Americans have varying opinions about “capitalism.” Some would love to spread it worldwide; some believe it’s ruining the nation. The latter say it’s ludicrous for a handful of elite to control the majority of a state’s wealth while poverty rages on in lower classes, and I must say, I agree. Capitalism has thrived in America since the beginning of industry, arguably longer. (Columbus was looking for gold.) The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, yet most Americans’ definitions of “happiness” involve financial security, decent living conditions, education, good health, and solid governance. Anyone with a full-time job would argue that happiness seems elusive when the retirement age continues to rise, life becomes more expensive, and the government continually encourages the lower class to take the initiative to secure higher income all by themselves. The government’s current structure favors the wealthy. The Declaration of Independence states Americans have the right to be happy, but evidence supports the idea that the American Dream is entirely unattainable. Perhaps it always has been.
Although Modern Times has existed for seventy-eight years this February, one could offer successful arguments for parallels between this iconic comedy and today’s industry. Is it possible that today’s America still—or once again—suffers from the same inequalities that caught Chaplain’s attention in nineteen thirty-six? While revisiting the opening scene in class, my peers and I noticed a variety of not-so-hidden attacks on capitalism. The film’s opening credits feature a clock striking six o’clock: the beginning of the workday. As workers are herded to their posts in the factory, a brief view of a herd of sheep appears. I couldn’t help noticing the connection between the animals’ mindless submission and the workers’ tired, chaotic progression to the factory. The industry appears to function as one giant machine, but the audience cannot ignore the vague, noncommittal overtones coupled with a daunting permanence. Viewing this scene, the audience feels stuck, helpless, and disappointed. Trapped in pointless routine, the factory workers on the screen evidently checked their intelligence at the door. Their posts at the factory are simply means of obtaining income, and the audience undoubtedly feels this. Most people relate to this type of work. The audience empathizes with the workers because everyone understands feelings of disappointment and lack of appreciation. Consider the counter staff on the other end of the drive-through window or the quality assurance team who proves their existence by placing “quality checked by #7” stickers inside our American-made goodies. I assume their occupations don’t amount to their childhood dreams—though whose do, really? This is what Modern Times wants the audience to accept: routine doesn’t yield to reluctance.
Regardless of one’s views of capitalism, evident errors emerge in the film. In historical acuity, the factories unexpectedly open and close, leaving workers without certainty. Violence erupts between the factory workers and police, resulting in at least one death and several injuries. The audience is privileged with the treat of experiencing the resulting sense of confusion and lack of direction from the viewpoint of the “Little Tramp,” the perfectly mediocre pawn whose luck is clearly unfavorable. This protagonist lacks notable skills or a discernable strength or confidence. He’s average and quite naïve. After a wrong-place-wrong-time encounter with the law, he finds himself in lockup. He quickly realizes, however, that jail has certain amenities not guaranteed in factory work: he’s fed on a regular basis and he has a semi-safe place to sleep. He befriends the sheriff, gaining a little extra freedom within the jailhouse. Upon release, he begs to stay. He realizes uncertainty lurks beyond the security of his