“Good morning, my friends. This record comes to you through the Sales Talk Transcription Company, Incorporated: your speaker, the Mechanical Salesman. May I take the pleasure of introducing Mr. J. Widdecombe Billows, the inventor of the Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work? Don’t stop for lunch: be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead. Allow us to point out some of the features of this wonderful machine: it’s beautiful, aerodynamic, streamlined body; its smoothness of action, made silent by our electro-porous metal ball bearings. Let us acquaint you with our automaton soup plate – its compressed-air blower, no breath necessary, no energy required to cool the soup. Notice the revolving plate with the automatic food pusher. Observe our counter-shaft, double-knee-action corn feeder, with its synchro-mesh transmission, which enables you to shift from high to low gear by the mere tip of the tongue. Then there is the hydro-compressed, sterilized mouth wiper: its factors of control insure against spots on the shirt front. These are but a few of the delightful features of the Billows Feeding Machine. Let us demonstrate with one of your workers, for actions speak louder than words. Remember, if you wish to keep ahead of your competitor, you cannot afford to ignore the importance of the Billows Feeding Machine.”
‘Modern Times’, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936, is an American (mostly) silent comedy that was made towards the end of the star’s heyday. Chaplin plays his traditional tramp character, this time employed by a factory on a production line. Throughout the film he repeatedly causes chaos, gets the sack, is arrested and then stumbles into a new job for the cycle to begin all over again. The movie is most famous for its fantasy depiction of factory machinery, the focus on the characters as a part of this machinery and the nods by Chaplin towards his own socialist views. The comedian’s timing is amazing, and the jokes all land, even though, unlike Buster Keaton whose comedy is far more spontaneous seeming, you can see the thought processes behind each gag and choreographed movement. The film is a remake of René Clair’s ‘À nous la liberté’, a movie that includes the same socialist commentary and the same focus on the dehumanising mechanics of factories, but replaces the slapstick and visual humour with character development and plot. It’s both a masterpiece and a final ovation for silent movies and for Chaplin. There is dialogue, but this adds to the Orwellian feel of the film (although it was made over ten years before ‘1984’ was written, the same issues are tackled). There is a case to be made that one subtext of the film, beyond the obvious anti-mechanisation one, is the fear of the subjugation of the traditional silent movie – Chaplin’s character: noble, innocent and demonstrative without saying a word, stands up for both worker’s rights and for the legacy of the genre that made his name.
Would I recommend it? Of course – it’s a great film. It would be interesting to watch it in a double bill with ‘À nous la liberté’ to spot the differences.