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The Little Tramp and the Big Machine

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The Little Tramp and the Big Machine

Modern Times is an emotional response, based always in comedy, to the circumstances of the times. In the early films, the Tramp was knocked around in a pre-war society of underprivileged among the other immigrants and vagabonds and petty miscreants. In Modern Times he is one of the millions coping with poverty, unemployment, strikes and strikebreakers, and the tyranny of the machine (Robinson 458-9).

When we first see the Tramp in his last film, 1936's Modern Times, he is, so to speak, "one of the millions:" he is not wearing his Tramp clothes. Charlie is working at the Electro Steel Company, dressed in overalls. If he is still recognizable as the Tramp it is because of his movements. However, these, too, have acquired an uncharacteristic jerkiness. He is dressed in the clothes of the other Electro workers; he moves like the Electro machinery. The opening shot of Modern Times is of a herd of sheep, an image which fades into a stream of workers entering the factory gate. The subtitle, "A story of industry, of individual enterprise--humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness," sets us up to believe that the Tramp will embody that individual enterprise; the opening scene conveys the enormity of his opponent in that undertaking.

Modern Times is a Chaplin film with talking. But it is talking that is never done by humans: the boss speaks through a microphone; his face appears via a screen on the bathroom wall. The speech in Modern Times is a parody of speech (and perhaps a very pointed attack on the talkie); it indicates the displacement of people in a society in which the machine is dominant. The machinery at Electro Steel is massive: immense blocks of gears tower over and surround the human workers. Since the boss speaks through a machine to dictate the speed of the assembly line, it is as though the machinery is a contained system, all but capable of running itself. The workers in the factory are at its mercy.

The issue of humanity at the mercy of machinery is illustrated by an episode involving a "feeding machine."A group of salesmen comes to Electro Steel to pitch this item, which will allow the boss to not stop production for lunch and thus get ahead of the competition. The salesmen do not give the sales pitch themselves; rather it is delivered by a "mechanical salesman" on a phonograph while they gesture at the machine. When the record ends the mechanical salesman suggests a demonstration "because actions speak louder than words."

Charlie is chosen as the guinea pig for this demonstration. The feeding machine consists of a turning table around which are laid soup, a sandwich, corn on the cob and pie. A mouth-wiping device is attached near the eater's headrest. Charlie's first few bites go well, then things go awry: the soup spills all over him, the corn on the cob spins madly, the pie goes in his face. After each calamity, the mouth-wiper appears on the scene to pat his mouth.

The boss refuses the salesmen, telling them their machine is "not practical." Is there practical machinery? Presumably, Electro Steel must maintain certain standards of efficiency. The boss repeatedly asks the main operator (who is, for some reason, shirtless) to increase the speed of the assembly line. Charlie is able to use the speed to his advantage by purposefully not keeping up and thus forcing his overseer to step in, since the machine stops for no man.

The Little Tramp may well be experiencing the "tyranny of the machine;" he also finds a kind of joyful communion with it. Indeed, the machine is a distillation of action and movement. Charlie suffers an episode of delusions during which he dives onto the assembly line and enters the machinery. At this point the music changes from being militaristic to being playful. Emerging from the machine, Charlie dances and cavorts: he wrecks the customary havoc. This is called a nervous breakdown, and he is placed in a mental institution.

Having regained his health, he is dismissed from the asylum and told to "take it easy and avoid excitement." He immediately finds himself an unwitting participant in a labor demonstration (he waves a flag that had fallen off a truck in an attempt to return it to its owner-- in front of a crowd of strikers). The presence of the strikers calls attention to the extent of the reign of the machine: although the factories have closed and the machinery has been shut down, the people are still in its thrall. Charlie, though not one of the mass of strikers, is jailed for his activity. The structure of social authority in Modern Times is, like the machinery at Electro Steel, ubiquitous. Jail is a structure to which Charlie is willing to submit; inside he inadvertently

partakes of "nose powder" and is unable to stay in the line of prisoners as they march from cafeteria to cell. When his time is done, however, he protests his release, asking "Can't I stay... I'm so happy here." Ultimately, though, happiness is to be pursued in the outside world.

Charlie is not a lone fighter in the "battle for survival" (Robinson 462) that turns out to be his pursuit of happiness; he is joined in his endeavors by the Gamin. This waif of the waterfront first appears stealing bananas for her sisters and the other children on the margin of society. After the Gamin's father is killed during yet another labor protest, she and the Tramp are arrested (she for stealing



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