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Charlie Chaplin in the age of Mechanical Reproduction: reflexive ambiguity in Modern Times.

Charlie Chaplin produced Modern Times in the midst of social
upheaval and professional peril: the Great Depression called into
question the optimism that had surrounded the 'Machine Age,'
and the success of talking motion pictures threatened Chaplin's
cinematic career as a silent filmmaker and star. These factors have
influenced a critical consensus that views Modern Times as resorting to
exhausted Chaplin formulas and shying away from social criticism. In
light of a careful reading of the reflexive gestures in Chaplin's
film and of primary documents of the period, Howe questions this
consensus. Instead, his analysis interprets the reflexivity in
Chaplin's film as representations of production and consumption
that emphasize the dynamism that these two economic forces exerted on
society as a whole and on Hollywood in particular. The film's
double reflexivity, Howe concludes, establishes a parallel between
Chaplin's dilemma as a filmmaker and the equivocal cultural
attitudes toward the influence of industrial technology on economics,
politics, and aesthetics because both derive from the tension between
technological change in society and the technological basis of art in
the early twentieth century. In that intersection of forces, Modern
Times reflects not only Chaplin's own political and aesthetic
concerns, but also the complex meanings that technology had acquired in
both the production of culture and the culture of production.

Modern Times (1936) signals a notable shift in the career of
Charlie Chaplin. To be sure, the film remains loyal to the practices of
silent cinema on which he built his success, and it relies, albeit for
the last time, on the popularity of Chaplin's screen persona, the
"Tramp," a loveable outcast victimized by institutional
authorities, his own frailties, and plain old dumb luck. But the
backstory of Chaplin's career and of the production of this
Depression-era film complicate its interpretation, as well as its
meaning to American cinema in this crucial period of social and economic
turmoil. Much of the difficulty surrounding Modern Times stems from the
diverse conditions of Chaplin's life and their influence on his
art. His Tramp persona, informed by his own impoverished upbringing,
represented class disadvantage to elicit the sympathy of audiences. And
yet sympathetic identification with the Tramp was possible only if
audiences disregarded the fact that off-screen Chaplin was one of the
wealthiest screen celebrities of his day.' Indeed, as a filmmaker
Chaplin was the antithesis of the befuddled incompetent Tramp. By 1936
he was unique in his total control over his productions, as actor,
screenwriter, director, producer, composer, and finally corporate
entity. But with each passing year after the release of The jazz Singer
(1929), Chaplin was increasingly aware that the growing demand for
talking pictures in the marketplace threatened to make a silent-film
star like him obsolete.

In the midst of social upheaval and professional peril. Chaplin
attempted in Modern Times to reassert his relevance by representing
'machine-age' culture as a profoundly destabilizing condition
of contemporary society. His turn toward social critique coincides with
the emerging maturity of film as an art form and the growing
expectations that film could achieve much more than it had as a medium
of light entertainment. No less a notable public intellectual than Lewis
Mumford recognized the potential of film. For him, it was "a major
art" of what he called "the neotechnic phase" of
civilization, the next great development in the history of humankind
(Mumford 1934, 343). He saw the technological evolution of society and
the arrival of film as an optimal process of cultural convergence. Film
has the power to advance the neotechnic phase, he reasoned, because it
epitomizes the cultural role of the machine and thus "symbolizes
and expresses, better than do any of the traditional arts, our modern
world picture and the essential conceptions of time and space which are
already part of the unformulated experience of millions of people to
whom Einstein or Bohr or Bergson ... are scarcely even names"
(Mumford 1934, 342). But the progress portended in Mumford's theory
of cultural history was no frit accompli. For all its wonder, the power
of the 'Machine Age' threatened to overwhelm society. But if
by harnessing the machine, Mumford argued, cinema could integrate
"the arts themselves with the totality of our
life-experience," then society would self-consciously check the
"omnipotence" of technology (344). (2)

Radical critics who inclined toward Marxism similarly stressed the
social significance of film rather than its entertainment value, and two
among them singled out Chaplin for criticism. Harry Alan Potamkin
complained that Chaplin indulged in "maudlin pathos," and
Lorenzo Rozas attacked him as "an accomplice to capitalism" in
his pre-Modern Times films (Maland 1989, 138, 139). This criticism
goaded Chaplin into thinking about modern society and the opportunities
for film to address issues of importance. During his world tour in
1931-32 to promote the release of City Lights, the flattering attention
he received from political and intellectual dignitaries, with whom he
readily shared his views on politics and economics, burnished his
standing not simply as a celebrity but as a man of consequence and
bolstered his confidence in commenting upon serious matters. For
example, with Albert Einstein he discussed the need to relieve workers
of excessive hours, which occasioned the physicist famously to remark.
"You're not a comedian, you're an economist." With
Gandhi, Chaplin disagreed about the negative influence of machine
technology, defending it as a labor-saving advancement (Maland
1989,130). His alternating sympathy for workers and his defense of
technology in these high-profile exchanges provide a glimpse into the
ambiguity that infuses Modern Times.

On the same tour, Chaplin also came into contact with popular
audiences, and he readily associated the outpouring of public admiration
from crowds of adoring fans with the suffering of the masses. (3)
Although flattering, this fan adulation also imposed an emotional burden
about which he wrote to Thomas Burke: "When those crowds come round
me like that--sweet as it is to me personally--it makes me sick
spiritually, because I know what's behind it. Such drabness, such
ugliness, such utter misery, that simply because someone makes 'em
laugh and helps 'em to forget, they ask God to bless him"
(Robinson 1985,456). Although he did not associate the misery he
inferred from the crowds with industrial technology, an early experience
working as a printer's devil helped to make the connection between
technology and the plight of workers that becomes central to Modern
Times. He recalled being horrified by the enormous printing machine,
instilling in him a kind of awe and fear of being devoured by it (McCabe
1978, 182). This personal experience made an account of Ford's
assembly line system, recollected in Chaplin's autobiography, all
the more compelling to him. In his own words, it was "a harrowing
story of big industry luring healthy young men off the farms who, after
four or five years at the belt system, became nervous wrecks"
(Chaplin 1964, 383). In this recollection we can detect a direct
influence on the Tramp's factory experience in Modern Times.

Still, despite this jaundiced view of technology, Chaplin's
own success was achieved in an art form defined by technology. As he
began work on Modern Times, more inclined than ever before to charge his
art with a social critique targeting the industrial ideology that
informed twentieth-century life, the film's political thesis became
somewhat tangled in ambiguity, equivocating between the terms of its own
technological production and its production of a critique of technology.
Noting Chaplin's ambivalence is, of course, not a new idea, but
heretofore Chaplin's conflicted feelings have been attributed
primarily to his struggle to combine entertainment and didacticism. 4
However, the ambivalence in Modern Times, I will argue, is specifically
conditioned by Chaplin's conflicted relationship with technology
both in society and in art. The film's dramatization of this
tension shows how Chaplin's political critique of technology
confronts his artistic investment in technology in ways that also affect
the politics of film reception. The collision between his evolving
interest in social themes and his own exercise of power as the
impresario of cinematic production produce a complexity and an
unevenness that suggest both Chaplin's lack of control over the
narrative's multiple meanings and his inability to fully comprehend
them. Ironically, these cinematic difficulties mark the film as a gauge
of its era. Chaplin's struggle with the film and the Tramp's
continued failures within the narrative reflect the ways in which the
intractability of the Great Depression perplexed the economists,
bureaucrats, and ordinary citizens who grappled with the vicissitudes of

In this essay. I will examine the film's own ambiguous stance
toward its social critique, and show how the film's unusual double
reflexivity generates this ambiguity. Cutting both ways, the reflexivity
in Modern Times suggests allegories of film production on the one hand
and allegories of spectatorship on the other.' Going beyond purely
cinematic terms, I will argue that this double reflexivity derives from
the tension in Chaplin's attitudes about technological change in
society and the technological basis of art, and highlights parallels
between his dilemma and the equivocal cultural attitudes toward the
influence of industrial technology on economics, politics, and

The film's reflexive allegories of production register both
Chaplin's fascination with film technology and his antagonism
toward institutional authorities typically identified with the control
of technology. This antagonism led him to conflate the oppressive
control of the Hollywood corporate structure with hierarchical control
of Fordist industrialism. Conversely, the film's reflexive
allegories of consumption signal Chaplin's anxieties about his
ability to continue to satisfy the demands of his audience, but they
also tap into widespread anxiety about the collapse of industrial
society and its inability to satisfy the needs of its consumers.^ By
acknowledging production and consumption as dynamic processes, the
film's reciprocal reflexivity enriches its representation of class
and technological anxiety, and thus reflects the conflicts of the
culture. In other words, because the film's reflexivity operates in
two directions, it comments on the dynamic social relationship between
production and consumption--of supply and demand--that was central to
both the experience of and the attempts to understand the Great
Depression. Equally the film's social critique turns inward on
itself: as a Hollywood commercial film, Modern Times epitomizes the
complementary relationship between production and consumption both as a
critique of technological culture and a commodity produced by it.


Modern Times signals its conflicts from the outset. Its optimistic
self-description ("A story of industry, of individual
enterprise--humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness")
clashes with a jarringly ominous fanfare of discordant horns. The
opening montage that follows carries the disquieting mood forward in the
opening images: a large clock, dissolving first to a herd of sheep and
then to a throng of people as they emerge from the subway on their way
to work in a large urban factory, all punctuated with the rhythmically
tense, minor-key soundtrack, periodically shifting to ascending
modulations that increase the intensity. This opening montage reflects a
kinship in technique and content with Fritz Lang's Metropolis
(1927), which framed the oppressive conditions of industrial labor
similarly, as well as with the projection of daily routines in Dziga
Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), although with none of the
celebratory playfulness of Vertov's film. Inside the factory,
Chaplin's set also recalls Henry Adams's awestruck description
of the great hall of dynamos at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The large
humming turbines, oversized switches, valves, and gauges convey the
importance of American industrial power, just as for Adams "the
dynamo became a symbol of infinity." However, rather than evoking
Adams's sublime perception of the "forty-foot dynamo as a
moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross" (Adams
1918, 380) or the menacing power conveyed by Lang's Heart Machine
in Metropolis, Chaplin's gleaming factory is rather quickly
converted into the arena of comedy. When the film focuses on the Tramp
tightening a never-ending series of bolts on an assembly line, the
viewer instantly recognizes the iconic figure as an agent of humor.
Still, as the awkwardly vulnerable Tramp struggles to keep up with the
pace of the assembly line and exhibits the stress imposed by a
repetitive and accelerating work routine, Chaplin makes clear that he
has enlisted the Tramp in order to engage with the pitched debates of
the era.

Even before the Depression, industrial workers had grown
increasingly anxious, justifiably fearing that they would lose either
their jobs to automation or, if fortunate enough to remain employed,
their identities as an impersonal, corporate bureaucracy threatened to
turn men into automata. In taking up these contemporary concerns from
the outset, Modern Times offers a perspective missing from the more
unilateral cultural history of industrialization offered by Cecilia
Ticchi in Shifting Gears (1987). Ticchi points to the increasing
frequency of mechanized imagery and the prevalence of the American
engineer as hero in the art and literature of this period as an
expression of confidence in technology, and in the ability of the
engineer to reshape the world in positive ways. The T92.8 presidential
election of Herbert Hoover, himself an engineer, shows the degree to
which the culture had come to identify the profession with expert
management. But the Wall Street Crash only eight months after
Hoover's inauguration and the economic decline that he oversaw
throughout his single term in the White House shook the culture's
faith in the engineer's competence.

The notion that unbridled technology was the solution to modern
problems retained some currency even in the midst of the Depression, as
summed up in the industrial boosterism of the motto of the 1933 Century
of Progress Exposition in Chicago: "Science Finds, Industry
Applies, Man Conforms" (Official Guidebook 1933, TO. Howard Scott,
the founder of the Technocracy movement, expressed still greater utopian
confidence in his article "A Rendezvous With Destiny,"
published in a 1936 issue of American Engineer. Articulating the
messianic vision of the movement, Scott zealously preached about the
promise of technology in leading civilization out of the Depression.
Technologically updating the nineteenth-century theme of Manifest
Destiny, he declared, "God is good and God is kind. God provided
this Continent with the greatest natural resources" (Scott 1936,
Jo). Further, he warned that governments that interfered with the march
of technology and the economics of abundance were obstacles that must be
remedied radically. They "will be compelled in spite of their
reluctance to meet this epochal issue in the march of civilization--an
issue that has but one possible ending, the defeat and abolition of
every political government on the Continent of North America"
(Scott 1936, 9): But boosterism for technological progress omits half of
the story. Chaplin's portraits of the Electro Steel president
(Allan Garcia), the impractical inventor of the Billows feeding machine
(Murdock MacQuarrie), and the engineer trapped in the idle machinery of
a decommissioned factory (Oscar Conklin), reflect a countervailing
pessimistic attitude toward technology and its masters.

Unsettling signs that technology was not yielding ever-increasing
prosperity were legible even before the Crash. Confidence in technology
peaked in the mid-1920s, and then waned just as quickly before bottoming
out by the early 19305, when "technological unemployment" was
generally seen as a consequence of unchecked optimism. Writing in 1932,
one commentator in Fortune magazine traced the crisis to an even earlier
point, citing 1919 as the year when technological innovation began to
increase productivity sharply, leading to a spike in technological
employment by 1927. Even if one were fortunate enough to be employed,
industrial practices, as the anonymous writer notes, had "replaced
man permanently as a source of energy and ... installed him in a new and
limitable function as a tender of machines" ("Obsolete
Men" 1932, 91). In other words, industrialization was rendering
workers into what the title of the article calls "Obsolete

Surprisingly, Ticchi's historical account also omits the
influence of film. Writers and painters may have adapted engineering
concepts as metaphors of their practices, as Ticchi notes, or become
enthralled with images of industrial machinery or engineering marvels
like the Brooklyn Bridge as a kind of homage to the technological
direction of the culture, but filmmakers were the artists whose craft
most directly participated in the 'machine-age' ethos. Cinema,
an art form utilizing numerous technologies, transformed conceptions of
art and the role of the artist in ways that eluded traditional forms of
representation. (9) The exponentially expanding cultural influence of
cinema in this era made film a medium uniquely poised to address the
issues in this public debate. Thomas Edison, the pioneer of cinema in
the United States who personified the promise of engineering, recognized
this emerging importance of film. He asserted his fervent confidence in
its potential for education because the immediacy of images to stimulate
cognition, he believed, outstripped the ability of text to impart
information and provide instruction. Although his company produced many
attractions for the Kinetoscope and the Vitascope, he considered
film's use for entertainment as a very low purpose, far short of
its potential.

Virtually in tandem with the emerging prestige of Edison, Frederick
Winslow Taylor introduced the philosophy of American industrial
efficiency through his extremely influential The Prinaples of Scientific
Management (1910. Ticchi acknowledges the role of Taylor, who has been
widely recognized by cultural critics and historians for his impact on a
broad range of early twentieth-century practices. But what has been
ignored with respect to film is that Taylor's immediate successors
in the field applied his principles via motion picture technology.
Instead of simply observing the movements of workers when performing
occupational tasks, the second generation of Taylorites filmed workers
in order to analyze more carefully the steps of labor and devise more
efficient solutions. As early as 1927, a textbook for scientific
analysis of industrial processes, Time and Motion Study, included a
chapter on "Taking Motion Pictures for Motion Study," in which
equipment, lighting schemes, and camera techniques are detailed (Lowry,
Maynard, and Stegemerten 1927). A subsequent chapter on "Film
Analysis Procedures" methodically explains how the analyst should
efficiently use their own film-study workstation to maximize the
effectiveness of the analysis of a factory workstation. Thus, film
technology itself was reaching into other arenas, lending credence to
Edison's expectations.

Yet despite Edison's disdain for film as entertainment and the
Taylorites' use of film for extending practical efficiencies in the
arena of labor, it was Chaplin's Tramp, the polar opposite of the
competent technician, who personified the early success of American
cinema. And in Modern Times the Tramp combines the medium's ability
to entertain with its ability to challenge audiences to think. Although
we cannot be sure that Chaplin was targeting Taylorism in the iconic
factory sequence in Modern Times, the Tramp's shortcomings in that
work environment correspond strikingly to the deficiencies of the
"poor" worker described in Time and Motion Study:

  Where the skill of an operator is considered to be poor after he has
  had sufficient time to learn the job, it will generally be found
  that he is a misfit--the so-called square pegin the round bole. He
  knows what to do but does not seem able to do it with ease. His
  movements are clumsy and awkward. His mind and his bands do not seem
  to coordinate. (Lowry, Maynard, and Stegemerten 1927, 209, emphasis

In contrast to Taylorism's myopic emphasis on competent
efficiency, Chaplin's film--built around a "misfit"
persona, outmatched by the demands of modern society--evoked humor,
sentiment, and romance in order to entertain and to question the expert
wisdom about the technological direction of society.

The three distinct segments in the factory episode displace the
emphasis on output and, instead, stress the connection between the
detrimental effects of machine technology on workers and the class
hierarchy that separates capital from labor. At the head of Electro
Steel Corp., the president sits idly in his quiet, spacious office,
occasionally interrupting his contemplation of a jigsaw puzzle or his
reading of newspaper comics to supervise his facility on a large screen.
On the factory floor, we find the boss's laboring counterpart, the
Tramp, increasingly harassed by the repetitive motion of his task, the
periodic acceleration of the assembly line ordered by the boss, and the
hostile criticism from his foreman and co-workers further down the line.
Seeking refuge from the hectic pace, the Tramp takes an unauthorized
cigarette break in the workers' bathroom, where the frenetically
percussive score in the assembly-line scene gives way to a soothing
soundtrack of lush legato strings. But the comfort of his languorous
solitude is abruptly punctured when the video surveillance of the
factory boss intrudes. Despite the comic surprise of the enlarged
close-up of the well-dressed, glowering talking head--maximized by the
sound of his voice in synch with his image ordering the Tramp to
"Quit stalling; get back to work!"--and the startled defensive
reaction of the comparatively diminutive Tramp at being discovered, this
brief confrontation comments on the regimented duress of factory labor.
The boss's distrust of the worker echoes Taylor's condemnation
of "soldiering," the deliberate slowing down of work output,
which, according to Taylor, "constitutes the greatest evil with
which the working-people ... are now afflicted" (Taylor 1911, 14).
Indeed, the boss's supervision of all aspects of his company is not
so much a version of Taylorism as a modernization of Bentham's
panopticon, blurring the difference between factory and prison, as well
as anticipating the scrutiny that distinguishes Orwell's Nineteen
Eighty-Four. (10) In the Tramp's unauthorized smoke break, Chaplin
maximizes the political and cinematic effects. The factory owner not
only oversees his workers through technological surveillance but also
appears magnified as an omnipresent power through his image on the

Lunch break at the factory provides the Tramp his only sanctioned
opportunity for relief, even if the residual effects of repetitive
machine labor linger during his hiatus from the stressful routine. The
Tramp's respite is short-lived, however, once he is chosen as the
guinea pig on whom to test the wonders of the Billows feeding machine, a
contraption that abuses him no less than the assembly line's
unrelenting pace. The absurdity of utilizing a machine to perform one of
the most fundamental of organic functions passes without comment. The
ostensible benefit of this invention is that it allows the worker to be
fed without interrupting his labor. But the utter failure of the machine
to perform as advertised and the need to have at least one operator, if
not more, denies any benefit at all, even if the contraption
weren't plagued by malfunction. The absurdity of the feeding
machine implicitly questions the obsession with efficiency in
Taylor's system of scientific management. (11) But in light of the
boss's failure to note the absurdity of the phonographic salesman
delivering the pitch when the inventor first introduces the feeding
machine, we should also note how the inability of the feeding
machine's turntable to function efficiently suggests a comment on
the early technology of sound film, which was often plagued by
synchronization difficulties between the phonographic sound and the
cinematic image. The factory boss's rejection of the feeding
machine as "not practical" echoes the complaints of studio
executives who resisted adopting sound technology. Although Chaplin
resisted sound technology for different reasons, the parallel that is
subtly suggested between the Electro Steel president and the president
of Charles Chaplin Films, Inc. will emerge more directly in the next
segment of the sequence.

More broadly, however, the feeding machine scene critiques the
fascination with the mechanical over the human. 'This conflict of
man and machine emerges starkly in the third segment of the first
factory sequence, the film's most frequently referenced scene. As
the boss continues to order an increase in the factory belt's
speed, the Tramp continues to struggle with the accelerating pace.
Finally, driven by the compulsion to perform his task, he pursues his
piecework into the machinery. Becoming one with the assembly line
itself, the Tramp is drawn through the gears of the gigantic mechanism
(see fig. 1). With a cymbal crash, the soundtrack transitions abruptly
from the frantic pace that punctuated the images of the factory's
intensifying speed to a rubato lullaby with the delicate timbres of the
celesta and piccolo. Once extricated from the belly of the industrial
beast, the Tramp emerges transformed by his machine-induced trauma. His
pestering antics toward his co-workers provoke them to chase him with
the hope of subduing him, but this simply prolongs his interference with
what was known during the period as the factory's "continuous
flow production" (Chase 1931, 41). Gaining the upper hand, the
Tramp discovers that he can easily distract his pursuers by
re-activating the assembly line, which causes them to return to their
stations in a Pavlovian response. Their robotic attention to the
machinery recalls the image that Stuart Chase invoked in Waste and the
Machine Age, his critique of how industrial technology was wasting not
just raw materials or money, but also human potential:


  There is a room filled with punching machines. In front of each
  machine stands a worker, feeding it pieces of steel by hand. A lever
  is geared to the mechanism, and to this lever the man is chained by a
  handcuff locked to his wrist. To look down the long room is to see
  machines, levers, and men in unison feed, punch, jerk back; feed,
  punch, jerk back. ... I have heard no other single task
  today which so closely approximates the gloomy prophets'
  picture of the robot. (Chase 1931, 42)

Granted, Chase proceeds to a more sanguine view of the potential
for technology to improve modern life than this excerpt might suggest.
Likewise. Chaplin's send-up of the automated factory mitigates the
dire gloom of the most radical critics of the Machine Age. Wreaking
havoc throughout the factory in a parody of the swashbuckling action
that Chaplin's friend Douglas Fairbanks made famous, the Tramp
unleashes a carnivalesque chaos that delivers a rich comic payout.
Simultaneously, it confirms his status as "misfit," for which
society prescribes a stint in a sanitarium as the only remedy.

Chaplin's humorous critique of technology is not limited to
the regimentation of automated factories. The cross-section view of the
Tramp being drawn through the gears and sprockets in the factory's
internal mechanism also projects the Tramp figuratively as film stock
being drawn through the mechanisms of the camera and the
projector.': Thus, reflexively, Chaplin's imagery conflates
the political object of representation--industrial technology--with the
means of representation--cinematic technology. Indeed, this image
supports Walter Benjamin's point about the difference between
theatrical and cinematic performance: "The artistic performance of
the stage actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in
person; that of the screen actor, however, is presented by a camera. ...
Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position
with respect to the performance" (Benjamin 1969, 228). The
Tramp's sinuous route through the bowels of the factory mechanism
reminds us that he is an image produced through the analogous machinery
of cinematic technology, and registers Chaplin's own equivocal
fascination with technology: as both a yoke that burdens
'machine-age' workers and a tool of artistic expression that
propels his own professional success.

The similarities between how Chaplin recalled his attempt to
renegotiate his contract with First National and this representation of
the Tramp's isolation multiply the meaning of this famous scene.
Despite having eloquently explained that the extra costs entailed in
making Shoulder Arms (1918) warranted First National to revise his
contract, Chaplin surmised that he "might as well have been a lone
factory worker asking General Motors for a raise" (Chaplin 1964,
221-22). Thus, the stress of his artistic life is reflected in the
Tramp's stressful alienation in the factory scene. Chaplin's
experience with the studio pointed a new direction in his career; in the
following year, he formed United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas
Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, and DAV. Griffith, joined later by David 0.
Selznick. Forming this collective was as much a political and artistic
statement as it was a business strategy. For, as its founders told
reporters, United Artists was a "declaration of independence from
producers and exhibitors of 'machine-made' films" (Maland
1989, 70). Just as these artist-rebels echoed America's founding
political rhetoric in their rejection of the tyranny of the Hollywood
studios, Chaplin frames the Tramp's factory experience to
articulate his objection to both industrial oppression and
Hollywood's production demands.

Nor do the multiple meanings end there. In addition to the
scene's obvious appeal to a working-class audience likely to
identify with the Tramp's ordeal, it raises at least one other
competing interpretation that signals Chaplin's ambivalence about
the power of technology in society and within the industry that afforded
him considerable authority. The negative images of corporate power
exploit popular anxiety about capital's indifference to labor, but
they project as well his resentment at corporate studio heads like those
at First National. Yet the irony of these images is redoubled in light
of Chaplin's own total authority over his work and those who worked
for him. From this perspective, the factory boss is an equivocal
characterization that represents both the studio bosses Chaplin resented
and Chaplin the filmmaker himself. The correlation extends beyond the
comparable positions of authority held by the factory boss and Chaplin
himself, and is reinforced in the ways that they wield their power. For
example, the boss's demands for "more speed" parallel
Chaplin's orders to his cameraman, Rudolph Totheroh. Much of
Chaplin's physical humor was derived from the Tramp's sped-up,
jerky movements, an effect achieved by slowing the speed of the
hand-cranked camera from the standard speed of sixteen frames per second
to fourteen or sometimes twelve frames per second, which standard
projection speed would screen as the Tramp's hyper-animated style
of physical humor. So just as the president of Electro Steel Corp. calls
for acceleration of the Tramp's assembly line, Chaplin repeatedly
harangued Totheroh to slow down his hand-cranking of the camera in these
important comic moments to yield the sped-up action (McCabe 1978, 71).

Chaplin was a notoriously demanding director, and his cameraman was
not the only one subject to his authoritarian will and single-minded
dedication to the effect he was attempting to achieve. As Charles
Chaplin Jr. recalled:

  Musicians ... endured purc torture. Dad wore them all out. Edward
  Powell concentrated so hard writing the music clown that he almost
  lost his eyesight and had to go to a specialist to save it. David
  Raksin, working an average of twenty hours a day, lost twenty-five
  pounds and sometimes was so exhausted that he couldn't find strength
  to go home but would sleep on the studio floor. (Robinson 1985,

The oppression described here fits uncomfortably with the
film's political rhetoric. Chaplin's demanding treatment of
his musicians, as well as the other artists and technicians whom he
directed, recreates the oppression that he had objected to in forming
United Artists and that the narrative of Modern Times criticizes. Thus,
the film's reflexivity articulates Chaplin's own conflicts
with respect to power and the technology associated with power, and
these conflicts complicate the rhetoric of the film's social


If the film's images of capitalist and laborer suggest a
polarity between Chaplin's role behind the camera and his
representation on screen as the Tramp, then the audience's
identification is similarly manipulated in opposite directions. Just as
the film promotes sympathy between the spectator and the Tramp, the
factory boss and the spectator are allied as observing subjects who gaze
upon the Tramp as observed object. Like the boss, the spectator watches
the Tramp and demands a satisfactory performance from him. And when, for
example, the Tramp is struck in the head by a falling beam in the shanty
where he and the gamin (Paulette Goddard) hope to find domestic bliss,
or he dives head first into knee-deep water, the spectator's
laughter helps to establish the audience's distance from him, even
as they generally sympathize with him as a victimized laborer.

Conversely, notwithstanding the delight the spectator may take in
watching the Tramp's subversive play, one cannot escape the control
that the film exerts over this very act of watching. The slapstick tempo
inhibits a viewer's critical engagement with the film because the
images and the narrative they construct proceed in an order and at a
pace determined by the director. The film tropes its control over the
spectator not only in the factory boss's control over the assembly
line but also, and to a greater degree, in the image of the Billows
feeding machine. David James suggests that "a film's images
and sounds never fail to tell the story of how and why they were
produced--the story of their mode of production" (1988, 5); in
Modern Times, the same holds true of the story those images tell about
how they are to be received, the story of their mode of consumption.
Thus, if Chaplin uses the assembly line as a metaphor for how film and
its visual effects are mechanically produced, then he deploys the
feeding machine as a metaphor for how those effects operate on the
film's spectator.

During the demonstration of the Billows feeder, when the camera
shifts its focus to the ear of corn on the rotisserie fixture of the
feeding machine's turntable, the spectator's gaze is directed
away from the Tramp to the mechanized food that he sees. This subtle,
isolated focus explicitly signals how our identification with the Tramp
in this sequence is to work. As the spectator gazes on the same rotating
ear of corn which the Tramp is about to consume, one's experience
of watching the film analogizes that of the Tramp being mechanically
force-fed, although without the assault that he endures for our
entertainment. The framing and camera angle stress this analogy between
the film and the motorized food, and thus acknowledge how the camera
controls the audience's gaze. For unlike a printed text, which a
reader takes in at her own pace, pausing to question or to reread if so
inclined, the film's scale of images and editing pace (not to
mention the emotional evocations of the soundtrack) control the
spectator's responses by determining what she sees, how, when, and
for how long she sees it. Georges Duhamel expressed his distrust of film
for precisely this reason: its motion, he contended, replaced the motion
of one's own thought. (13)

The film's clearest statements about consumption emerge when
the Tramp begins his relationship with the gamin. Immediately after
having escaped the long arm of the law together, they observe a suburban
homemaker waving her breadwinner off to work. Although the Tramp
initially mocks this scene of domestic conventionality, his jest gives
way to a daydream in which the gamin and he share a perfect middle-class
bungalow. His fantasy of their attaining a piece of the American dream,
a term whose coinage is attributed to James Trus-low Adams only a few
years earlier in 1931, galvanizes them both (see Adams 1931. 414). In
this narrative development, Chaplin projects the ideas of Horace Kallen,
one of the most enthusiastic theorists of the consumer cooperation
movement in the United States of this period and whose seminal volume
Decline and Rise of the Consumer was published the same year that Modern
Times was released. "In America," Kallen writes, "the
primacy of the consumer is a postulate of the foundations.' The
American Dream' is a vision of men as consumers, and the American
story is the story of an inveterate struggle to embody this dream in the
institutions of American life" (Kallen 1936, 198).

However, the Tramp's version of the American Dream includes
several distinctive updates. First, all of the same principles of
efficiency that organized the modern factory are present in the home he
imagines, including a cow who appears at the kitchen door as if on a
conveyor belt to provide milk automatically on cue, without the labor of
milking it. This reflects the inroads that Taylorism was making into
American culture beyond the industrial sector. After World War II, the
emphasis on home efficiency and domestic labor-saving machinery would
accelerate further. Second, the Tramp's fantasy reflects Thorstein
Veblen's concept of "pecuniary emulation," the propensity
to indulge in escalating "conspicuous expenditure" out of a
desire to conform materially, supporting a sense of social belonging
(Veblen 1902, 1O, II). Accordingly, the Tramp's fantasy and the
gamin's mutual embrace of it show how they have internalized the
desires sponsored by the mass production and consumption of the
'machine age.' Finally, the utter incongruousness of the
Tramp's daydream to his life here or elsewhere in Chaplin's
representation of him is noteworthy. The Tramp had not heretofore
expressed anything close to this acceptance of conventionality. Indeed,
a large measure of his appeal is no doubt a by-product of his
indifference to the pressures to conform. What makes the Tramp's
experience different in Modern Times is the motivation that the gamin
inspires in him. No sooner do they bond than he begins to imagine a life
together, which prompts him to proclaim his willingness to work, to
redouble his efforts as a producer, in order that she may enjoy the
benefits of being a consumer.

The Tramp's daydream conveys this quite clearly in the
comfortable furnishings and conventional aesthetics of the fantasy
bungalow, and especially in the gamin's middle-class makeover. Gone
is her waifish Peter Pan costume, tangled hair, and soiled face;
instead, the Tramp imagines her in a stylish dress and an apron, a
fashionable coiffure, and makeup, embodying contemporary standards of
feminine beauty. If we compare our first glimpse of the gamin on the
docks--stealing bananas and distributing them to hungry children while
striking a pirate's pose as she clenches a knife between her
teeth--to her stylish domestic image in the Tramp's daydream, we
can track the source of the Tramp's awakened motivation to work.
The fantasy itself registers the allure of the prevailing tenets of
material consumerism.

The consumerist ideal reaches its climax, appropriately, in the
department store sequence. This important choice of mise-en-scene, the
space that defined modern American consumerism, gives visual presence to
the opulence of commercial goods provided by mass production. The
department store scenes, moreover, emphasize the role of women as
consumers. Like the Tramp's daydream of home ownership, this
episode reflects his eagerness to satisfy the gamin's needs and
wants. Department stores had long recognized that women exercised
considerable economic power in their role as the purchasers of domestic
goods. Marshall Field, the successful Chicago retailer hailed as a
"mercantile genius" (Dennis 1906, 291), had drawn the lesson
from his mentor, Potter Palmer, that women customers should be treated
with utmost respect. Though Field recognized women's power to a
degree considerably short of Henry Adams's reverence for Venus and
the Virgin, he acknowledged his appreciation for women as consumers in a
motto later adopted as the title of his biography, Give the Lady What
She Wants! (1954). Thus, the department store became an extension of the
home as woman's sphere, a gendered space catering to women
responsible for materially outfitting their homes and families in the
image of respectability.'4 Reflecting the importance of this
commercial institution, the department store in Modern Times thrills the
gamin with its abundance, both creating and satisfying every consumer
desire. In the cafe, she enjoys the only complete meal that she's
ever shown eating, and from the gusto with which she devours it, we
might infer that it's the first she's had in a very long time.
In the toy department she delights in the carefree experiences of
childhood denied to one of her marginal existence. In the haute couture
department, she swaddles herself in the luxury of a fur coat, obscuring
her worn and filthy rag of a dress. And finally, in the furniture
department, she sleeps in an actual bed furnished with fine linens,
beneath a plush comforter that embraces her in its warmth, and
surrounded by an excess of pillows. If the shanty she had found for them
disappoints the expectations of the Tramp's fantasy, the department
store provides a glut of consumer goods that over-satisfies them, at
least for one night.

Still, for all of its appeal to domestic satisfaction and its
strategies of piquing women's desires and facilitating their power
as consumers, the department store is an institution in sync with
mechanized culture. This large mercantile organization not only
bureaucratizes commerce into different retail units, but also mechanizes
the consumer's exposure to its wares by using elevators and
especially escalators to shuttle the shopper from department to
department. The escalator provides Chaplin with an effective sight gag
when he fails to escape the midnight burglars by attempting to
roller-skate up the down escalator. But that gag doesn't begin to
measure up to the significance of the escalator as a corollary to the
factory assembly line. Where modern industrialism achieves the mass
production of goods on a mechanical assembly line, the mechanized retail
operation uses the escalator analogously to assemble consumers,
constructing their desire for commercial products by the tasteful
arrangement of abundance and eye-catching novelty in each department.

Of course, the Tramp and the gamin are not actual consumers in the
retail sense; they have no real purchasing power, which in the circular
logic of the Depression makes them both complicit in the cause of the
economic stagnation and victims of it. Indeed, in Successful Living in
the Machine Age (1932), department store magnate and sometime
philosopher Edward Filene offered an unorthodox analysis of the
prevailing social dilemma that the Tramp and gamin's life together
represents. Emphasizing the importance of consumption, not production,
as a driver of the economy, Filene advanced the notion that the ability
of the industrial age to satisfy human need depended on keeping wages
sufficiently high and prices sufficiently low, and on workers having
ample leisure without which "they will not become consumers on a
sufficiently large scale" (Filene 1932, 12). (16) In other words,
without the means to consume, workers like the Tramp cannot provide the
demand that production seeks to satisfy. It's perhaps not
surprising that a philosophical department store owner would recognize
that a favorable wage-to-price ratio is necessary to maximize
consumption. But Filene appears to have uttered heterodoxy if we
consider Chase and Schlink's influential analysis of the misplaced
emphasis on production during this period. They referenced the
department store to underscore how a nearly universal fixation on
"gross sales--the sacred cow of the retailer" fed into the
'"make work' theory--that production is good in itself
regardless of its value to consumers" (Chase and Schlink 1935,
248). (17) Chaplin, too, would have been similarly sensitive to these
conditions for consumption. As a filmmaker, he would have recognized
that his own profit depended upon people having leisure time to fill and
sufficient expendable income to continue to be part of a ticket-buying

In this regard, the film's reflexivity with regard to
consumption represents Chaplin's ongoing concern as a filmmaker.
Modern Times, like all Hollywood films, is a product of mass
consumption. As a producer of such products, a filmmaker must be
concerned with the likelihood of return on the investment in production.
But unlike other saleable merchandise, in which price is calculated
largely from cost, the return on a Hollywood film is determined not by a
cost price ratio but by volume of ticket sales. (18) Thus if a
film's production costs escalate, return on that investment depends
on increased consumption--that is, on demand. Satisfying that demand
with any given film is a function of novelty. (19) Chaplin, a remarkable
innovator first in pantomime and later in developing his pantomimic
talent to construct sustained narratives, had an impressive record of
satisfying audience demand. But by 1936 his screen persona was no longer
very novel. And as Benjamin notes, the screen actor's relationship
to the camera never enables him to forget the audience: "While
facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the
consumers who constitute the market" (Benjamin 1969, 230. Although
Chaplin continued to rely on the Tramp's silent pantomime, the
market had been transformed by Hollywood's leap into talking

Chaplin's persistence as a silent actor long after the talkie
had become the industry standard gave rise to a perception that he was
resistant to innovation, clinging to an outmoded form of cinema. But
Modern Times is a silent film in only the strictest sense; Chaplin
adopted sound technology in a number of inventive ways. The effects of
his strategic use of sound undermine the charge that he was timid,
regressive, or anti-technology in his cinematic approach. Indeed, Modern
Times includes a number of instances in which the sound of the human
voice is heard, but the speech represented on screen is almost
exclusively mechanically reproduced--by phonograph, radio, or most
strikingly in the mediated image of the factory boss's talking
head. (20) And this crafty use of the new cinematic technology
thematically matches the narrative by implicitly criticizing the
imbalance of power between a capital class that controls the technology
through which it articulates its demands, and a laboring class silently
subjected to capital. Without the ability to talk, working-class
individuals like the Tramp are reduced to a figurative state of
infancy--in the etymological sense, from the Latin infilms, meaning
"not able to speak"--a state that he overcomes in his swansong
cabaret performance, albeit imperfectly. For while the Tramp finally
raises his voice, he sings nonsense lyrics in place of those he has
failed to memorize. The story in the song is performed more effectively,
as Chaplin insisted of the best acting, in pantomime rather than in
words. The Tramp is a hit, and his success yields the elusive promise of
steady work. In other words, to maximize the irony, the
Tramp--Chaplin's silent persona--finally succeeds in the one job
that requires him to use his voice. Although Chaplin may appear to have
been stuck in practices upon which he had relied throughout his career,
he instead employed the new sound technology judiciously to arrive at an
innovative critique of both class and the dubious merits of much sound

Of course, there was no turning back to the silent mode once the
Tramp's long-awaited voice had been heard, even if he uttered only
gibberish. But within Modern Times, Chaplin found himself precariously
balanced between criticism of a society that had mechanized itself into
an intractable economic depression, and artistic expression that relied
on analogous methods of technological production. Through the medium of
film, Chaplin deploys representations of technology that offer
self-referential analogies: to his control over cinema, and to
cinema's control over the imagination of the spectators whose
attention is dominated by the images that the film parades before them.
In this complex of tropes, he synchs up Modern Times with the
uncertainties of its moment.

Chaplin's balancing act, appropriate for a physical comedian
who often teeters on the brink of danger, enables us to see Modern Times
as a successful film in its own right. But it also realigns the
either/or contentions within the culture-industry debate as both/and
propositions. Granted, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have reason to
criticize the "Culture Industry" as a powerful institution
serving the capital interests of the status quo against the individual.
But Chaplin's film challenges their sweeping generalization that
the culture industry "perpetually cheats its consumers of what it
perpetually promises ... the promise, which is actually all the
spectacle consists of, is illusory" (Horkheimer and Adorno 1997,
139). To the contrary, the reflexivity of production and consumption
that Modern Times employs asks the audience to recognize its critical
engagement with mechanized society, rather than simply offering
"[a] commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to
escape" (139). Having challenged the vertical organization of the
studio system, Chaplin based his practices on artisans' principles,
not on the industrial hegemony that characterizes Horkheimer and
Adorno's view of modern culture gone awry. This is not to tip the
balance in the direction of Benjamin, whose astute analysis in "Art
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" includes the overly
confident claim that, within a popular art form like film, "the
critical and receptive attitudes of the public coincide" (Benjamin
1969, 234). To the contrary, because Modern Times is a technological
product that taps into popular anxiety about technology to evoke the
audience's sympathy for the Tramp as a technological victim, the
film allegorizes cinema's authority over its audience while
obscuring the actual power of its maker through his role as a
beleaguered character who wins the audience's sympathy. In other
words, contra Benjamin, the film effectively short-circuits the merger
of popular and critical reception. By projecting the dilemma in his own
technologically invested critique of technological society, Chaplin
occupies a complex position not reducible to either of these critical

Observing this dynamic reflexivity in Modern Times is not to argue
that all films operate in this way, but the presence of this reciprocal
tension in Chaplin's film offers an irreducible resistance to
polemics while merging his two objectives: entertainment and critique.
As the product of a particular historical moment of transition in
cultural attitudes about technology and about cinema, Modern Times marks
an intersection of the technological production of material goods and
art. Grave doubts had arisen about the promise of industrial technology
to meet social and economic needs, and silent film had given way to
sound film. In that intersection, Modern Times reflects not only
Chaplin's own political and aesthetic concerns, but also the
complex meanings that technology had acquired in both the production of
culture and the culture of production.


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Samuels. Boston: Houghton MifRin.

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Brown, and Company.

Anderson, Sherwood. 1970. Perhaps Women. Mamaroneck, NY: Paul P.

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Reproduction." In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by
Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Bix, Amy Sue. 2001. Inventing Ourselves Out of fobs?:
America's Debate Over Technological Unemployment, 1929-1981.
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Industrial Democracy. Chase, Stuart and F. J. Schlink. 1935. Your
Money's Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer's Dollar.
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and Depression-era Gesticulation in Chaplin's Modern Times."
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Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." In Dialectic
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I am grateful to the astute suggestions that my colleagues Mike
Bryson, Regina Buccola, Kim Ruffin, and Janet Wondra provided on an
early draft; to the responses to different parts of my interpretation
from my Roosevelt students; and to the constructive comments of the two
anonymous readers of the journal. Special thanks to Graham MacPhee and
Elizabeth Lukens at College Literature, and to Arnold Lozano at Roy
Export S.A.S.

(1.) I am not suggesting that the public was ignorant of his
celebrity status. As Charles Maland notes, Chaplin made every effort to
flaunt his celebrity in his serialized memoir of his 1931 world tour, A
Comedian Sees the World. And in a 1932 New York Times article, "Ten
Men Who Stand as Symbols," which grouped Chaplin with the Prince of
Wales, Mussolini, Stalin, the Pope, Ford, Gandhi, Lindbergh, Einstein,
and Shaw, Chaplin was presented as being able to personify oppositions:
he was "the highbrow who happens to be a hobo, the duke who was
only horn a dustman, the utterly genteel who is utterly shabby"
(Maland 1989, 132). However, the propensity of audiences to identify
sympathetically with the Tramp within the sentimental comic narratives
of his invention induces a suspension of awareness of his off-screen

(2.) Despite his enthusiasm for film as means of achieving the
"neotechnic phase," Mumford criticized nearly all American
filmmakers for squandering film's potential by indulging
"scarcely adolescent fantasies, created and projected with the aid
of the machine," thereby making "the machine-ritual tolerable
to the vast urban or urbanized populations of the world" (Mumford
1934, 319).

(3.) Indeed, the original title for Modern Times was "The
Masses." It was abandoned because of its echo of the title of the
radical socialist journal.

(4.) See Maland, who describes Modern-limes as a "case study
of ambivalence about the relationship between aesthetics and
ideology" (1989, 143).

(5.) In considering the reciprocal reflexivity in Modern 7 Ymes, I
am indebted to Robert Stam's remarks on allegories of production
and spectatorship (chapters 1 and 2). Modern Times appears to stand
alone in combining the two. To be sure, Keaton deployed the one in The
Cameraman (1928) and the other in Sherlock Jr. (1924), but I can think
of no other example contemporaneous with Chaplin or later that deploys
both in one film.

(6.) These interdependent forms of reflexivity position the film
between the two poles that David James ascribes to a much later
distinction in the historical development of the medium, between
industrial cinema, which emphasizes film as commodity, and alternative
cinema, which reimagines and restructures the relationships among those
engaged in the process from production to consumption. See especially
the first section of "Considering the Alternatives" (James
1988, 3-12).

(7.) Scott weds laissez-faire economics and Calvinism to his
technological vision when he declares that:

  Floods and droughts are the warning of Providence that we citizens of
  this Continent had better mend our sinful ways. Agro-technology is on
  the march with its Faraday Fluid Feeding Process or tank farms.
  Droughts will force the further economic liquidation of farmers in
  the United States and Canada.

  This forcing is seen as a providential
  blessing for it simultaneously compels the introduction on a
  commercial scale of agro-technology, by which man for the first time
  in his history will no longer be dependent upon the fertility of soil
  and the vagaries of the weather. Technocracy wishes to express its
  thanks to this providential aid. (Scott 1936, 10, 24)

Although the title of his article quotes Roosevelt's famous
phrase, his antagonism toward New Deal policies could not have been more
pointed. He singled out only these few words from the presidential
speech as "significant" and dismissed the rest as
"irrelevant" (Scott 1936, 24).

(8.) See Bix 2001, especially her first chapter.

(9.) See Wilson, Pilgrim, and Tahjian (1986) for an account of the
esthetic fascination with machines and machine design in the work of a
wide array of visual artists. Indeed, Chaplin himself served as a
readily identifiable figure for artists who tapped into the ethos of the
'machine age,' as can be seen in Hart Crane's explicitly
attributed poem "Chaplinesque" (1933) and in Ferdinand
Leger's painting "Chariot Cubiste" (1924). The latter
inspired Leger to collaborate with George Antheil on an animated film,
Ballet Micanique (1924), in which the Tramp interacts with a variety of
traditional art objects such as the "Mona Lisa." Sherwood
Anderson's Perhaps Women, a meditation on the 'machine
age' as an assault on masculinity, includes an account of his
visiting a factory at night where he witnesses the ghostly image of the
late-shift workers. Frightened by the imposing presence of a
road-building machine, he identifies with Chaplin to express his sense
of vulnerable impotence:

  I became a Charlie Chaplin that night by the mill gate. I was, to
  myself at least and for the time there in the half darkness, just the
  grotesque little figure Chaplin brings upon our screen.

    He, Chaplin, ... the little figure with the cane, putting the hat
  back correctly on his head, pulling at the lapels of his worn coat,
  walking grotesquely, standing blinking thus before a world he does
  not comprehend, can not comprehend--

    Brushing his clothes, as I was doing with a soiled pocket
  handkerchief--"he would have been" I thought, "just the one to
  run as I had done from an idle road-making machine, thinking it
  a man, his quick rather fragile mind and feeling upset--his eyes
  distorting things as I so often do."  (Anderson 1970, 95-6)

(10.) See Foucault for an analysis of the panopticon's
oppressive scrutiny (1979, 195-228). He also stresses the importance of
"disciplinary power. ... exercised through invisibility; at the
same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory
visibility" (187). The correspondence of this power of vision is
central to film. In Chaplin's narrative, the prison is ironically
the one place the Tramp comes to prefer.

(11.) See Hite (2002), who develops a complex argument about the
importance of eating and the deprivation of the Great Depression that
draws on post-structural analysis of historical influences such as the
efficiency obsession in industrial America in this period.

(12.) Dan Kam in also observes this allusion in a caption under a
photograph of this image, but he sees this as merely reinforcing
"Chaplin's confrontation with sound movies" in this film
(1984, 114). Julian Smith more pointedly reads this scene as "a
playful commentary on the internal and external pressures upon Chaplin
to keep up his level of productivity, to keep the films moving on his
own assembly line" (Smith 1984, 99). However, although Chaplin did
announce rather ambitious plans for his output, he had settled into a
much more deliberate pace which slowed his output considerably in this
period of his career. So he seems not to have responded to those
particular pressures. In fact, it seems hard to imagine that Chaplin
would have considered his own process under United Artists to be an
assembly line. To the contrary, the company was formed by film artists
who resented being treated as interchangeable parts in the Hollywood
machinery, for the express purpose of reclaiming control of their art.

We might also note that this glimpse into the inner workings of the
factory-belt machine replicates the emphasis of the early advertisements
for Edison's Kinetoscope and Vitascopc in the United States and for
Lumiere's Cinematographe in France, thus subordinating the content
or effect of film "to the performance of the apparatus and the
display of its magic" (James 1988, 7).

(13.) The Billows feeding machine sequence is complemented by the
later factory scene in which the Tramp assists a supervising mechanic
(Chester Conklin) in preparing a decommissioned plant to resume
production. Reversing the terms and conditions of the visual rhetoric,
the Tramp's incompetence in the later episode leads to the mechanic
being devoured into the machine, not the Tramp. The reversal is extended
when the lunch whistle blows, for it is not the Tramp who is fed, as in
the demonstration of the Billows machine, but rather he who feeds the
supervisor trapped in the machine. The Tramp's role reversal from
eater to feeder corresponds to the split between Chaplin's
positions as both character in and creator of the narrative.

Walter Benjamin references Duhamel's distrust of film as
manipulating the spectator's thought process, although it is a
notion that Benjamin rejects. He argues instead that the interruption to
the spectator's typical "process of association ...
constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should
be cushioned by heightened presence of mind" (Benjamin 1969, 238).

(14.) Veblen makes a comparable point, noting that "vicarious
consumption" and "vicarious leisure" are functions
performed chiefly by the wife in bourgeois families (Veblen 1902,

(15.)Of course, the stimulation of desire begins even before a
shopper enters the store with advertisements and the spectacle of window
displays. The analogy of windows to movie screens is particularly apt
with department store displays. Sec Lancaster who attributes the
showmanship of retail displays to L. Frank Baum, who adapted his early
work managing his family's theaters to his involvement in Chicago
retail (Lancaster 1995, 64).

(16.) In addition to making this plain in his introductory chapter,
Filene focuses in chapter 2 on the importance of buying power to a sound
economic system.

(17.) Rejecting this theory, Chase and Schlink bluntly asserted
that "Man does not live to keep money in circulation; money
circulates to help him live. If it does not, the whole economic system
had best be scrapped as the last word in topsy-turvy nonsense"
(Chase and Schlink 1935, 248).

(18.) Epstein's recent analysis of Hollywood finances reveals
a much more complex arrangement of licensing agreements in the
contemporary era.

(19.) The demand for novelty is not exclusive to film.
Veblen's analysis of taste and fashion emphasizes the transitory
qualities of novelty that generate shifts under a "canon of
reputability" under which "anything will be accepted as
becoming until its novelty wears off" (Veblen 1902, 177).

(20.) In the opening scene of City Lights (1931), Chaplin mocks the
importance of speech by distorting the orations of civic dignitaries at
the dedication of a statue into a cacophony of squawks, subtly
ridiculing the enthusiasm for the cinematic innovation of talking
pictures. However, this opening satire of talkies in City Lights is
undercut by the end of the story. This film explicitly emphasizes the
relevance of vision by enabling the Tramp to be mistaken by a blind
woman (Virginia Cherrill) as a man of considerably higher means.
Structured around the disparity between what she imagines and what the
audience can see, City Lights conveys the pathos of the Tramp's
sacrifice in fulfilling his beloved's dreams by giving her the
money to restore her sight, and thus the means both to see and to
elevate her status from street vendor to the proprietress of a
legitimate flower shop. However, the full irony of the ending turns on
the ability of the now-sighted woman to recognize the Tramp's
voice--a voice that we cannot hear--coming from the disheveled Tramp she
now sees before her. In this epiphany, she realizes the true class
identity of the man who rescued her. Thus, while the power of the
spectator's vision as opposed to the beloved's visual deficit
generates the conflict, the story's reliance on her ability to hear
what we cannot exposes the approaching limit of Chaplin's
engagement with the silent film.

LAWRENCE HOWE is Professor of English at Roosevelt University in
Chicago and the author of Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of
Authority (Cambridge, 1998). His scholarship covers a wide range of
topics from the NAMES Project's AIDS Memorial Quilt to the films of
Alfred Hitchcock.

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