Why Did Chaplin Make “Modern Times” as a Silent Film, a Decade After the Invention of Talkies?
Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times (1936) is a critique of technology and its impact on modern society. Perhaps most strikingly, the production of the film itself stands as a model of that criticism and a rejection of the forward march of the mechanized world, as Chaplin chose to create a mostly silent film almost a decade into the existence of talking pictures.
Talkies arrived in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, and Chaplin produced Modern Times close to a decade later in 1936. The decision to remain silent was partially influenced by his usage of the Little Tramp character throughout the picture, who had been defined solely by silent films. Chaplin felt a talking picture would diminish the emotional power of the character and sully his ability to connect with audiences the way they were used to seeing him. Chaplin was familiar with conveying visual metaphors through the Tramp, and Modern Times was rich with messages highlighted by the persona’s skilled pantomime.
The Little Tramp does use his voice during one scene in Modern Times (performing a bar room song and dance routine while working as a waiter), but he uses a gibberish language comprised of several languages and nonsense words. This sarcastic expression served as Chaplin’s first-ever recording of his voice on film and a symbolic response to the opinion that he should embrace the use of sound just because it was available. The new sound technology was dominating film, and he was anxious about that reality. Chaplin also realized that the global appeal of his slapstick physical comedy - which crossed language barriers - would be threatened if his comedy were suddenly to rely on dialogue.
Modern Times is essentially his commentary on the devastating, dehumanizing effects of technology and industrialization on society, and it simultaneously makes the same statement about his artform and the evolution of the film industry.
To that end, every other instance of talking in Modern Times aside from the Little Tramp’s nonsense song comes in the form of something unnatural and automated: the 1984-esque factory manager speaking to employees over a video monitor, a news report delivered via radio, or via other mechanical devices. This is another statement from Chaplin - if he’s going to use sound in the film, he’s going to use it to draw attention to his criticisms of the nature of that device.
All of this became a fitting end to the silent film generation and to the character that defined it, with Modern Times being one of the last popular silent films and the final silent picture for Chaplin. In 1940, Chaplin went on to make his first (fully) talking picture, The Great Dictator, one of history’s truly significant films.