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Charlie Chaplin in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
Reflexive Ambiguity in Modern Times
Abstract

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.1 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 [End Page 45] 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 fait 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 [End Page 46] 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 capitalism.

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.5 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 aesthetics.

The film’s reflexive allegories of production register both Chaplin’s fascination with film technology and his antagonism toward institutional authorities [End Page 47] 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.6 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.

The Tramp in the Machine

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 [End Page 48] 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 1928 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, 11). 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, 10). 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).7 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 1930s, when “technological unemployment” was generally seen as a consequence of unchecked optimism.8 Writing in 1932, one commentator in Fortune magazine traced the crisis to an even earlier point, citing 1919 as the year when technological [End Page 49] 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 Men.”

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 Principles of Scientific Management (1911). 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 [End Page 50] 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 peg in the round hole. 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 hands do not seem to coordinate.

(Lowry, Maynard, and Stegemerten 1927, 209, emphasis added)

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 screen. [End Page 51]

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: [End Page 52]

The tramp in the machine; Modern Times © 1963 Roy Export S.A.S.
Click for larger view
Figure 1. 

The tramp in the machine; Modern Times © 1963 Roy Export S.A.S.

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.12 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 [End Page 53] 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 D.W. Griffith, joined later by David O. 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 [End Page 54] 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 pure torture. Dad wore them all out. Edward Powell concentrated so hard writing the music down 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, 471–72)

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 critique.

The Dynamo and the Gamin

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” [End Page 55] (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 Truslow 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 [End Page 56] 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, 10, 11). 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-scène, 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.14 Reflecting the importance of this commercial institution, the department store [End Page 57] 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.15

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 [End Page 58] 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 audience.

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, 231). Although Chaplin continued to rely on the Tramp’s silent pantomime, the market had been transformed by Hollywood’s leap into talking pictures.

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 īnfāns, 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 [End Page 59] 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 cinema.

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 poles. [End Page 60]

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.

Lawrence Howe  

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.

Acknowledgement

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.

Notes

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 born 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 identity.

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 Times as a “case study of ambivalence about the relationship between aesthetics and ideology” (1989, 143).

5.  In considering the reciprocal reflexivity in Modern Times, 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 [End Page 61] 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 Léger’s painting “Charlot Cubiste” (1924). The latter inspired Léger to collaborate with George Antheil on an animated film, Ballet Mécanique (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. [End Page 62]

12.  Dan Kamin 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 Vitascope in the United States and for Lumière’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, 79–85).

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. See 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. [End Page 63]

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.

Works Cited

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