comedy film by Charlie Chaplin that has his iconic Little Tramp character struggling to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and fiscal conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in Chaplin’s view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization. The movie stars Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford and Chester Conklin, and was written and directed by Chaplin.
Modern Times was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress in 1989, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Fourteen years later, it was screened “out of competition” at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
Modern Times is often hailed as one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements, and it remains one of his most popular films. French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merlau-Ponty named their journal, Les Temps modernes, after it. The iconic depiction of Chaplin working frantically to keep up with an assembly line inspired later comedy routines including Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face (Donald Duck alternately assembling artillery shells and saluting portraits of Adolf Hitler) and an episode of I Love Lucy titled “Job Switching” (Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with an ever-increasing volume of chocolate candies, eventually stuffing them in their mouths, hats, and blouses). This was Chaplin’s first overtly political-themed film, and its unflattering portrayal of industrial society generated controversy in some quarters upon its initial release.
The film exhibits notable similarities to a 1931 French film directed by René Clair entitled À nous la liberté (Liberty for Us) — the assembly line sequence is a clear instance. The German film company Tobis Film sued Chaplin following the film’s release to no avail. They sued again after World War II (considered revenge for Chaplin’s later anti-Nazi statements in The Great Dictator). This time, they settled with Chaplin out of court. À nous la liberté director Clair was an outspoken admirer of Chaplin, was flattered by the notion that the film icon might imitate him, deeply embarrassed that Tobis Film would sue Chaplin and was never part of the case.
The film did attract criticism for being almost completely silent, despite the movie industry having long since embraced the talking picture. Chaplin famously feared that the mystery and romanticism of the tramp character would be ruined if he spoke, and feared it would alienate his fans in non-English speaking territories. His future films, however, would be fully fledged “talkies” – although without the character of the Little Tramp.