Skiffy Flix: Modern Times

Skiffy? Science fiction? Well, not quite, but the theme of the first part of the film, in which the main character works in a dehumanizing factory, echoes Metropolis and similar dystopias. That’s why I watched it.

While I think I may have seen part of this film before, I never saw the whole thing, nor have I ever seen any other Charlie Chaplin film before. Somehow his Little Tramp character never appealed to me.

This is a 1936 film, and while Chaplin was a famous star of the silent movie era, this one isn’t quite silent – it has music, and occasional snatches of spoken dialogue, and a song and dance number at the end—with Chaplin singing! And yet, most of the dialogue is displayed on title cards, just as it was in silent movies.

The music is credited to Chaplin, though according to sources (was it the short documentary included on the DVD? Or Wikipedia?) Chaplin wasn’t a composer; he would create themes and hum or sing them to an assistant who would write them down and orchestrate them.

  • The film opens, famously, with the face of a giant clock.
  • Then, none too subtly, we see a herd of sheep. Then, a herd of subway commuters. Then, a giant factory, where workers clock in. A man with no shirt throws a giant switch.
  • We see the president of the company in an office, apparently with nothing better to do than assemble a jigsaw puzzle. He turns on a large screen or monitor to observe the factory floors. He issues an order to Section 5: speed it up!
  • –So, there are some sharp points here, but at the same time this is much satire as social criticism. And all for the sake of various elaborate pranks and gags, in Chaplin style.
  • CC, Charlie Chaplin, works at a conveyor belt, endlessly tightening bolts on parts that speed past. Much comedy about what happens when he glances away and rushes to catch up. When CC goes the men’s room for a smoke, the president appears on a big screen and tells him to get back to work.
  • There’s a side plot about a new device brought to the president: a feeding machine, a chest-high device with revolving platters, intended to speed lunch breaks so workers can be more productive. CC is summoned to test it. It works at first: his soup bowl is held up for him to sip; a cob of corn rotates for him to eat from. But it goes too fast. The technicians try to adjust it. The soup is spilled onto CC’s chest. The technicians place bolts on a platter, and the machine tries to feed bolts to CC. (The comedy is strained here, over the top – everything possible goes wrong – in the same sense I find most popular comedies simply stupid, not humorous.) The president, seeing all this, rejects the device as impractical.
  • Back on the assembly line, we see perhaps the film’s most famous scene: CC climbs onto the conveyor belt and gets sucked inside. We see a shot of the huge machine below the conveyor belt, with enormous gears, with somehow enough space between them that CC’s body passes through and around them. A worker manages to reverse the process, and CC is returned to the conveyor belt.
  • But now he’s catatonic, compulsively twisting his wrench at everything – even a secretary’s breasts. He squirts oil at everything and everyone. And so an ambulance pulls up outside and he’s taken away.
  • Then follows the remainder of the story, with no particular science fictional themes:
    • He’s released from the hospital, but without a job.
    • He’s accidentally arrested for seeming to lead a crowd of protestors.
    • In jail he accidentally uses a saltshaker that another inmate has put ‘nose-powder’ – cocaine – into, and goes crazy, taunting guards but accidentally foiling hoodlums.
    • Meanwhile, a young woman, called here a ‘gamin,’ survives the shooting of her father. When she later steals a loaf of bread, CC is blamed then exonerated, but missing life in prison, arranges to be arrested; then the two of them escape a paddy wagon and flee
    • And so CC and the gamin try to make a life together. He gets a job as a department store watchman (there’s an amazing roller-skating near a floor-ledge scene), but is soon fired. They settle in shack along the bay. Another factory job. Arrested again.
    • Ellen, the gamin, gets a job singing, and gets him a job waiting tables.
    • CC’s films are in part elaborately staged comedic sequences, and the climax here is a scene in this café, as CC serves a diner angry that his roast duck hasn’t shown up, while maneuvering through a crowded dance hall. It’s brilliantly staged.
    • And then CC has to sing, but can’t remember the lyrics, and loses the ones written on his cuffs. So he makes them up, singing a tune with phony French lyrics and pantomimes. This is the first time CC had been heard. The crowd loves it.
    • But detectives show up to arrest Ellen, and they flee.
    • And are last seen walking down a country road. What’s the use of trying? Never say die, they’ll get along. And they walk out along the middle of the highway…into the distance. The end.


  • I was surprised to discover that the music includes the tune of the famous song “Smile,” later given lyrics and sung by Nat King Cole. Here we hear it in two key scenes, including the last scene, as CC and Ellen are determined to make their lives together.
  • One of the few sound scenes is one in which CC is visited by a minister and his wife, and tea causes their stomachs to growl. We hear the growling; minister’s wife is embarrassed. It’s a curious case of deciding where to use sound technology.
  • The ‘nose-powder’ scene in jail, with its depiction of the effects of drug use, is one of those things the Hayes Code was designed to prevent.
  • The final scene on the highway was filmed on Sierra Highway, north of LA through Canyon Country, an area I’ve driven, and bicycled, many times.
  • Numerous other locations are identified by various sources; in LA suburbs, in coastal docks.
  • CC never repeats a gag…even as you think he might.
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