Politics and Morality in Chaplins Comedies

A comparison between Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin was a famous modern comedy master, who has created many classic characters. He was good at playing small figures. Due to Chaplins own impoverished childhood and theater-related complex experiences, he knew very well about the bottom of the crowd. The clownish tramp was one of his most sharply etched characters in his movies. A lot of peoples attention has been focused on Chaplins awkward facial expressions, funny movements, and dumbfounding plots. However, the discussion of morality and his political views behind the humor cannot be ignored. Each of his works was a microcosm of real society at that time. Charlie Chaplin used different satirical tactics to express his views on politics and the pursuit of morality in Modern Times and The Great Dictator.

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Chaplin was a comedian, but still insisted on being able to address the real issues that affect the society at his time. His pieces, for half a century were a depiction of the injustices that took place within the society. The piece Modern Times is a representation of the injustices that accompanied Industrialism. A recurrent theme in the book is that of oppression by the industrial complex. He was able to highlight the use of people to perform roles and tasks, that were not meant to be in the first place. Industrialization brought people higher efficiency and more output, but it made people a part of the machinery. The factory mechanized workers behavior and mind, made them became apathetic production tool, enslaved and controlled by the factory manager (a representative of the upper class).

In Modern Times, Chaplin takes on the role of a factory worker, who falls victim to high pressure from the repetitive factory work .After he gets out of the mental hospital, he is mistaken for being a communist leader and caught in the prison. He always failed to keep his job for varied reasons after he was released. He has no money, no home, so he becomes a tramp. He deliberately gets caught in jail because the prison for him is a stable, well-fed home. In the movie, he meets Paulette Goddard, who plays a gamine. They combined their efforts to fight against the Depression.

In the Great Dictator expressed the injustices that dominate Nazism. It was a satirical arrangement of Mussolini and Hitler. It covered an era when Era when racism had gripped most of Europe. At that point in time, The United States was a neutral entity, while the USSR had signed up for the nonaggression agreement, entering into a union with Germany. He even mentions the Jewish Holocaust. He takes on a double role, where is the Jewish Barber and Tomanias dictator. The Jewish Barber was suffering from amnesia. Right after he had assisted the German Soldier who been injured in the WW1. He meets his love interest, Hannah (played by Goddard), a bold and a kind Jewish girl who flees the Nazis. On the other side, Adenoid Hynkel expanded his ambition to dominate the world with his Nazism. Hynkel was planning to invade Osterlich while persecuting Jews. In a case of mistaken identity, the Jewish barber is believed to be tyrannical Hynkel. He mounts the steps, giving up impersonating Hynkel, but giving an inspiring speech calling for democracy and freedom.

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In both of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, the protagonist has insignificant positions within the society. In Modern Times, Chaplin plays the role of the Tramp. He is a simple factory worker. He seems to have lost his mind form the monotony of the factory job. Through a series of events, he is arrested and taken to a holding cell. He stumbles upon a jailbreak, which he happens to stop unintentionally. Although his actions were unintentional, he is hailed for being a hero. In the Great Dictator, the events are somewhat similar, a Jewish barber happened to save the life of a pilot by the name of Schultz. The barber happens to also look like Hynkel, who becoming the dictator. Through a series of events, the barber takes the place of the dictator, and saves the lives of many Jewish people. In both of the films, the protagonists are the underdogs, yet fate presents them with fortune and they are hailed as heroes.

In both of the film, the protagonists are in partnership with a female companion. In Modern time, Ellens and Tramp strike an interesting friendship. Although Ellen is arrested and separated form Tramp, she serves as his motivation. Such is also the case in The Great Dictator. Hannah, the Jewish girl, is the Barbers companion. Although they are separated for a significant portion of the film, she is never far from his thoughts. The barber is motivated by his desire and love for Hannah. He goes as far as escaping captivity to be with her once again. In the end the readers are informed that he addresses her, and ensures her that he still alive and they can still be together. The protagonists go to great lengths to secure the well being of their companions.

Still on the theme of companionship, in both of the films, Chaplin uses the female image to express the emotions and to express the hope. In Modern times: the Ellen was dreaming to be a homemaker in a big house with abundant food. When she is arrested, Tramp seems to be motivated by his feelings for her, to the point that he willing to get himself arrested to rescue her. She fuels his motivation throughout the entire film. She is the symbol of hope to Tramp. Through Ellen, Chaplin depicts the lengths to which affection and love push an individual. Also in The Great Dictator, Hannah wishes to live in the world that no oppression, people live in peace. She is representative of the Jewish community and the injustices that undergo for their religion. Median shots/close ups of the face, make the audiences feel sympathy. In both of the films, the protagonists affection towards the females pushes them to defend their rights and protect them from any forms of suppression.

In both of the films the morality of the communities has been questionable since the community condones otherness and displacement. In Modern times, the tramp and Elle are the other, and displaced. The community is described as that which has abundant resources. The audience is informed of plenty of food, yet no one offers food or assistance to Tramp and Elle. They are arrested for petty crimes, yet it was simply an effort to service. In The Great Dictator, the whole race became the other and exile. The Jews are being violated yet none rises to speak against the injustices. In both of the films, no one is willing to stand up for the vulnerable. They are left to fend for themselves.
In both of the films, there is use symbols and metaphors to express the satire. In Modern Times, the humongous machines are a contradiction to the small worker, who I posted at the end of the assembly line, to tighten the bolts. Through symbolism, he is engulfed by the turning parts of the machine. The conditions of work within the factory are oppressive and downplays the rights of workers. The tramps mental breakdown is an indication of how dire the working conditions are. In the Great Dictator, the big cannon contrast to the tiny soldier. There is a scene that Hynkel dance with a balloon Tellurian, suggests that his ambition expand to colonize the whole world. However, the Tellurian blow up, metaphor his ambition will not come true. Both of the films prove that there is little consideration for the common person in the society.

Furthermore, in both of the films, the protagonists are just in their actions. In Modern Times, Tramp is just, for instance, when he is released after his arrest, applies for a new job. Nonetheless, he soon leaves the job, after an accident, which is an indication of the remorse he has for his actions. Furthermore, while working in the factory, he saves the life of his boss when he falls into a machine. In the Great Dictator, the Barber is also just in his actions. At the beginning of the film, he saves the life of the pilot, even though he risks his own life. He also risks his own life when he replaces the dictator, to save the lives of Jews. It is clear that both actors are just as they put the needs of others before theirs.


There are some distances between Modern Times and The Great Dictator.  The differences between the two films is From silence to sound, between the two films. In Modern Times in the background, The Great Depression) uses title cards and recorded music. The audiences could hear the voice of the factory manager, suggests that only the upper class has the right to speak. While in the Great Dictator, considering the seriousness of the WW1, a voice is necessary. Title cards could not hold that seriousness of the situation. Only voice has infection to the audience, conveying intense feeling and desperation. It is apparent that the mode of expression for both films was different. In modern time, the use of a single voice conveyed the supremacy of one class over the other. In the Great Depression, the lack of sound was representative of the vulnerable within the community.

In both of the films there are differences in the manner in which the industry and the machinery is affecting peoples life. In modern times, the industrialization, class, poverty, unemployment and the gap between the rich and the poor are the major themes. Although there are factories, they are designed to make the rich richer and the poor are oppressed. To add onto this, a significant portion of the society is still unemployed and living in poverty. Although the industries were meant to empower the community, the wealth and the benefits are not distributed equally. In The Great Dictator, the weapons are produced to feed the humans greed. The audience is informed of how the dictator intended to use the weapons to further his own agendas. They were used to oppress and marginalize the community even further. In both of the films, the industrialized process had different influences on the community.

The application of different tools and devices was different in both pieces. For instance, progressive irony and revolt are more serious and straightforward in The Great Dictator than in Modern Times. Modern Times tend to make the irony an art. There is no call for change. However, in The Great Dictator, Chaplin first uses his art to make the irony/ the speech that mimics in Germany accent/he talked nonsense. Gradually he made the irony obvious and explicit. For instance, Hannah’s positive resistance, she punches the troops that hurt the Jew. Some Jews resist the persecution. His speech at the time represents Chaplin himself to call out that people must resist. Even if blood was shed, even if lived were sacrificed, this is the only solution in the pursuit the justice. Not by individual, but everyone’s power.

Both of the film show injustice within the society. In modern times, the injustice is present at a business level. An indication in the boss at Tramps factory, as he expected his workers to work under harsh conditions. The workers are not happy with the working conditions as they take to the streets. The workers are protesting the hardships at work, with Chaplin is their leader. In the Great Dictator, the injustice is at a government level. The leader Hynkel is, attempting the purge the society of Jews. He is attempting to ensure that he Jews have been excommunicated from the community. He is in command of the troops, who deny the society of their basic needs. In both films, it is apparent that there is injustice; nonetheless, the injustice is on different levels of the society.

In conclusion, the review of the above films shows that both industry and governments can be unjust, particularly through bad leaders and administrators who are only concerned with material benefits such as power and money, at the expense of the workers and citizens. In Modern Times, a theme that clearly comes across is the oppression of the workers through an oppressive system, that is not questioned. In the Great Dictator, is apparent how poor government can suppress the basic rights of the business. The rights of the Jews are almost non-existent, yet there is no one to defend their rights. Although the protagonists are both films stand to defend the rights of the vulnerable, there is a need to rise against injustices within the society.

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