Plot: This Chaplin classic (he produced, wrote, directed, starred, and composed the music) is about two people struggling with the isolation of the industrial era. Chaplin (simply called “A worker” in the credits) is tightening bolts on an assembly line. He does it so intently that his arms continue to twitch as though he is still tightening when he takes his break. On a break, he smokes in the men’s room until the big boss appears on a television screen to tell him to quit stalling and get back to work.
The boss watches a demonstration of a new machine, designed to feed employees while they work, to reduce breaks. Chaplin is selected to try it out. Everything goes wrong in the most deliriously slapstick fashion. He eventually becomes trapped in the huge factory machine itself, stuck in the gears. He comes out a little crazed, tightening everything resembling bolts. He loses his job. A doctor tells him to take it easy and avoid excitement.
Nevertheless, he almost immediately finds excitement by accidentally leading a communist parade while just trying to return the red flag to the man who dropped it. He is arrested. The prison is not unlike the factory in its regimentation. At lunch, the guards come in “searching for smuggled nose powder.” The prisoner who has smuggled it puts it in a salt shaker. When he is taken away, Chaplin sprinkles it on his food and becomes a bit delirious. When he comes upon an attempted escape, he captures the prisoners and releases the guards.
Meanwhile, we have met “a gamin,” Paulette Goddard, stealing food for herself and other children. Her unemployed father is killed in a street fight, and she and her siblings are taken into state custody, to be sent to an orphanage. Goddard escapes as Chaplin remains “happy in his comfortable cell.” However, he is pardoned because of his heroism in the attempted escape, and is given a letter of recommendation to get a job.
After another job disaster, he is “determined to go back to jail” where he was safe and warm. He sees Goddard captured for stealing bread, and confesses that it was he who stole it. But a witness identifies Goddard. He orders a large meal, eats it, then turns himself in as being unable to pay, and happily settles into the police truck on the way back to jail. When Goddard is put in the same truck, they escape together. He takes a job as night watchman in a department store, and they enjoy having the store to themselves. But robbers break in — Chaplin’s former colleague at the factory. And the next morning, Chaplin is arrested again.
Goddard is waiting for him when he gets out of the police station. Goddard gets a job as a dancer in a nightclub and arranges a job for him as a singing waiter. He is a huge hit (even though he forgets the words to the song and has to make them up). But the police come after Goddard, to take her back into the custody of the state. They escape once more, and walk off into the sunset together.
Discussion: We have to remind ourselves how prescient this movie was. To us, it may not be surprising that the boss watches the workers on screen, but this was before the invention of television–and more than a decade before the publication of Orwell’s 1984. Interestingly, it was several years after the invention of the talkies. But Chaplin wanted to make a silent movie, and silent this one is, except for a few words, some sound effects, and a gibberish song. Children will adore the slapstick in this movie, especially the scenes where Chaplin tries out the feeding machine and when he experiments with roller skates at the department store. Grown-ups who watch with younger children can read them the title cards, and help them follow the story. They can tell older children something about the Depression and the concerns about the dehumanizing effect of technology that are a part of this movie. Point out the use of sheep at the beginning, and then their human equivalents, the crowds of people on their way to work.
Questions for Kids:
· Why did the boss want Chaplin to try the eating machine? What would Frank Gilbreth of “Cheaper By the Dozen” think of the machine?
· Why did Chaplin want to go back to jail? Why didn’t Goddard want to go to jail?
· Did Chaplin want you to think that prison was like the factory? Better? How can you tell?
· How did Chaplin and Goddard differ in their reactions to their troubles?
· For high school age: Why was Chaplin arrested for leading the communist parade? Does that violate the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Connections: Some of the Chaplin shorter movies like “The Rink” and “The Gold Rush” are delightful for kids. “City Lights” is a wonderful movie with a darker tone and a more ambiguous ending.