Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times tells the story of Chaplin's iconic Little Tramp as he struggles to survive in a newly modernized world. The Tramp starts out working at a factory on an assembly line, but the new technology and oppressive environment of an industrializing society overwhelm him and he is unable to hold down a job. Between jobs he routinely ends up in jail for a variety of reasons, most of which are no fault of his own. He also becomes friends with a young orphan girl on one of his brief moments outside of jail, and their relationship grows as they reunite each time he is released again. They bond and are united by their mutual struggle to survive and flourish in a world that has grown hostile to their class.
The film came at the end of the Great Depression, and was a comment on the terrible conditions that many people, especially the poorest people, suffered during those times. Chaplin’s politics were quite liberal, and at this time he was becoming increasingly outspoken and political in his work, and Modern Times was an opportunity for him to use his medium to argue against oppression and exploitation of the working class. He saw inequality, mechanization for the sake of efficiency, and the greed of wealthy as the root causes of the Great Depression, and these points come out clearly in the film. Though this film was well-received critically, its political nature garnered some controversy, and as Chaplin grew increasingly political in the years following its release (including The Great Dictator in 1940, which criticized Hitler), his popularity began to decline.
The movie is also notable for its lack of spoken dialogue—at the time it was made, so-called “talkies” had become the norm in Hollywood. Chaplin's intent was to make Modern Times his first talkie, but after writing the script and testing out some scenes with sound, he decided that the film wouldn't be as impactful, alluring, and accessible to global audiences if it was a true talkie. He did decide to include some spoken sound in the final version of the film, in order to convey certain ideas—the only two voices that are heard are that of the President of the ElectroSteel Corp. and a “mechanical salesman,” symbolically giving a voice to those with power in the world he shows us and keeping the workers voiceless. In this way, his use of sound ties directly into one of his major points of the film, which aims to garner sympathy and appreciation for the oppression of workers at the hands of mechanization and greedy company owners.
Additionally, Chaplin’s voice is heard finally at the very end of the film, marking the first time his voice was heard by the viewing public. However, he does not speak any real language, but rather, sings a song in a gibberish, made-up language that seems to include elements of various romance languages and English. In relation to the absence of any voice among the workers, this may stand as a somewhat socialistic statement about the common oppression of workers across any national barriers, which would fit in with many of the arguments made in the film and Chaplin’s known political alignments. Outside of the context of the film, it may also serve as a criticism of the trend toward talkie films that Chaplin saw taking place at this time—the audience in the film finds his song and dance hilarious because of his actions and expressions, and his song can be understood by the audience of the film despite the lack of any real words.
Although not financially successful (it only made $1.4 million domestically on a $1.5 million budget), the film was a tremendous critical success. Often hailed as Chaplin's best film, Modern Times was inducted into United States National Film Registry, indicating both its quality and cultural significance. It is frequently listed among the best films and best comedies of all times, including the American Film Institute’s best movies of the 20th century (#81).