Charlie Chaplin’s second baby step into the sound era – as in City Lights, he only uses music and sound effects – Modern Times is an enduring masterpiece that grows more relevant with each passing day. It’s hilarious and incisive, meaning you won’t find a more approachable work of art. Modern Times bemoans the curse of labor, as well as the societal and technological forces that allow labor to govern our lives. As the movie opens, Chaplin’s Little Tramp – making his last screen appearance – is a factory worker bent over an assembly line that’s running at an obscene pace, a pace no one but the Tramp can keep up with. Driven mad by his task, he’s fired from his job and bounces from jail to new job and back again all amid the tumult of America after the Great Depression. The gags are relentless and priceless – this is the source of that iconic image of Chaplin trapped in a machine’s giant gears – and the best of them hit home harder today than they did in 1936. If Chaplin included a ‘feeding machine’ that serves employees at the assembly line as a comic exaggeration of the pace of industry at the time, what would he think of today, when many of us go through a workday without taking time to eat at all?
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