Essentially, the most powerful image portrayed in Chaplin’s Modern Times is that of the black sheep. Upon seeing the lone black sheep in a flock of white sheep, the audience somewhat expects the black sheep to be Chaplin himself due to his recurring “tramp” persona in his other works. In Modern Times, however, the black sheep takes greater significance as the plot takes place during the Great Depression. This harsh time in American history gives referential meaning of struggle and adversity to the plot. Along with the audience’s expectation that Chaplin’s films consist of lighthearted humor, Modern Times displays its own unique commentary on the period.
In Modern Times, Chaplin as the black sheep represents the struggle of surviving in the Great Depression, a time in which many working people had to adapt to working in machine crazed factories and not truly knowing where their next paycheck would come from. In terms of Chaplin’s life, this motif also serves as a metaphor to his career as how he had to adapt to the onset of films with sound and the end of the silent film era. Released almost a decade after the introduction of sound to film, Chaplin’s last tribute to silent film begs the simple notion of acclimate or die through the film’s recurring plot patterns. Ultimately, he’s the last great silent film artist.
As the story progresses, we see Chaplin trying to acclimate a considerable amount of times to the new role he has during the Great Depression. Each time he attempts to adapt, however, he fails. In one particular scene, Chaplin sits comfortably in his newly furnished prison cell after getting on the warden’s good side. Continuing with the pattern, it is only a matter of time before Chaplin loses his favorable situation and must adapt yet again when he is pardoned and released into the working world. The viewer can deeply interpret this particular scene as the true metaphor and parallel to Chaplin’s life. At the height of the Silent Film era, he stands at a comfortable situation (his lavish cell). However, he must quickly adapt to the dawn of film with sound (the pardon) and accept his new world.
The black sheep motif represents Chaplin’s iconic individuality as an artist. Although he never truly adapts, expecting Chaplin to always have a happy ending, the audience is satisfied as Chaplin finds his own black sheep and his own set of values in the form of his lovely female friend. He leaves the viewer with a strong message: If you can’t adapt, fight on!