This little fellow (Charlie Chaplin) is a worker in a huge factory, tightening bolts on parts destined for machinery not unlike the behemoths which churn away there. However, the boss is always wanting more and more production, which is having a detrimental effect on the little man's mental health: all this pressure to work as quickly as possible is sending him a little crazy. His colleagues exasperatedly keep him in check, but this machine age is not doing him any good, and the drive for further efficiency will soon see him snap - but if he doesn't have a job, how will he eat?
The word that often came up in regard to Charlie Chaplin's work here from his critics was naive, probably because he laced the comedy of his earlier films with a more upfront political consciousness much in evidence in his last silent movie, and indeed the last true silent movie of that era, Modern Times. He soon became known as a sort of millionaire Communist, a strange combination which he would reject, but there was no mistaking his leanings here when they depicted the working man as lost in an unfriendly world of the bosses' determination to sustain high productivity with the staff merely another cog in their factories.
Rather than an individual, a member of humanity, whenever Chaplin's Little Tramp character gets a job it crushes him underfoot, or at least tries to, with the result that he is all too often thrown in jail. That's not something he minds especially, for he does appreciate the regular meals and a roof over his head, yet the film acknowledges that's no way to live when the alternatives should be so much brighter. All of which makes Modern Times sound like some dry and solemn tract, when Chaplin was savvy enough to keep the tone light, as if there were always going to be better times around the corner, and packed the plotline with his signature gags, leaving the film resembling a collection of themed shorts.
The sentimentality was there, of course, but the seriousness of the intent was buoyed by the sense of humour. Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's latest girlfriend and soon to be his next wife, played the Gamin, a teenage urchin seeking to look after her family now her mother was dead and her father unable to work, which she does by stealing any food she can. This was quite a departure from the usual Chaplin leadng lady who tended to be demure and placed on a pedestal: here Goddard was forthright, no victim, and prepared to grab life by the scruff of the neck because it was the only way she can survive. Oddly, the conservatively right wing actress not only married the famously left wing Chaplin, but the similar in politics Burgess Meredith straight after, too.
Although when you saw her legendary beauty, you might understand the attraction, especially that dazzling smile. She added sparkle to Modern Times that made it all right to laugh at the terrible tragedy of the Depression which America was suffering through, that optimism shone through every frame which said, explicitly, you may be having tough day, month or year, but you have your humanity and that includes the potential to enjoy the good things. With that attitude the accusations of Chaplin's ingenuousness held water when you took into account his already comfortable lifestyle, but he was never to leave behind his memories of an upbringing in dire poverty, so was never anything less than sincere. Others observed that he had lifted much of Modern Times from René Clair's À Nous la Liberté - Fritz Lang's Metropolis too - but his jokes were his own and the setpieces which made clear his themes of man versus machine were among his funniest. This made you laugh more than many a lesson in social commentary. Music by Chaplin.