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Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Postwar Consumers’ Republic

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I recently rewatched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I was confirmed in my opinion that this is the greatest American film about work and class. The early scenes in the factory are the most famous, with the amazingly awesome food service designed to give workers lunch without them leaving the production line, the muscle memory forcing Chaplin to twist his hands like he was holding his wrench involuntarily even when a woman is coming with buttons on suggestive parts of her coat, the panopticon style surveillance system that catches him taking a smoke break in the bathroom, and of course his getting caught in the gears of the machine. Then there’s the scene where Chaplin wants to remain in prison because he gets fed there.

It’s all brilliant. But I think it is not the most important part of the film. Because I think, like the wonderful work of Preston Sturges, the later part of the film goes a long ways to explain the failure of class-based politics in American history and the supremacy of consumerism over radicalism. The real key to the film is the appearance of Paulette Goddard* as the youthful waif. She will do anything to feed her sisters or survive on the street. But it’s not a political action. It’s sheer survival, disconnected from politics, even if her father is killed in a protest of the unemployed.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, do so. If you have, think about the scene when Chaplin gets a job as a security guard and lets his young friend in for the night. She luxuriates in the consumer goods, wearing firs and laying in a soft bed. This is what she wants.

And all Charlie does is want to give them to her. When he ends up in leading the march of the unemployed, it’s by accident. He goes on strike when the shop goes on strike. But class politics isn’t Chaplin (even if Charlie himself was a socialist). It’s the sheer desire to work and provide your loved ones the goods that capitalism was denying workers in the 30s and not denying them in the 50s. When Chaplin and Goddard walk down the road at the end, it’s not to radicalism. They are walking to a life where someday, maybe, they can have the furs, or at least a home of their own.

This brings me back to Preston Sturges. In Sullivan’s Travels and in his other great films of the period, the working class is noble and brave and also loves to buy things and have a good laugh. But they know that for as horrible as poverty is, engaging in American consumer culture is way more fun than lame, boring, and dreary revolutionary politics. All people want is a home and maybe a few furs if they get really lucky. And however they get lucky doesn’t matter, so long as they aren’t poor.

I think these films are really profound about class in America. If you are a working-class person in the 1930s, much about your life is probably terrible. But if you can tap into prosperity in the 50s, why would you reject that for communism, especially when that communism is as puritanical and unpleasant as that of CPUSA or Stalin himself or the lovely nations of eastern Europe during the Cold War?

This doesn’t mean I don’t think the greatest mistake the CIO ever made was evicting the communists from the labor movement in the late 40s. In fact, that was a terrible idea. But the great working-class films of the Great Depression understood the American working class in a way that communists never did. As Lizabeth Cohen shows in her excellent history of consumerism and the postwar working class, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the working-class openly embraced consumer goods over radical class-based politics after World War II. And that’s OK. Let’s face it, as both Chaplin and Sturges knew, revolutionary politics are not fun for most people. Hard struggle stinks. Taking dangerous risks or watching television, which would you rather do?

For all as many of us might wish for a history of working-class politics that was more militant and created more power in the present, it is really very easy to understand why that didn’t happen.

Also I swear I’m not stealing SEK’s bit. Despite the heavy use of stills from the film!

* Paulette Goddard is really fascinating. She was married to Chaplin from 1936-42. Her last two husbands: Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque, of all people. She died extremely rich in 1990, leaving $20 million to NYU.

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