This article explores the representation of poverty in Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels explore motifs of inequality, social stratification, and other “exigencies of the 1929 Depression that plunged thousands into ready-waiting poverty” (Mellen 19). In Times we follow the narrative of a factory worker/tramp (Charles Chaplin), who, following a nervous breakdown and being fired from his job, tries to make the best of his impoverishment. Sturges’ Travels also follows a Depression period narrative, but focuses on John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a Hollywood director, who pretends to be homeless for screenwriting research. Although both films explore the rampant poverty of the Depression the way they do so differs, not only because of each protagonist’s socioeconomic status, but also in how each writer/director approaches the topic. Moreover, in both films poverty is emblematic, but the aims of their commentaries are fundamentally different. In this analysis we will explore how poverty is depicted in each film, but more specifically how the ‘poor’ are portrayed.
Chaplin’s Times is a ‘social comedy’ that explores “widespread poverty, not just with the marginality of a particular poor character or a particular region of the city” (White 53). We see this especially embodied in the film through the characters with whom we are allied: the gamin (Paulette Goddard), the hungry and out of work Big Bill (Tiny Sandford), and the proletarian strikers and workers. These characters show that Chaplin’s character is not the only one that is down-and-out in the story. Times’ social commentary has been praised “for its naturalistic and concrete images of America under siege” (Mellen 40). Offering the viewer candid images of “unemployed workers filling the streets, perpetual strikes, the starvation of those crowded out of the economy and heart-rending Hoovervilles” (Mellen 21). The realism in the film functions to reinforce the universal plight and needs of the characters in the story. Furthermore, we follow the tramp and gamin as they search for “the basic elements of survival,” such as food, shelter, and work (Mellen 59).
In Chaplin’s portrayal of poverty food is emblematic to the characters’ struggles. Sustenance is also important in Sturges’ film, but to a lesser extent, as we shall see. In Times we watch the gamin steal food from a bakery, a boatman, a department store, and apparently again when she brings a large ham, tea, and a massive loaf of bread to the shack (the tramp and her only home). We see the motif again in several scenes with the tramp: his contentment eating in prison, force fed by a machine in the factory, and having a feast beyond his means at a restaurant. Moreover, in Chaplin and the gamin’s fantasy scene we see a cow that essentially milks itself, a tree overflowing with lemons (which he ironically tosses instead of eats), a large grape vine from which he grazes from, and a giant steak he shares with the gamin. The importance of this fantasy is reinforced by an upward-moving whole tone scale, which is often employed in cartoons to reinforce dream sequences. Visual theorist Roland Barthes expands on the sequence here: “For Chaplin, the proletarian is still the man who is hungry; the representations of hunger are always epic with him: excessive size of the sandwiches, rivers of milk, fruit which one tosses aside hardly touched” (Barthes 39). It is indeed their fantasy to never be hungry.
The connection between poverty and food is also present in the beginning of the film during the tramp’s factory lunch break. Not only does he have “a lunch box so small it could barely hold a sandwich,” but there is only an apple inside (Mellen 42). Later in the factory scene he is strapped into a food-dispensing machine, and though it starts off comedic it “becomes a paradigm of the tramp’s dire social condition” (Mellen 42). His inability to escape the machine is a possible allegory for the difficulties the proletariat faces in upward social mobility and the failure of his menial job to feed him. Despite his hunger, the factory machine fails him. Chaplin is quoted as saying that his own psyche was molded by “cold, hunger and the shame of poverty” (Mellen 19). Therefore his focus on food is likely based on his own experience. Realism and their need for food are further emphasized by the fact that they never have money in the film.
Universalizing poverty through basic human need is well illustrated in the introduction to the gamin’s family. The scene does not exploit or caricaturize the poor as we will see later in Sturges’ film. In fact, Chaplin’s scene is simply introduced as, “The father – one of the unemployed.” This tells us right away that Chaplin is concerned with hardship and not just a faceless, unemployed man. We see a long shot as the gamin’s father (Stanley Blystone) enters and sets his hat down on the table. The kitchen is bare, the table and chair are worn or broken and there are several empty tin cans by the door; we know the family is far from well off. The father sits down at the table with a look of defeat. We cut to a medium close up to further ally us subjectively; he strokes his face in frustration. We then cut to a tracking shot following the Gamin in her worn-out dress, with bananas in her hand. The gamin prances merrily towards her father and therefore elucidates her affection for him.
The playful manner in which the gamin places her hand over her father’s eyes, which her father responds to with a smile, shows us the humanness of their relationship. Although we can tell they are impoverished, it is background to their loving relationship. This is further emphasized when his two other daughters charge in merrily and share the small feast of bananas (again referencing the significance of food). The scene also chimes on the idea of the importance of shelter, which is particularly apparent when her father dies and the social workers take away her sisters. Her only option is to run away and find food and shelter or become a prisoner of society (as Chaplin does so many times in the film). The allegory is clear: there are many shades of poverty, which the tramp and the gamin will explore throughout the film (job to jobless, fed or hungry, and avec home and homeless).
Sturges’ Travels presents the poor differently than Chaplin’s realistic or universalized lens. Interestingly though, Sturges did spend two nights undercover in the slums of Los Angeles; a possible inspiration for Sullivan’s character (Pittenger 105). However, it was not Sturges’ intention to make a ‘social film’ as Chaplin did before him. Sturges states in his biography: “I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them [Frank Capra and Leo McCarey, for example] that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers” (Curtis 78). Sturges’ intention was to create a satirical homily on the “texts arising from the Depression documentary impulse… the discourse of undercover investigation that had developed since the 1890s” and that had been prevalent since the 1930s (Pittenger 104-105). However, due to Sturges’ focus on satire and comedy over realism the poor are exploited in his film, ironically something he was trying to avoid.
The notions of poverty in Sturges’ film revolve around the central theme that money can cure poverty. For example, Sullivan says, “It’s like Shaw said, the trouble with the poor seems to be poverty — and what we’re going to do about it I don’t know. I’ll go give them some money tonight and that winds it up.” However, it is not just its focus on money over social issues that remains contentious in the story. For example, exploitation of poverty comes in the form of an excess of dirty, grimy and almost ‘black faced’ tramp caricatures. The poor are not only without spoken dialogue, but the only reoccurring character is a smarmy and crazed man named Old Bum, who steals Sullivan’s shoes and stack of five-dollar bills (Hilliard 647). Travels “seems to participate in the down-and-out discourse [of poverty] while simultaneously mocking its pretentions and denying its validity” (Pittenger 102). The film further blurs genre conventions because “we constantly move from depression drama to slapstick moments, from farce to sophisticated comedy” (38). The film shows us realism, but through a constricted Hollywood lens; we are given stereotypes in place of reality. This idea of non-reality fits Sturges’ Hollywood film-within-a-film concept and functions in defusing aspects of its commentary.
In Travels poverty is suffering; a notion that Sullivan expresses at the end of film when he says that he has not suffered enough to make a film about the poor. The best examples where poverty equates to misery are seen any time the film exhibits large groups of the poor. For example, during Sullivan’s third attempt at undercover research we cut to the homeless camp at night. Here we see fill lights illuminating the melancholy faces of the down-and-out in their disheveled homes. The Girl (Veronica Lake) and Sullivan are instead illuminated by a key light, which separates them from the poor’s world. A long, tracking shot follows our protagonists as they move further into the encampment. The film changes to low-key lighting which reflects their crossing into an alien world. This shot continues until we cut to a long shot that pans left, so as to just follow the shadows from our protagonists as they move through the camp (via a key light). The camera frames the camp’s inhabitants from a high angle, which places them in low esteem, opposed to the towering and imposing shadows of Sullivan and The Girl. The faces of the inhabitants are often obscured by Sullivan and The Girl’s shadows, which hinders our ability to locate emotions beyond the melancholy we can barely make out. Orchestral music in a gloomy minor key functions to reinforce the bleakness of their situation.
The scene in the camp illustrates how Travels portrays the destitute throughout the film: little personality, a sad, angry, or neutral expression, covered in dirt, wearing tramp costumes, and reclusive (never talking to the protagonists, even when given money). They are dehumanized because they are not shown as real people like we see in Chaplin’s film. Another example is when Sullivan and The Girl stay in the “Midnight Mission.” Here, we are shown the homeless packed front-to-back in a long, wide shot, but the film uses the somber moment to try and make comedy out of the deadpan, snoring faces of those around them. The situation for the poor is further made fun of when Sullivan and The Girl are sitting on a mattress and pantomiming getting bed bugs, scratching themselves frantically and laughing.
Although the poor are portrayed in a superficial way, Travels still comments on other forms of inequality, such as social stratification. For example, we hear Sullivan tell a prisoner that “They don’t put directors into prisons like this.” This idea is also apparent in Sullivan’s descent into the prison system after assaulting a yard boss, for which he is given six years hard labor for and is not allowed his legal right to contact anyone. A further example of stratification comes when Sullivan is mysteriously discharged from prison via a cut and dissolve in the film. His money and power has obviously freed him. Similar to Times, we also see a few scenes where our protagonists’ focus is on hunger. For example, the Las Vegas café owner gives them free coffee and donuts when they are hungry, Sullivan chokes down his food at Midnight Mission (his unhappy face counterpoints Chaplin’s excitement for food in Times), the diner where The Girls meets Sullivan and buys him breakfast, and the feast following their decision to not eat out of a garbage can; the moment where they make a decision to no longer live poor.
Although Sturges’ film explores some of the basic needs of the impoverished, it avoids being realistic at the cost of devaluing their hardship. We are shown Hollywood’s interpretation of the Depression, complete with an atypical romance between the protagonists and caricatures of the poor. Sturges and Sullivan’s reflexive film-within-a-film embraces “an ideal of purely escapist entertainment, encapsulated by the final prismatic montage of laughing faces… their suffering and status as prisoners momentarily forgotten” (Stam 85). The basic struggles of the poor are set dressing in Sturges’ film and the foreground in Chaplin’s. Travels chooses to show the suffering of the poor through sad and silent faces, whereas Times seeks to make each character more human to universalize its message. Furthermore, Times uses comedy to show us that they are still people and do not need money to be happy, but they do need to eat. We see this filmically when the tramp and the gamin walk of merrily into the sunset, hand in hand. Sullivan’s narrative shows us that money solves poverty and perhaps crime, if Big Bum did not need it. In the end, both films show us quite different views of the Depression, but manage to lessen its impact through the use of heavy comedy and satire. Furthermore, though neither film is wholly realistic, they both still exhibit assessable commentary of life during the Depression.
Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.Curtis, James. Between flops: a biography of Preston Sturges. New York: Harcourt, Brace,Jovanovich, 1982. Print.
Hilliard, Robert L.. Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges. London: University of California Press, 1985. Print.Mellen, Joan. Modern times. London: BFI, 2006. Print.
Pittenger, Mark. Class unknown: undercover investigations of American work and poverty from the progressive era to the present. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
White, John, and Sabine Haenni. Fifty key American films. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Modern times. Dir. Charlie Chaplin. Perf. Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard. MK2 Éditions, 2003. DVD.
Sullivan’s travels. Dir. Preston Sturges. Perf. Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick. Criterion Collection, 2001. DVD.