In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, the plot is very predictable in that it always meets viewers’ expectations. For example, when the criminal puts “nose powder” into the salt shaker in the jail lunchroom, the viewer expects someone will use that salt shaker by accident, and that is exactly what happens. More examples occur each time Chaplin tries to find new work. The viewer expects each of his jobs will not work out because that has been happening since the beginning of the movie. More examples occur when Chaplin and his lady friend go into the old wooden shack—each time Chaplin leans on the wooden walls or is rough on the “house,” we fully expect the house to cave in, and it does.
This predictability continues throughout the entire film and never changes, not even at the end when Chaplin and his lady friend finally find good jobs. Those jobs, too, turn into failures when the police come to take Chaplin’s lady friend away. The film is kept unified by this consistency.
There is a lot of repetition in the film as well. At Chaplin’s first job, the conveyer belt is constantly shown. The camera may cut to other things, but it always cuts back to the conveyer belt with Chaplin turning the screws. The process of looking for work is repeated many times throughout the film. Eating is shown many, many times throughout the film, and some of the action takes place because of the need for food. One could even argue that ALL of the action occurs because of the need for food because everything in the movie is done for the purpose of obtaining money to buy food (among other things—a house, etc).
The title has symptomatic meaning due to the year the film is set. We know the movie came out in 1936, and it is called “Modern Times,” so we know the film will have something to do with the Great Depression—e.g., poverty, unemployment.
Major motifs in the film include trial and failure, poverty, the need for work, the need for food, and jail.