Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” brilliantly satirized the assembly line, which dominated U.S. manufacturing during the Great Depression. The film highlighted the power, efficiency and increased productivity of the machine age, while showing how it dehumanized the lives of workers. In 1913, Henry Ford adapted the assembly line to automobile production, reducing the chassis assembly time of the Model T from 14 to 1.5 hours. From 1908 to 1927 Ford was able to reduce the price of his revolutionary car from $950 to $280, while increasing his company’s revenues and profits. These improvements to productivity and price reductions transformed the automobile from a toy of the wealthy to a mass-produced product for the middle classes.
These and other advances in industrial manufacturing benefitted the consumer and the owner, but Chaplin made the human costs clear in his comical dance through the monotony and alienation of the assembly line. The film implicitly critiques Frederick W. Taylor’s theory of scientific management. “Taylorism,” used scientific analysis of the workplace to streamline, simplify and speed up the work process and increase productivity, but strengthened management’s control and reduced workers’ power. Taylor argued that in bricklaying, “management must also see that those who prepare the bricks and the mortar and adjust the scaffold, etc., for the bricklayers, cooperate with them by doing their work just right and always on time; and they must also inform each bricklayer at frequent intervals as to the progress he is making, so that he may not unintentionally fall off in his pace.”
Chaplin charmed the audience with his antics, but he tapped into a brutal reality; machines once designed to aid humans were now their masters, improving profits but not working lives. As Phil Stallings, a Ford assembly line worker in Chicago, recounted to Studs Terkel in “Working,” “I don’t understand how come more guys don’t flip. Because you’re nothing more than a machine when you hit this type of thing. They give better care to that machine. And you know this. Somehow you get the feeling that the machine is better than you are.” In the last century, technological advances and increases in productivity have made consumer items from the automobile to the computer tablet less expensive. The greater cost is the dehumanizing of factory workers, whether they are producing cars in Chicago or smart phones at Foxconn factory in China.