Mary Woodling Org. Communications Film Analysis Paper 9/2/10 Chaplin’s Vision of Scientific Management The 1930’s were a period of economic misfortune, industrial standardization, and social struggle. Entertainment of the thirties was laced with powerful depictions of the period’s culture. One such example can be seen in the work of Charlie Chaplin, specifically his film “Modern Times”. The wisely constructed scenes of this film portrayed Chaplin’s opinions of the period’s prominent management styles.
The production elements of the workshop scene, in particular, display Chaplin’s criticism of classical management ideas of specialization, standardization, replaceability and centralization. At the time this film was made the U. S. was trapped in an economic slump that lead to high unemployment and dwindling corporate earnings. With these economic hardships came an unrelenting obsession with saving time and money as a means to raise profit. Industry leaders and business owners began turning to the ever-enlightened minds of scientist for help with profitability.
During this period the strong consensus was that math and science would solve every problem humans faced. Scientists were making rapid advances in many fields, including efficiency of labor. Unfortunately for the humans within the labor force, this “Scientific Age” and scientific view lead to great injustices. Science minds like Fredrick Taylor began to suggest that employees be managed as mechanized entities, not as humans. Managers and CEO’s accepted the suggestion of classical management theorists and placed these proposals to work in their factories, just as in the scene from “Modern Times”. Modern Times” opens by juxtaposing a heard of crazed sheep with a street hustling with a mass of rushing workers. This image suggests a correlation between the mindless animal and the uneducated workers of this time period. Uneducated workers were seen as one of the many malfunctions within an unsuccessful organization. Classical theorists suggested that specialization would remedy the incompetence of the work force. Through specialization, like that of the assembly line in “Modern Times” each employee would be trained and know precisely what job they were to complete.
Workers took on simple segmented tasks that required little mental stimulation to perform. Chaplin depicted this monotony through his presentation of a line worker continually performing the same movements from a stationary position. The worker even performs the mechanical movement, a sort of automated action unable to be switched off, when he steps away from the line. Images such as these show how the specialization destroys the humanity of the worker making him solely an action or performance in the motion of consumer production.
Still it is not only the type of action that is chosen and controlled by this science inspired management, it is also the precise way in which it is preformed. Standardization was one of the most important tenants in classical management. The idea was that if all specialized workers preformed tasks in the most efficient way production would increase. Taylor referred to this most efficient performance as the “one best way”. He believed that science could help him discover one exceptionally efficient way to perform any task.
This “one best way” would allow any worker to continually and efficiently produce product. Standardization for the benefit of efficiency was taken to extremes. As depicted in “Modern Times”, factories began standardizing all human activities and needs. Chaplin’s character experienced an extreme standardization when he was strapped to a feeding machine, presented to the boss by the standardized “mechanical salesmen. This machine was designed not only to allow labors to work through lunch, but also allowed the standardization of method and the types of food served.
The feeding machine scene attests to the idea that the worker is an extension of the machine, another cog in the profit mechanism, void of all humanity. These inhuman cogs are easily controlled and predictable. Every worker becomes conventional and understands that they must follow the directions of the upper hierarchy or be replaced by another impressionable cog. The mass unemployment allowed for great replaceability in the work force. Thanks to specialization and standardization any lever or cog in the system could be easily trained and replaced.
A new employee could quickly be taught the “one best way” in their position and take the place of any worker who malfunctioned. Chaplin addresses the malfunctioning worker when his character has a nervous break down brought on by monotonous work. The worker becomes crazed and squirts his fellow cogs with oil. He refuses to return to work, so the hierarchy contacts a mental institution to apprehend and re-brain wash him into assimilation. Any worker attempting to individualize or personalize their work was seen as a malfunction in the system, and were treated just as Charlie’s character was, as insane.
Controlling hierarchy with in the periods factories were the sole means of leadership, sanity control and intelligence. Controlling the droid-like work force of the thirties was a task classical theorists insisted be done by a centralized hierarchy. Centralization allowed the top rung of the hierarchy to control every aspect of their work force with out ever having to come into contact with them. The centralized communication and surveillance lead to a “big brother” style of management. As Chaplin depicted, the Boss, who sat up in the heights of the building kept a watchful eye on workers.
The bathroom scene is a prime example of the “big brother aspect of centralization. While in the restroom Chaplin’s character is bombarded with the large and looming face of his superior ordering him back to work. Not even the restroom, where one of humanities most private activities takes place, is their freedom from rush and control. Immediacy and restrain from individually are strong messages with in a centralized hierarchy, and therefore this film. The Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times” subversively portrays the negative outcomes of standardization, specialization, replaceability and centralization.
Chaplin used the films factory scenes to satirize the serious issues and injustices of the period’s management styles. The scenes help viewers to understand that streamlining and dehumanization, though seemingly more efficient, was harmful to idyllic production. Past and present viewers come to see that profitability at the cost of humanity is irrational. Sadly classical management theories are still put to use today. Perhaps if more businesses viewed Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” scientific management would cease to exist.