Discounting later parodies and novelty films, this was the last major American film to make use of silent film conventions, such as title cards for dialogue. The very last dialogue title card of this film (and thus, it can be said, the entire silent era) belongs to The Tramp, who says "Buck up - never say die! We'll get along."
Charles Chaplin allows the Tramp to speak on camera for the first time during the restaurant scene, but insisted that what the Tramp says be universal. Therefore, the song the Tramp sings is in gibberish, but it is possible to follow the story he tells by watching his hand gestures.
Another inspiration for the film was a conversation that Charles Chaplin had with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who complained about how machines were taking over. Chaplin told Gandhi, "I grant that machinery with only the consideration of profit has thrown men out of work and created a great deal of misery, but to use it as a service to humanity ... should be a help and benefit to mankind." But as they discussed it, Chaplin came to realize it was the first part of his statement-machinery that only considers profits has created a great deal of misery-that mattered most. Gandhi had convinced him without even trying.
The film originally ended with Charles Chaplin's character suffering a nervous breakdown and being visited in hospital by the gamin, who has now become a nun. This ending was filmed, though apparently only still photographs from the scene exist today (they are included in the 2003 DVD release of the film). Chaplin dropped this ending and shot a different, more hopeful ending instead.
Supposedly was to be Charles Chaplin's first full sound film, but instead, sound is used in a unique way: we hear spoken voices only when they come from mechanical devices, a symbol of the film's theme of technology and dehumanization. Specifically, voices are heard from:
This was always intended to be Charles Chaplin's first talkie. He even went as far as writing a dialogue script and experimenting with sound. However, because Chaplin intended the film to feature his Little Tramp character, sound seemed inappropriate. Consequently, the film was made using silent techniques, shot at 18 frames per second and then projected at 24 frames per second, which gave the slapstick sequences a more frenetic feel.
According to Paulette Goddard, Charles Chaplin was deeply and profoundly involved in the recording of the musical score. He spent days upon days in the recording studio writing themes, and only left when Goddard begged him.
Charles Chaplin devoted eight days to filming the department store roller-skating scene where he skates blindfolded on the edge of the fourth floor, coming within inches of falling over the edge into the deep stairwell below. The dangerous large drop was actually a painted scene on a pane of glass carefully placed in front of the camera to align with the existing set and create the illusion of great height.
The department store sequence originally had a scene where the Tramp lets one of the ex-factory workers clean out the goods from the silverware department of the store. However, Charles Chaplin later felt this made the petty larceny The Tramp abets too serious a crime, as opposed to stealing food to survive, and he removed it from the final edit.
The film shares many themes with René Clair's À Nous la Liberté (1931). That film's production company, Tobis Film, sued Charles Chaplin upon the release of Modern Times (1936) to no avail. They tried again after World War II, this time settling with Chaplin out of court. Clair, who was a great admirer of Chaplin, was thoroughly embarrassed by Tobis Film's course of actions.
According to some accounts, working together on the film put a strain on Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard's relationship. Contrary to the way young actresses were presented on screen, Goddard was to wear shabby clothing and no make-up as the Gamin. When she showed up for filming with her hair beautifully coiffed, Chaplin dumped a bucket of water over her head.
A full dialogue script was written for the film, as Charles Chaplin had intended to make a complete talkie. According to a documentary on the DVD release, Chaplin went so far as to film a scene with full dialogue before deciding instead to make a partial talkie.
According to a fall 1935 issue of Variety, Charles Chaplin was expected to run behind schedule on the release of the movie, as he tweaked the soundtrack. He also wanted to chop over 1,000 feet of film from his then existing cut.
Shooting silent allowed Charles Chaplin the option of cranking the camera at any speed he wanted, sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-four frames per second. This allowed him a flexibility of rhythm and movement in any scene.
Publicity records indicate four hundred people were hired for the café scene, and photographs exist of Charles Chaplin himself, on a high tower, directing hundreds of other extras in the opening crowd shot, as opposed to the usual practice of assigning such a task to a second unit director.
On the recommendation of Eddie Powell, chief assistant to noted composer and musical director Alfred Newman, Charles Chaplin hired David Raksin to help him write and record the score. Only twenty-three years old at the time, Raksin was already a seasoned composer and arranger. After reviewing what Chaplin had composed, Raksin offered the opinion that it wasn't good enough for the film, nor was it modern enough or of sufficient "symphonic dimension." He was fired after one week, but rehired at Newman's urging and allowed to state his case. The rift was quickly patched and from that point, the two worked together well, having great fun coordinating musical ideas directly into the action running on a Moviola, instead of using timing sheets, the usual method of scoring. Raksin said that although Chaplin was not a professional musician, his command of musical styles, instrumental qualities, and development of melody and theme were impressive.
The elaborate factory and department store sets were built at great expense at Charles Chaplin's studios. Empty lots were rented for street sets, and three streets were built at the San Pedro waterfront.
Although filmmaking had become the province of large teams of highly specialized technicians, Charles Chaplin resisted delegating tasks, involving himself in every aspect of production, even to the point of blowing bubbles in a pail of water to simulate stomach-grumbling sounds.
Several sequences were cut before release on the recommendation of the Hays Office. According to a January 6, 1936 memo from Joseph Breen, the eliminations needed because of "vulgarity" were: "1) The first part of the 'pansy' gag [no doubt referring to the jail cellmate whose knitting disconcerts Charlie] 2) The word 'dope' in a printed title 3) Most of the business of the stomach rumbling on the part of the minister's wife and Charlie 4) The entire brassiere gag in the department store 5) The close-up shot of the udders of the cow."
This was the first picture on which Charles Chaplin used a shooting script. This was so uncharacteristic for him that Variety even featured an article in September 1934, just before shooting began, about how the script and the construction of sets were evidence he was "through with hit and miss sked." The article noted that increased production costs and planned location shooting at the San Pedro docks necessitated a faster pace. Predictions that the movie would be completed by the end of 1934, however, proved to be inaccurate.
Alfred Newman, musical director for United Artists, was brought in to record and conduct the score. Charles Chaplin had been dissatisfied with the orchestral work on City Lights (1931), so this time he sat in on all recording sessions, interrupting often, ordering retakes, overruling Newman's instructions to the orchestra, and taking the recording sessions into the early morning hours. During one especially tense all-night session, he accused Newman of laziness. The conductor stomped out and never worked with Chaplin again. Newman's assistant, Eddie Powell, took over conducting for the remainder of the work.
The machine that Charles Chaplin goes through like a film projector was made of rubber and wood rather than steel, but it was still uncomfortable enough that Chaplin only wanted to do it once. To show him going backward again, Chaplin simply played the film backward.