Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is a very anti-capitalist look at the 1936 manufactory system and the effect it had on those in the throes of poverty. The film opens with the protagonist (played by Chaplin) working in a factory, wherein the factory workers operate like machines. Soon after, as a result of the repetitious movement inherent in an assembly line, Chaplin’s character has a nervous breakdown, which lands him in a mental institution. During this breakdown, we get an interesting side-shot of the cogs as Chaplin is strung through the machinery, further suggesting that the worker is no better than the machines that they operate. Interestingly, the majority of the shots in the factory are long single shots, showing almost entire skits from a single angle. From this scene, we cut to impoverished children stealing food, which further exemplifies the victims of 1936’s capitalist system. This scene also introduces Chaplin’s companion later in the film.
The film shows Chaplin in and out of jail, either for crimes he didn’t commit or was forced to commit due to poverty or crimes committed out of pure stupidity. The brilliance comes, however, when Chaplain requests to remain in jail, believing that jail is better than trying to survive poor in a society wherein the poor are rejected. Additionally, it suggests that Chaplin is used to prisons as he has worked in the prison of a factory all his life.
The film should definitely be billed as pro-socialism, because it refuses to glorify the factory times in America, unlike so many capitalism-propagandist films of the era. Where the majority of films glorified the manufactory system as the promise of nationwide power and the way of the future, “Modern Times” shows the factories as they are: a prison for the destitute that poverty forces people into. Later in the film, we see workers lining up to get work in a factory, begging to be put back into prison, much like Chaplin earlier in the film. This is the inescapable cycle of capitalism: if you’re poor, you cannot escape prison.