Modern Times

25/02/2021

Thoughtful Laughter

Modern Times is an urban film about characters who might finally be better suited to a rural environment. Is that how we should view the ending to this film which shows the characters walking off into the sunset, suggesting the next one they see won’t be from the city? Though made during the midst of the depression and frequently alluding to the poverty and misery of the period, the idea for the film came to Chaplin after talking to a New York World journalist who told the comedian about the factory belt system in Detroit that left the workers nervous wrecks. These were strong, capable farmhands who were tempted by the lure of big industry but who after four or five years were physically ruined by the demands of advanced industrial production. “It was that conversation which gave me the idea for Modern Times.” (Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography) The film doesn’t end unhappily but it does end pessimistically: the factory worker and the gamin he meets are still together at the conclusion but every attempt at making a living in the city has been unsuccessful. Chaplin’s point isn’t that they have failed the city but that the city has failed them. Gilberto Perez notes: “Chaplin’s concluding departure down the road, in Modern Times and other films, sums up the clown’s disposition: better to take the chances of one’s own vagrant path than follow the instituted procedures of an uncongenial world.” (The Material Ghost) Hence, we have a happy ending. But what about the pessimism? The farmworker, like the factory worker, can leave the city but will the city be able to leave him, taking into account Chaplin’s observations about the farmers who went to work in the factories? And what jobs will be available to them back home? Chaplin was sympathetic to Communism though he never joined the party and, while his autobiography testifies to many meetings with the well-connected, from William Randolph Hearst to the Duke and Duchess of York, Churchill to Lady Astor, his work was predicated on sympathising with the little man. Simon Callow says, “Chaplin tackled what was real for working people, his core audience: the Depression, alienation in big cities, the heartlessness of modern factory life.” (Guardian)

However, to be sympathetic wouldn’t have been enough; Chaplin’s genius resides in generating comedic set-pieces that make a mockery of power and status, money and industry. Modern Times manages not only to poke fun at advanced early 20th capitalism but to point up the paradoxes of a system that promises the world yet can’t guarantee a square meal. If the character finds himself in and out of prison constantly it rests partly on the nature of a system that will not provide enough jobs for its population and will not allow them to steal to survive. By imprisoning people they are making sure that this proves a warning to others, that incarceration awaits those who stray, but here prison is the lesser of two evils evident in the scene where Chaplin tries to spring himself back into jail. He gorges on an enormous meal, then sees a policeman through the diner’s window and ushers him in as he goes up to pay the bill, making clear both to the woman at the counter and to the cop that he hasn’t any money to pay it. The policeman hauls him away but Chaplin isn’t finished yet. While the cop phones in, Chaplin stands next to him at the counter of a tobacconist and orders a cigar before then doling out sweets to a couple of kids in another act of low-key criminality. And why not? When prison at least provides bed and board, gaol seems an improvement over freedom.  

If Chaplin has often been accused of sentimentality and naivety, of suggesting the worthiness of the downtrodden poor and the need to improve their situation, then such a belief contains a naivety of its own. The often perceptive but occasionally wrong-headed David Thomson reckons Chaplin the actor “has an overbearingly winsome personality that cajoles his films into mawkishness” and that “the worldwide appeal of Chaplin, and his persistent handicap, have lain in the extent to which he always lived in a realm of his own — that of delirious egotism.” (Biographical Dictionary of Film) However, this egotism and winsomeness works well in Modern Times if we keep in mind the thoughts on comedy by the philosopher Henri Bergson, and replace Chaplin’s humanism with vitalism, seeing how the latter works in the context of the comedic. His daughter Geraldine Chaplin emphasises the humanistic, saying: “His most famous movie character, The Tramp, surely had something to do with that childhood. A completely destitute vagabond, who nonetheless has dignity and manners. For me, that character was always a transfigured version of my father’s childhood story: the embodiment of a humanism that couldn’t be broken.” (New Yorker) But it is more useful to see Chaplin’s work as a determined escape from the mechanistic: that what mattered wasn’t only that the poor were treated well but that they weren’t treated as machines. Here the Bergsonian notion of comedy meets the anecdotal remark about the farmworkers whose nerves were destroyed. Speaking of the humorous, Bergson gives examples and says “the laughable element in both cases consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity just where one would expect to find the wideawake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.” (Laughter) Contrasting the vitalistic with the mechanical, Wylie Sypher, notes: “Bergson says that comedy can make us human and natural in the midst of mechanical societies” (Introduction to Comedy) and while many have made much of Chaplin’s humanism, and like Thomson aligns it with sentimentality and egoism, better perhaps to see in Chaplin’s comedy a determined exploration of a person’s bodily need to express vital forces rather than conform to mechanistic expectations. If prison is less inclined to reduce one to a nervous wreck than a production line, then better incarceration. One may end up institutionalised but that seems better than becoming mechanised. Factory line production, known as Fordism or Taylorism, might have offered new goods at cheaper prices, but it also created many automatons who lost their vital ability to function.

Had Chaplin sentimentally offered such a belief he would have been a worthy human being but wouldn’t have attracted the attention of many millions. It was the way he could see comic potential in people’s despair that made him interesting, in seeing the ironies and paradoxes in systems that insisted they were improving people’s lives while undermining their freedoms. When Chaplin is forced to test out an eating machine it is based on assuming that man is as mechanical as the machine that feeds him. One might think this less the failure of the machine than the failure of the man who hasn’t quite adjusted to his newfound self as a figure subordinate to inorganic matter, one who follows the rules that the feeding machine insists upon. Chaplin conveys in the sequence less innovation at work than the workings of a torture device that straps the person in and force-feeds them. The machine malfunctions but the comedy lies partly in the dysfunctional person who they test it upon. If it isn’t quite idiot-proof it is partly because they have tested on an idiot. 

But an idiot in this sense is someone who can’t adjust to a system that demands a degree of conformity, one that leads to tremulous ex-farmworkers. Later when his work colleague gets caught in a machine after Chaplin’s incompetence, Charlie finds ingenious ways to feed him. The colleague is no freer than Chaplin was earlier in the film but this time at least he, unlike Chaplin, can be attended to with the aid of human compassion. When Charlie gives him a chicken drumstick to nibble on or a sandwich to eat, the poor man is as incapable of getting sustenance as Chaplin was earlier when at the mercy of the feeding device. Yet there is tenderness in Charlie’s attempt as there has been nothing but (mal) functionalism in the machine’s. Charlie we might say is merely incompetent while the machine is inefficient but the film asks what happens when you expect efficiency rather than competence: when you treat men like objects of production. Frederick Taylor “suggested that production efficiency in a shop or a factory could be greatly enhanced by close observation of the individual worker and elimination of waste time and motion in his operation.” (Encylopedia Britannica) Hence Taylorism and Fordism, the sort of work practices that leads to a halfway house between industrialisation and automation. The machines are developed enough to make intense demands on the individual but not so developed that the work can be done by the machine alone. In the early sequence where Chaplin and others are employed on the production line tightening bolts, the machine works unremittingly as the individual tries to keep pace. But in the process of doing so, Chaplin’s automatic responses have become so geared to the work that he can’t hold a plate of soup straight without spilling it. Hence the logic of the food device: not only will it force people to eat within an allotted time it will also mean that their jerky, automated movements needn’t leave them with food all over the place. Of course, the machine proves no better as Chaplin makes anew old jokes as the cream pie ends up in his face, and the block that cleans his mouth keeps hitting him in a nod to Punch and Judy. 

David Robinson notes that with Modern Times, Chaplin was charged “with exceeding his ‘proper brief’ and setting himself up as a philosopher.” (Movies of the Silent Years) However, a comedian’s purpose isn’t to deny the social, the political and the philosophical but to make them augment the comedy. A cream pie joke is old indeed but if it is put in a context that acknowledges the absurdity of the new-fangled then an old joke is made anew. It is here where we can find Chaplin’s genius and this too is where we can see the moment of science and the moment of comedy meeting. It is well known that many a successful experiment comes from the realisation that while examining one thing a scientist often discovers instead something else. Alexander Fleming was growing bacteria in the lab when he came across mould that limited the bacteria’s growth, and hence what we now call antibiotics. German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, working with a cathode ray tube found that when trying to block the rays he could see, in the image that was projected onto the screen, his own bones, and hence the first X-Ray. Such revelations in science are close to burlesque incidents in comedy if we accept the conflation of the contingent moment meeting the fresh perception. Chaplin often shows objects suddenly given a new function. It may be the chicken that gets used at different moments as a funnel to feed the colleague with or as a football the players utilise at the restaurant. It can be the buttons on the secretary’s dress that Chaplin takes for bolts. More contingently still, it is the socialist flag that falls off the back of a truck which Chaplin picks up and waves around, determined to get the attention of the driver, only to find himself at the front of a political march where he then gets jailed as ringleader. Or, again, when he gets arrested for slugging a cop with a stone. The cop has been cajoling him moments before and Chaplin is clearly irritated but he doesn’t deliberately lob a stone at the officer. He just steps on a plank leaning against the pavement and catapults the stone into the air. 

Not all the jokes here are modern in the sense that they need new times to reinvigorate potentially stale humour, nor was Chaplin unique in his innovative use of the burlesque — Buster Keaton and later Jacques Tati were masters of it too: Keaton using lazy tongs as a traffic indicator in Cops, and Tati a tyre for a wreath in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday are just one example from each. But Chaplin (like Tati with Mon Oncle and Playtime) could see in Modern Times how science fiction meets comedy; how gadgets contain within them the ability to be turned inside out by observation and innovation. If Fleming could see that mould was useful as an antibiotic this isn’t too far removed from Chaplin using a department store as a skating rink. They both see that something has one use but that it can even more fruitfully be utilised in a way at odds with its original intention. In the department scene where Chaplin skates, it even has the pitfalls one would expect if ice skating on a frozen lake. As Chaplin gleefully skates around blindfolded he can’t see the dangers that we see: that he could fall down to the floors below as there is no balcony to protect him. Chaplin takes a filmic trope where we wonder if someone will fall through the ice and turns it into one in which someone risks falling several floors in a department store. It is funny because of the ingenuity while of course it is usually a serious threat in a film that shows people on the ice as we wonder if someone will fall through it. Chaplin’s character may be in danger too but the humour is more evident than the threat because Chaplin has transposed the image of skating on thin ice and the emphasis rests on the transpositionally comic.

Some might insist that a great comedian is someone who makes us laugh but what if an even greater skill is the ability to make us observe, to make us see the world anew? If, as we have seen, Bergson saw that much humour comes out of the organic made mechanical, noting that what creates humour is often “a certain mechanical elasticity”, he saw too that “this rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.” (Laughter) Equally, if George Meredith is right when he says “the test of true comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter” (Comedy), it isn’t that we laugh out loud that matters but, if Bergson is correct, that we notice the degree to which we become mechanical and deny our organic nature. No Chaplin film more than Modern Times captures that fear. Even if there are comedies we find much funnier than Chaplin’s we may wonder whether if at the same time they share an equal capacity for observation, for ‘thoughtful laughter’. Much humour is amusing but thoughtless if it emphasises the guttural pay off over the observant accumulation. ManhattanDr StrangeloveAnnie HallMonsieur VerdouxHis Girl FridayThe General, PlaytimeMon OncleGregory’s GirlIt Happened One Night and Some Like it Hot, even the less august This is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski and The Life of Brian, have very funny moments, and sometimes very many of them, but they also have a narrative throughline that resists the skittish determination to find the laugh at any price and at any cost. Films like Borat, AirplaneThere’s Something About Mary, even Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, tend to have a weaker sense of scrutiny, as though missing out on the observational while pursuing the humorously hyperbolic. It may be paradoxical that we don’t look for laughter from the comic but it only happens to appear so if we assume that the bodily response elicited is more important than the principle of understanding that the laugh serves. In such moments we are released from the mechanical by the bodily surprise that is the humorous but at the same time can see that the laugh elicited might also make us wise to our human condition. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Modern Times

Thoughtful Laughter

Modern Times is an urban film about characters who might finally be better suited to a rural environment. Is that how we should view the ending to this film which shows the characters walking off into the sunset, suggesting the next one they see won't be from the city? Though made during the midst of the depression and frequently alluding to the poverty and misery of the period, the idea for the film came to Chaplin after talking to a New York World journalist who told the comedian about the factory belt system in Detroit that left the workers nervous wrecks. These were strong, capable farmhands who were tempted by the lure of big industry but who after four or five years were physically ruined by the demands of advanced industrial production. "It was that conversation which gave me the idea for Modern Times." (Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography) The film doesn't end unhappily but it does end pessimistically: the factory worker and the gamin he meets are still together at the conclusion but every attempt at making a living in the city has been unsuccessful. Chaplin's point isn't that they have failed the city but that the city has failed them. Gilberto Perez notes: "Chaplin's concluding departure down the road, in Modern Times and other films, sums up the clown's disposition: better to take the chances of one's own vagrant path than follow the instituted procedures of an uncongenial world." (The Material Ghost) Hence, we have a happy ending. But what about the pessimism? The farmworker, like the factory worker, can leave the city but will the city be able to leave him, taking into account Chaplin's observations about the farmers who went to work in the factories? And what jobs will be available to them back home? Chaplin was sympathetic to Communism though he never joined the party and, while his autobiography testifies to many meetings with the well-connected, from William Randolph Hearst to the Duke and Duchess of York, Churchill to Lady Astor, his work was predicated on sympathising with the little man. Simon Callow says, "Chaplin tackled what was real for working people, his core audience: the Depression, alienation in big cities, the heartlessness of modern factory life." (Guardian)

However, to be sympathetic wouldn't have been enough; Chaplin's genius resides in generating comedic set-pieces that make a mockery of power and status, money and industry. Modern Times manages not only to poke fun at advanced early 20th capitalism but to point up the paradoxes of a system that promises the world yet can't guarantee a square meal. If the character finds himself in and out of prison constantly it rests partly on the nature of a system that will not provide enough jobs for its population and will not allow them to steal to survive. By imprisoning people they are making sure that this proves a warning to others, that incarceration awaits those who stray, but here prison is the lesser of two evils evident in the scene where Chaplin tries to spring himself back into jail. He gorges on an enormous meal, then sees a policeman through the diner's window and ushers him in as he goes up to pay the bill, making clear both to the woman at the counter and to the cop that he hasn't any money to pay it. The policeman hauls him away but Chaplin isn't finished yet. While the cop phones in, Chaplin stands next to him at the counter of a tobacconist and orders a cigar before then doling out sweets to a couple of kids in another act of low-key criminality. And why not? When prison at least provides bed and board, gaol seems an improvement over freedom.

If Chaplin has often been accused of sentimentality and naivety, of suggesting the worthiness of the downtrodden poor and the need to improve their situation, then such a belief contains a naivety of its own. The often perceptive but occasionally wrong-headed David Thomson reckons Chaplin the actor "has an overbearingly winsome personality that cajoles his films into mawkishness" and that "the worldwide appeal of Chaplin, and his persistent handicap, have lain in the extent to which he always lived in a realm of his own that of delirious egotism." (Biographical Dictionary of Film) However, this egotism and winsomeness works well in Modern Times if we keep in mind the thoughts on comedy by the philosopher Henri Bergson, and replace Chaplin's humanism with vitalism, seeing how the latter works in the context of the comedic. His daughter Geraldine Chaplin emphasises the humanistic, saying: "His most famous movie character, The Tramp, surely had something to do with that childhood. A completely destitute vagabond, who nonetheless has dignity and manners. For me, that character was always a transfigured version of my father's childhood story: the embodiment of a humanism that couldn't be broken." (New Yorker) But it is more useful to see Chaplin's work as a determined escape from the mechanistic: that what mattered wasn't only that the poor were treated well but that they weren't treated as machines. Here the Bergsonian notion of comedy meets the anecdotal remark about the farmworkers whose nerves were destroyed. Speaking of the humorous, Bergson gives examples and says "the laughable element in both cases consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity just where one would expect to find the wideawake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being." (Laughter) Contrasting the vitalistic with the mechanical, Wylie Sypher, notes: "Bergson says that comedy can make us human and natural in the midst of mechanical societies" (Introduction to Comedy) and while many have made much of Chaplin's humanism, and like Thomson aligns it with sentimentality and egoism, better perhaps to see in Chaplin's comedy a determined exploration of a person's bodily need to express vital forces rather than conform to mechanistic expectations. If prison is less inclined to reduce one to a nervous wreck than a production line, then better incarceration. One may end up institutionalised but that seems better than becoming mechanised. Factory line production, known as Fordism or Taylorism, might have offered new goods at cheaper prices, but it also created many automatons who lost their vital ability to function.

Had Chaplin sentimentally offered such a belief he would have been a worthy human being but wouldn't have attracted the attention of many millions. It was the way he could see comic potential in people's despair that made him interesting, in seeing the ironies and paradoxes in systems that insisted they were improving people's lives while undermining their freedoms. When Chaplin is forced to test out an eating machine it is based on assuming that man is as mechanical as the machine that feeds him. One might think this less the failure of the machine than the failure of the man who hasn't quite adjusted to his newfound self as a figure subordinate to inorganic matter, one who follows the rules that the feeding machine insists upon. Chaplin conveys in the sequence less innovation at work than the workings of a torture device that straps the person in and force-feeds them. The machine malfunctions but the comedy lies partly in the dysfunctional person who they test it upon. If it isn't quite idiot-proof it is partly because they have tested on an idiot.

But an idiot in this sense is someone who can't adjust to a system that demands a degree of conformity, one that leads to tremulous ex-farmworkers. Later when his work colleague gets caught in a machine after Chaplin's incompetence, Charlie finds ingenious ways to feed him. The colleague is no freer than Chaplin was earlier in the film but this time at least he, unlike Chaplin, can be attended to with the aid of human compassion. When Charlie gives him a chicken drumstick to nibble on or a sandwich to eat, the poor man is as incapable of getting sustenance as Chaplin was earlier when at the mercy of the feeding device. Yet there is tenderness in Charlie's attempt as there has been nothing but (mal) functionalism in the machine's. Charlie we might say is merely incompetent while the machine is inefficient but the film asks what happens when you expect efficiency rather than competence: when you treat men like objects of production. Frederick Taylor "suggested that production efficiency in a shop or a factory could be greatly enhanced by close observation of the individual worker and elimination of waste time and motion in his operation." (Encylopedia Britannica) Hence Taylorism and Fordism, the sort of work practices that leads to a halfway house between industrialisation and automation. The machines are developed enough to make intense demands on the individual but not so developed that the work can be done by the machine alone. In the early sequence where Chaplin and others are employed on the production line tightening bolts, the machine works unremittingly as the individual tries to keep pace. But in the process of doing so, Chaplin's automatic responses have become so geared to the work that he can't hold a plate of soup straight without spilling it. Hence the logic of the food device: not only will it force people to eat within an allotted time it will also mean that their jerky, automated movements needn't leave them with food all over the place. Of course, the machine proves no better as Chaplin makes anew old jokes as the cream pie ends up in his face, and the block that cleans his mouth keeps hitting him in a nod to Punch and Judy.

David Robinson notes that with Modern Times, Chaplin was charged "with exceeding his 'proper brief' and setting himself up as a philosopher." (Movies of the Silent Years) However, a comedian's purpose isn't to deny the social, the political and the philosophical but to make them augment the comedy. A cream pie joke is old indeed but if it is put in a context that acknowledges the absurdity of the new-fangled then an old joke is made anew. It is here where we can find Chaplin's genius and this too is where we can see the moment of science and the moment of comedy meeting. It is well known that many a successful experiment comes from the realisation that while examining one thing a scientist often discovers instead something else. Alexander Fleming was growing bacteria in the lab when he came across mould that limited the bacteria's growth, and hence what we now call antibiotics. German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, working with a cathode ray tube found that when trying to block the rays he could see, in the image that was projected onto the screen, his own bones, and hence the first X-Ray. Such revelations in science are close to burlesque incidents in comedy if we accept the conflation of the contingent moment meeting the fresh perception. Chaplin often shows objects suddenly given a new function. It may be the chicken that gets used at different moments as a funnel to feed the colleague with or as a football the players utilise at the restaurant. It can be the buttons on the secretary's dress that Chaplin takes for bolts. More contingently still, it is the socialist flag that falls off the back of a truck which Chaplin picks up and waves around, determined to get the attention of the driver, only to find himself at the front of a political march where he then gets jailed as ringleader. Or, again, when he gets arrested for slugging a cop with a stone. The cop has been cajoling him moments before and Chaplin is clearly irritated but he doesn't deliberately lob a stone at the officer. He just steps on a plank leaning against the pavement and catapults the stone into the air.

Not all the jokes here are modern in the sense that they need new times to reinvigorate potentially stale humour, nor was Chaplin unique in his innovative use of the burlesque Buster Keaton and later Jacques Tati were masters of it too: Keaton using lazy tongs as a traffic indicator in Cops, and Tati a tyre for a wreath in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday are just one example from each. But Chaplin (like Tati with Mon Oncle and Playtime) could see in Modern Times how science fiction meets comedy; how gadgets contain within them the ability to be turned inside out by observation and innovation. If Fleming could see that mould was useful as an antibiotic this isn't too far removed from Chaplin using a department store as a skating rink. They both see that something has one use but that it can even more fruitfully be utilised in a way at odds with its original intention. In the department scene where Chaplin skates, it even has the pitfalls one would expect if ice skating on a frozen lake. As Chaplin gleefully skates around blindfolded he can't see the dangers that we see: that he could fall down to the floors below as there is no balcony to protect him. Chaplin takes a filmic trope where we wonder if someone will fall through the ice and turns it into one in which someone risks falling several floors in a department store. It is funny because of the ingenuity while of course it is usually a serious threat in a film that shows people on the ice as we wonder if someone will fall through it. Chaplin's character may be in danger too but the humour is more evident than the threat because Chaplin has transposed the image of skating on thin ice and the emphasis rests on the transpositionally comic.

Some might insist that a great comedian is someone who makes us laugh but what if an even greater skill is the ability to make us observe, to make us see the world anew? If, as we have seen, Bergson saw that much humour comes out of the organic made mechanical, noting that what creates humour is often "a certain mechanical elasticity", he saw too that "this rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective." (Laughter) Equally, if George Meredith is right when he says "the test of true comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter" (Comedy), it isn't that we laugh out loud that matters but, if Bergson is correct, that we notice the degree to which we become mechanical and deny our organic nature. No Chaplin film more than Modern Times captures that fear. Even if there are comedies we find much funnier than Chaplin's we may wonder whether if at the same time they share an equal capacity for observation, for 'thoughtful laughter'. Much humour is amusing but thoughtless if it emphasises the guttural pay off over the observant accumulation. Manhattan, Dr Strangelove, Annie Hall, Monsieur Verdoux, His Girl Friday, The General, Playtime, Mon Oncle, Gregory's Girl, It Happened One Night and Some Like it Hot, even the less august This is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski and The Life of Brian, have very funny moments, and sometimes very many of them, but they also have a narrative throughline that resists the skittish determination to find the laugh at any price and at any cost. Films like Borat, Airplane, There's Something About Mary, even Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, tend to have a weaker sense of scrutiny, as though missing out on the observational while pursuing the humorously hyperbolic. It may be paradoxical that we don't look for laughter from the comic but it only happens to appear so if we assume that the bodily response elicited is more important than the principle of understanding that the laugh serves. In such moments we are released from the mechanical by the bodily surprise that is the humorous but at the same time can see that the laugh elicited might also make us wise to our human condition.


© Tony McKibbin