Warning: spoilers below
I rate Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times as one of the best movies of all time. Dated though it is, and monochrome, it is a movie with a strong message for all of us. The message is about what happens if society ignores human values, and the ultimate consequences. Placing it in its context, the movie has echoes of Brave New World and hints of what is to come in 1984, and is a social comment on Taylorism, Marxism and much that was happening in the second quarter of the 20th Century.
As always with Chaplin, the visual humour is second to none, and the coreography and timing is amazing. This is classified as a silent movie, and most of the action is mimed. But there are dubbed speaking parts.
Electro Steel Corp
In many ways, the first part of the film is a reductio ad absurdum on factory assembly lines. Charlie's job is a mindless repetitive task involving tightening a pair of nuts on a series of assembles on a conveyor belt (curiously, the pair of bolts seem to be oppositely threaded, which is an interesting piece of artistic licence). The Management are always wanting to increase production to meet quotas, which inevitably involves cranking up the speed of the conveyor: "Section 5, speed her up". The boss makes use of 1984 style telescreens as a form of two way communication.
At one hilarious point, an "eat while you work" feeding machine is introduced, in the drive for efficiency, and guess who gets to be the first guinea pig. As can be imagined, the gadget has a mind of its own, causing grief to all, especially to Charlie. At the end of this scene, Charlie ends up cracking up, and causes chaos with the assembly line controls, eventually frog marched off by men in white coats.
Charlie observes a red flag falling off the back of a flatbed truck. He picks up the flag, chasing the truck; he is followed by a crowd of protesters, then the police turn up and he is arrested and put in jail for being the communist ringleader.
During his time in jail, one of the inmates secretes some nose powder into the salt cellar. Charlie ingests a large quantity of this substance, putting him into daredevil crazy mode. Whilst under the influence, he ends up thwarting a jailbreak, for which he ends up getting released. At the time, Charlie is not ready to face the outside world, and would have preferred to stay in jail.
There is this girl, the gamin living on the dockside, ekeing out an existence for herself and her younger sisters by stealing food.1 The sisters all become orphaned when their father is shot; the sisters end up in a state orphanage, all except our gamin.
Charlie, meanwhile, has been release from jail, and is trying to do his best to get put back inside. When our gamin is caught stealing a loaf of bread, Charlie intervenes, and insists on taking the blame. Following some wild police chases, they both end up in the back of a black maria with a load of other miscreants. After Charlie helps her to escape, she is puzzled why he doesn't want to escape with her.
There follows a fantasy scene where they enact their ideal of having their own home, a wierd kind of bliss, which curiously reminds me of a scene in The Fisher King.
They end up setting up home in a tumbled down shack, with more domestic parody in the opposite sense.
Night watchman on skates
Charlie lands a job as a night watchman in a department store, using the reference given to him by the prison warden on his release.
Charlie brings in the gamin; they have the whole store to themselves. Having explored, the go into the toy department and don roller skates; Charlie skating blindfold goes perilously near to the edge of the balcony, causing the girl to panic. Eventually, he puts her to bed in the bedding department.
Meanwhile, a criminal gang has broken into the store, and they are about to encounter Charlie on roller skates. Charlie does not get killed as he is recognised by "Big Bill" from the assembly line. They end up getting Charlie drunk instead. The following morning, Charlie is discovered in the ladies' lingerie department beneath a pile of linen.
Charlie is hired as a mechanic's mate in the job to recommission the machines which have been idle. Here, he has an encounter with a press, which crushes an oil can and his boss's gold watch.
He also manages to get the contents of his toolbox into the machinery, followed by his boss.
The hooter sounds for end of shift. As it is the end of the shift, everybody downs tools and the machines are shut down, abandoning the boss inside the mechanism, with only Charlie to help feed him his lunch.
The gamin has managed to get a job as a dancer in a restaurant, where she persuades them to take Charlie on as a singing waiter. As can be imagined, there is a kerfuffle with the "in" and "out" doors to the kitchen. There is a hilarious scene where Charlie is trying to bring a plate holding a duck across to the table where it is needed, but the restaurant has turned into a ballroom.
Charlie earns his keep by singing a nonsense song which goes down a treat with the clientelle. At this point, the police try to arrest the gamin as they have a warrant for vagrancy, but Charlie and the gamin manage to escape.
The final scene has the couple both walking off into the distance. It's not a rosy scene, as the gamin is depressed from losing her job in the cafe. In many ways, this bittersweet ending is one of the few that could be in keeping with the rest of the film. The original plot was for our gamin to end up joining a convent.
1The gamin is played by Paulette Goddard, whom Charlie Chaplin married in real life.