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The United States and European imperial powers were far from living peacefully when the Great Depression emerged out of World War I in 1929 and lasted for a decade. Immense international debts and overproduction of products that had little demand arose from the war and ultimately had major roles in causing this worldwide economic crisis that significantly impacted the United States and other industrialized countries. This crisis of financial capitalism and industrial capitalism, respectively, led to a global economic meltdown, and it appeared that capitalism was coming to an end and would not recover.
In 1936, Charlie Chaplin, a renowned figure in the film industry as a “comic actor, filmmaker, and composer, ” released the film Modern Times to provide solace to those who were suffering during the Great Depression, as well as critique those who wanted to go back to the system of pre-war capitalism. Instead of going back to that old system of capitalism, Chaplin wanted to change it. Since Modern Times was made in the midst of the Great Depression, the film itself is considered a real time primary source. Chaplin depicted the essence of of industrial capitalism as exploitative, hierarchical, and fast-paced, which suggest that industrial psychology, scientific management, and international division of labor are derived from industrialization in a negative way based on the large-scale quantities of making and utilizing raw materials, as well as the widespread use of the media.
One aspect of industrial capitalism was the psychological effect that industrialism had on working individuals. Workers would be put in fast-paced environments that pushed them to work beyond their physical and mental limits, to the point where they would start losing their minds. In particular, the character of the Tramp is seen having a slight nervous breakdown before going to the bathroom to take a smoking break, but when his break gets cut short by the man in charge who yells at him on the screen, he then goes back to work and his mental stability progressively worsens (Modern Times). Because of the high efficiency work environments that prioritized maximum output from each individual, people like the Tramp are expected to put in as much work as they possibly can, no matter what the consequences concerning their mental welfare may be. In this scene Chaplin portrayed that the people who benefited from industrial capitalism — in this case the man in charge behind the screen — failed to acknowledge, or simply ignored, the hardships that many of the workers had to endure in those working conditions. Chaplin captured the exploitation workers faced during the Great Depression and how, “mass production methods affected the worker both in the immediate job environment and in relations with fellow workers and supervisors”. There was also a scene in the film where the factory got shut down, so all the workers were laid off. Later when the Tramp is reading the newspaper, he becomes ecstatic when he reads that the factory reopened. Even though in the beginning of the film the Tramp is seen having a nervous breakdown, when he gets a job again at the factory he couldn’t contain his excitement at the thought of making more money to reach his dream of living economically stable in a nice home with the Gamine.
Throughout the movie the Tramp gets multiple jobs, but it was never enough to achieve his dream. Similarly, workers during the Great Depression were expected to maximize their output, but it was never enough for them to maintain their lives economically and psychologically through this industrial capitalistic way of life. Another aspect of industrial capitalism was the method of scientific management in which there was management of efficiency based on maximum work output in a given amount of time. Industrial capitalism thrived on the concept of scientific management in which a fast-paced environment meant more output and more benefits to those who are in power. For instance, the film depicts the factory’s general work routine through the use of an assembly line, while the man in charge sits in his office and watches over everything going on through a screen. The assembly line had the factory workers’ work “dictated by the machine, ” since this method “minimized unnecessary movement and dramatically increased productivity”. By watching everything through a screen, the man in charge is losing the sense of realism since he did not physically get up to go see the intense, rigorous, mentally-exhausting work the factory workers had to endure. The man in charge is ignorant to the conditions in which the workers are put in because as he’s watching them work, he first works on a puzzle, reads the newspaper, then watches the screen, which are all forms of entertainment. Since the man in charge is one of the few individuals with a voice in the film, this also represents how the workers didn’t have a voice against the “hierarchy of supervisors and managers, ” and that the superiors simply ignored the workers.
During the Great Depression workers experienced alienation by capitalism since it was their superiors who decided what they did and when they did it. This ultimately dehumanized workers in general. Workers at the time didn’t have the freedom to choose how they worked. The scene where the workers were laid off by the factory also depicts how workers were equivalent to interchangeable parts, in which workers’ output could always be replaced. Chaplin’s portrayal of industrial capitalism in terms of scientific management reflected the hierarchical and unfair method of work that was driven by profits and workers had no control over. One other aspect of industrial capitalism was the international division of labor in which imports and exports were crucial to the economic success of a country. While a developed country may benefit from having imported raw materials, not everyone in that country will benefit. For example, there is a scene where the Gamine is stealing bananas from a barrel on a ship. In the twentieth century, it was common for items to be imported from countries in the southern hemisphere, especially bananas. During the time of the Great Depression, bananas were growing steadily popular since they were deemed a new and exotic fruit by many of those in the United States. However, that also meant that there were those who could not afford this imported fruit, let alone any other imported goods. The industrial capitalist system in the prevented all members of a society from reaping the same benefits as those who were fortunate enough to afford them. Also, there was a scene of the Tramp working a job at the same shipyard that the Gamine stole the bananas from, and then he purposefully let the unfinished ship sail away to the sea. The Tramp’s actions in this scene could have had a domino effect in which other countries and the United States itself would suffer economically if they get behind schedule of imports and exports for having a single large tradeship lost at sea. International trade played a massive role in the Great Depression in that it is how “underdeveloped countries of the tropics supplied agricultural and industrial raw materials to developed areas”. Chaplin stressed how just one single individual could drastically affect the efficiency of the entire work unit’s production of materials.
The Great Depression laid many economic, physical, and psychological burdens on those who had to work in the grueling industrial capitalist environment. While Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, critiques the method of large-scale production and consumption, the film itself is actually a form of mass entertainment in that it was used to be projected in movie theaters for millions to see. Not only was film made for those who suffered during these times to have a little light in their time of darkness, but also to address and target those who wanted to go back to the pre-war capitalism. While there were those who were questioning the fate of capitalism, Chaplin called for the action of changing capitalism for the better through philanthropy so that benefits of industrialism could be extended to more people, not just the superiors in charge of businesses. By expressing the negative aspects of industrialization in a comedic way, Chaplin aimed to have these aspects resonate with the audience in hopes of having a better future, just as the Gamine and the Tramp did at the end of the film, where they stay hopeful and happy for the future as they walk of into the distance.
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