Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Minstrel Tradition

At the culmination of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, the Factory Worker (commonly called “the Tramp”) breaks his long silence and sings.[1] The moment is justly famous, as if audiences had been waiting decades to hear the voice of the downtrodden Worker. The Worker, however, does not quite attain to the voice, or the song, that he and his companion, the Gamin, had planned. The Worker has just lost his lyrics, which the Gamin has written on his shirt cuffs. These cuffs fly off his wrists at the start of his dance before the café crowd. “Sing! Nevermind the words,” urges the Gamin in an intertitle. When the Factory Worker does sing, he has lost the proper lyrics and must sing nonsense. His song is one of the few moments of “sound” in this seemingly nostalgic “silent” film. The Worker’s song seems particularly modern, and modernist, in a twofold way: incorporating Chaplin’s voice for the first time and foregrounding the sheer sound of words in verses of bricolage that bring together scraps of various languages.

As the Worker is rehearsing, a quartet of “Singing Waiters” appears on the floor and delivers the first song. “We are singing waiters,” they announce, “We will sing and serve potatoes.” The waiters form their quartet, then, and begin singing, while the camera cuts back to the Factory Worker’s rehearsal scene as their lyrics are heard in the background. The Factory Worker begins dancing to his own unheard melody while struggling to memorize his lyrics. What robs the Worker of his words is the song sung in the background. It is called “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” a song about songs, delivered in unison by the waiters:

In the evening by the moonlight

You can hear those darkies singing.

In the evening by the moonlight

You can hear those banjos ringing

How the old folks would enjoy it

They would sit all night and listen

As they sang in the evening by the moonlight.

This recursive structure, a song about songs, does not end in any stable signified but in a simulacrum—not just a copy of a copy but a copy of a caricature, a copy of the myth of the happy slave, a myth in harmony with the vague expression “old folks.” If the thematic content of Modern Times participates in the movement of modernism and its famous task of making art and culture new, it nonetheless seems to indulge in nostalgia, not only for the silent era but for a nineteenth-century tradition of minstrelsy. The presence of a throwback to blackface minstrelsy is not, however, necessarily nostalgic or backward-looking. In their history of blackface minstrelsy, Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen demonstrate how the tradition outlived its 1890s “decline” and endured far into the twentieth century: “Songs that were firmly in the minstrel tradition enjoyed great success among both blacks and whites until well after World War II.”[2] Ryan Jay Friedman shows that 1930s Hollywood still sustained the blackface minstrel tradition with films like the Amos and Andy feature Check and Double Check (1930).[3] Swing Time of 1936 features Fred Astaire dancing in blackface to jazz—another atavism of the past married with modern times, much like Al Jolson’s appearance in The Jazz Singer of 1927. The Shirley Temple feature The Littlest Rebel (1935) includes a scene of the child star wearing blackface. According to James Snead, the two Shirley Temple movies The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel, also from 1935, are set “in what might be called the primal scene of American cinematic racism . . . the Southern plantation around the Civil War,” an allegedly genteel and happy civilization soon to be gone with the wind.[4] This or a similar scene is perhaps alluded to as the place of the “old folks” in the song “In the Evening by the Moonlight”—published in 1880 by Black songwriter and minstrel James Bland.

In the early decades of American cinema, white performers appeared sporadically in blackface. The most frankly racist and white-supremacist example is D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Here blackface is used not so much to poke fun at African Americans but to demonize them. The work of Buster Keaton provides an example from the realm of comedy. Not only does he fight in league with the Confederacy in his most famous film, The General (1926); he appears in blackface in Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and College (1927). In the latter film, Keaton’s character responds to a job posting that calls for a “colored waiter.” He secures the job by appearing in blackface and, once on the job, accordingly engages in buffoonery. And at the climax of the Marx Brothers’ feature A Day at the Races (1937), Groucho, Chico, and Harpo don blackface to evade their pursuers. These uses of blackface by Keaton and the Marx Brothers are not as straightforward as the blackface in Griffith’s film, however. In College, Keaton’s actual African American coworkers at the restaurant discover his ruse and, wielding knives, chase him off the job. The Marx Brothers’ blackface is no more plausible than Keaton’s—Harpo has only painted one half his face—and the chase continues. In the case of both of these films, blackface is a thin and unsuccessful disguise, but it still appears to be donned for the sake of a joke; it appears to perpetuate the practice of blackface rather than to call it into question.

Yet even minstrelsy in its traditional, nineteenth-century form, argues Eric Lott, was profoundly ambiguous. Lott contends that blackface minstrelsy, though manifestly racist, was also implicitly a sign of a proscribed attraction of working-class whites to Black culture and even a sign of potential solidarity between Black and white that was never, in fact, realized in history. The “early minstrel show,” Lott argues, “was a Janus-faced figure for the cultural relationship of white to black in America.”[5] The blackface minstrel show was “a simultaneous drawing up and crossing of racial boundaries” embodying a “mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation” or of “cross-racial desire” (Lott, Love and Theft, 6, 7). However, instead of issuing in solidarity—or “love”—the blackface minstrel show functioned “to facilitate safely an exchange of energies between two otherwise rigidly bounded and policed cultures” (7). Lott does not deny that blackface minstrelsy was indeed racist exploitation, but he argues that this racist exploitation was a substitute or surrogate for a solidarity that would be menacing to the entire racialized capitalist order. Lott’s provocative argument encourages one to think of a racist institution such as minstrelsy as a way of expressing racism but also repressing “love.” If Lott is correct in his analysis, then at the very least we are encouraged to think that a great deal of ambivalent history is contained in the guises assumed by Keaton and the Marx Brothers, or the apparently unselfconscious racism of the waiters’ songs in Modern Times.

If minstrelsy itself is ambiguous, Chaplin’s use of minstrelsy is all the more so, because the waiters’ songs are juxtaposed with the Worker’s nonsense song. It is not, then, immediately clear that the atavistic presence of minstrel songs in Chaplin’s films is an invitation to enjoyment, or an easy approval, of the tradition of minstrelsy; what is clear is that Chaplin the auteur cannot avoid here saying something about that tradition. What is Chaplin’s comment? There is, to begin, a connection, not just a disjunction, between the waiters’ minstrel songs and the Worker’s song: both are nonsense. Ralph Ellison points out that minstrel shows were themselves characterized by nonsense songs.[6] Striking upon his own nonsense as a key to entertainment, the Worker wins himself a job. Yet what does this gibberish articulate? Or, how does this gibberish, apparently set in the same signifying chain as a racist caricature, articulate with that caricature? But is the Worker’s performance indeed indebted to the minstrel tradition, a part of the same chain of value as the waiters’ racist act, or is it a resistance to or a break with the logic of racism?

The Political Ambiguity of Modern Times

Modern Times is widely considered an important progressive achievement: it is known as Chaplin’s social and political masterpiece. The film can be situated within broad progressive movements of its day, movements that have been associated not only with socialist or pro-labor stances but with both antifascist and antiracist politics. Chaplin’s 1936 film belongs within what Saverio Giovacchini calls Hollywood modernism, the left-leaning movement that sprang from a studio-system alliance of displaced New York radical intellectuals and Europeans exiled from fascism—who were thus staunchly antifascist.[7] This alliance drove Hollywood—including Chaplin, a longtime Hollywood moviemaker—to the left. Giovacchini reports that 1936 marked this shift in Hollywood modernism’s politics (Hollywood Modernism, 40). Fritz Lang’s anti-lynching film Fury is exemplary of the politics of this year. Yet the ambiguity of Lang’s film makes an instructive comparison to Chaplin’s contemporaneous masterpiece: Lang was at once praised by the NAACP’s Walter White for the film’s stance against lynching and censured by the New Masses for making the white Spencer Tracy the lynching victim, omitting African Americans from the plot (67–68). If Hollywood modernism was both progressive as well as antifascist, to what extent were the progressive or democratic films of 1936 and beyond specifically antiracist? Michael Denning locates the Hollywood modernism of Modern Times, together with that of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), within the broader politics of “the cultural front,” a broad coalition or “historical bloc” of cultural producers, intellectuals, and artists who represented the threefold politics of the Popular Front: “a social democratic laborism based on a militant individual unionism; an anti-racist ethnic pluralism imagining the United States as a ‘nation of nations’; and an anti-fascist politics of international solidarity.”[8] The cultural front’s characteristic trope for Americans, or even for a revolutionary subject more generally, was the people, which, Denning argues, was an antiracist category consisting of “working men and women of many races and nationalities” (Cultural Front, 128). Through the lenses of Hollywood modernism in particular or the cultural front in general, Chaplin’s work of 1936 and afterwards may be seen as an affirmation of this inclusive sense of the people, if it were not for Chaplin’s twofold complication in his representation of the people in Modern Times: the apparent opposition between the image of the Worker and the stereotypes of minstrelsy; and the relative erasure of any images of African Americans that defy such stereotypes.

African Americans only have bit parts in Modern Times, and indeed in Chaplin’s oeuvre more generally. The most memorable, if not the most unique, Black character in Chaplin’s films is the boxer played by the uncredited actor Victor Alexander in City Lights (1931).[9] He is undoubtedly defined by stereotype: physically formidable yet enthralled by superstitious ritual and—that’s about all. He still loses to his white opponent. Indeed, only two persons of color seem to appear in Modern Times: one a woman, played by an uncredited actor, on whom the Factory Worker inadvertently sits, twice, during a trip in the police wagon, and another woman, also uncredited, who is part of the crowd looking on as the Gamin dances in the street. The women are under arrest, on the margins or on the bottom of the social hierarchy of Modern Times. One of the rare instances of a Black character in Chaplin’s films is in his 1923 film The Kid. In this film a young Black bellhop, played by an uncredited actor, beams ecstatically when Edna Purviance’s wealthy character gives him a coin as a tip; his stereotypical character is the docile counterpart to the aggressive stereotype of the boxer.[10] It seems impossible to argue, then, that by 1936 even the socialist and humanist Chaplin is devoted to particularly progressive representations of African Americans. Moreover, in accordance with Hollywood convention, Chaplin keeps the film quite white: the soundtrack of Modern Times, composed by Chaplin, is fairly free of the influence of jazz or the blues—and the band in the cafe (and the patrons) are exclusively white.[11] Even aside from the case of the singing waiters, Chaplin seems to be insisting on—doubling down on—the exclusion of African Americans from Hollywood.

The waiters’ song and its use of the word “darkies” is a singular instance of racist language in Chaplin’s work. In terms of Chaplin’s own oeuvre, at least, what is most strikingly “new” in Chaplin’s climactic instance of modernist nonsense is its comment on a very old tradition of racism. Yet the waiters’ songs and their apparent example of racism have been ignored in the secondary literature about Modern Times. The electrifying character of the Worker’s own nonsense song and the sheer banality of the preceding act seem to distract from one’s hearing of the slurring minstrel song. Many critics have acknowledged the film’s political edge but have related it primarily to economic class.[12] Most find Chaplin’s culminating nonsense song worthy of comment, though this comment is often thought to relate only to Chaplin’s anxiety about the transition to sound film.[13] This strand of criticism perceives Chaplin’s undeniable ambivalence about technological “progress.”[14] Other critics point out the “ambiguity” of Chaplin’s social critique, which seems immobilized between progressive and conservative aspects.[15] This political ambiguity, too, is crucial to any consideration of the complexity of Chaplin’s treatment of minstrelsy. Yet critics, though stressing the complexity of Chaplin’s critique of capital and the state, have ignored how Chaplin seems to shore up the greatest ideological prop to the power of capital and state in the United States: race and racism. The singing waiters raise the question whether the audience of Modern Times, too, is supposed to be among these “old folks”: whether Modern Times demands our ignorance, obliviousness, or even approbation of the casual racist caricature the singing waiters serve us. The waiters seem to provide us with potatoes as well as racist cliché, a balance of food and ideology, or bread and circuses. Analyzing the dreams in Chaplin’s films, David J. Lemaster analyzes Chaplin’s “use of thematic devices as a tool for creating the ‘mask’ we know as Charlie the Tramp.”[16] Does Charlie join his fellow workers when they put on a mask of minstrelsy in Modern Times?

What seems most distinctive about Chaplin’s silent clown persona is his very universality: his capacity to speak with the universally recognizable gestures of the body—to speak without the particularities of language. David Robinson, in his study of Chaplin’s reputation among his contemporaries, remarks that “Pantomime—particularly Chaplin’s pantomime—was a universal language.”[17] If Chaplin is conventionally and traditionally considered a modernist “everyman” figure, the climax of Modern Times reveals this universality to be contingent on a logic of exclusion. Chaplin is often lauded as a socialist, humanist, and admirably humane filmmaker. Robinson comments that Chaplin’s longstanding reputation for “the humanist sentiment” only became “more and more overt” by the 1930s (The Mirror of Opinion, 94). Chaplin is a humanist emblem, a symbol of the “downtrodden” or even, as Peter Ackroyd says of Chaplin, “a figure of humankind” itself (A Brief Life, 206). George Potter writes that Chaplin’s “tramp” offers “a humanistic image of the Depression’s sorrows” (“The Tramp,” 77–78).[18] Yet humanist universality tends to show up in a white body.

As mentioned above, the waiters’ opening number, “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” was originally published in 1880 by Black songwriter and minstrel James Bland (1854–1911), who was, according to musicologist Sandra Jean Graham, “one of minstrelsy’s towering talents.”[19] In creating the score, Chaplin adapted the song from Bland’s original version so that it could be plausibly sung by white singers and seem to address a white audience in particular. The white singing waiters’ focalization is actually a substitute for a first-person, African American perspective, in Bland’s original rendering:

In de ebening by de moonlight, you could hear us darkies singing,

In de ebening by de moonlight, you could hear de banjo ringing.

How de old folks would enjoy it,

They would sit all night and listen,

As we sang in de ebening by de moonlight.

Bland exploits the minstrel legacy of racist slur and an attendant myth of a happy, banjo-playing slave (published in 1880, his song looks back on the era of the “old folks”).[20] Remarkably, in Bland’s version the racial slur is adopted by a Black songwriter and forms the persona of the singers, and even the “old folks,” who are not as obviously white as they are in Chaplin’s version. In Chaplin’s version, “old folks” seem to mirror the white cafe audience, setting up a doubled relation between two groups expected to enjoy minstrel songs.[21]

Omission, Exclusion, and Universality

James Snead analyzes the most prevalent devices used to marginalize Black people in film, including what he calls mythification and omission (White Screens, 4). Chaplin’s scene in the café seems to employ both devices, recalling the myth of the happy slave within an idyllic Old South as well as excluding any actual African Americans from the scene. Snead explains that “Omission and exclusion are perhaps the most widespread tactics of racial stereotyping but are also the most difficult to prove because their manifestation is precisely absence itself” (6). Chaplin orchestrates an omission that depends upon a suppressed Black presence, a thinly disguised Black presence. In the singing waiters’ song, Chaplin appropriates the music of Black artist James Bland and fails to credit him with the music. Thus Chaplin seems to participate in an omission that includes a barely suppressed presence of Blackness.

Chaplin’s film exemplifies a logic of racism that has been explored by Toni Morrison in her study Playing in the Dark: people of color as a substitute identity for a white American picaro who is ostensibly universal, free of the logic of racial exclusion.[22] Morrison observes that this freedom is ironically constituted by exclusion. It is this contradiction between universality and exclusion, more than the actual gibberish, that is the nonsense to which the Worker attests—the nonsensical logic of racism. The Worker’s act refuses to continue the same racist pattern of language, but the difference between his act and the preceding minstrelsy highlights the whiteness of Chaplin’s act. The white Worker’s freedom to speak gibberish is premised on a prior unfreedom appearing in the minstrel song. The moment that the white Worker speaks, framed by the same variety show in which the minstrel speaks for African Americans, brings attention to the exclusion of blackness from Chaplin’s oeuvre, even as it seems to create friction with the logic of the show. How can the nonsense song be both complicit and disruptive in the racial exclusion of Modern Times? It seems that Chaplin the director positions his own persona as a disruption to the exclusion that has marked and marred the “universality” of his oeuvre until Modern Times—his silence on questions of race and racism.

Alienated Voice

To return to the analysis of the scene in the cabaret: as “In the Evening by the Moonlight” is performed in the background, the plot progresses in the foreground. At this moment, the camera is focused on the Factory Worker’s cuffs. The Gamin writes the Worker’s lyrics on his cuff: “a pretty girl and a gay old man/ flirted on the boulevard/ He was a fat old thing/ but his diamond ring caught her e—” And here the camera cuts away from the cuffs. It is worth noting that the Worker’s intended song is itself the stuff of pure stereotype, a set of characters defined by gender, prettiness, fatness, and wealth. This may be read as a comment on Chaplin’s characterizations in general, which tend towards generality rather than singularity. He is “a Factory Worker” and Paulette Goddard’s character is “a Gamin.” Yet Chaplin’s character is constantly losing his status as Factory Worker; he comes alive in his singularity when the assembly line drives him crazy and again when the strike shutters the mill, and he must continue his capers on the street. For Chaplin, generality always gives way to uniqueness, the inimitable and memorable, except for the characters who only have bit parts.

At the end of the Worker’s brief rehearsal, the waiters’ song has skipped directly to its culmination with the lines “Hop along, sister Mary, hop along / Hop along, sister Mary, hop along, / And you’ll get there by and by.” Presumably this refrain is supposed to be the words of the African Americans that the waiters slur about. It is, in fact, another parody—the parody of a spiritual. The refrain derives from the song “Hop Along, Sister Mary” by the white songster M. H. Foley. According to Graham, “Hop Along, Sister Mary” is a “commercial spiritual” written by a white artist. “Broadly speaking,” writes Graham, “all commercial spirituals can be considered parodies, by virtue of their musical and textual allusion to traditional spirituals” (Spirituals, 148). The African Americans being sung about are several times removed from a true voice. Further, the lyrics ascribed to them here are the only “nonsense” lyrics of the song. The verses of the song concern the biblical story of Jonah. Here are the lyrics in full, taken from the Olympia Quartette Songster, published in New York around 1881:

From the mighty clouds the rain did pour,

Forty days and forty more;

Rain came down ’longside of de door,

Pray pomp Jonah, come and shout, sah.

Hop along sister Mary, hop along,

Hop along sister Mary, hop along, gwine to get home by-and-by.

Oh, oh! Children, ah! ah, children.

Oh! oh! children, row that boat along.

The water it was cold that day,

Whale he thought he wouldn’t let Jonah stay,

Took him in his belly and dropped him on the shore,

Jonah never was seen no more.[23]

The theme of redemption is dimly echoed in the words “get home by and by,” but the deliverance of Jonah from the whale’s belly is utterly elided in the waiters’ rapid skipping from the framing portion of the performance, “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” with its racist, slurring reference to African American performers, and the “quoting” portion of the act, with its nonsense lyrics “Hop along, Mary.” Just as the humanity of the African American performers is elided, so too the theme of redemption in the song “Hop Along, Sister Mary” is left out. The song is a spiritual, mimicking a Black vernacular tradition, but is reduced to its nonsense element. Even the gesture towards redemptive depth would prove distracting if it appeared alongside the evocation of cliché. The Worker is distracted, though his distraction is different from the distraction of the crowd. Even if he seems complicit in the performance of the singing waiters by taking the same stage, he offers an alternative to their racist cliché. As in Brechtian theater, the Worker interrupts his audience’s distraction and will train their attention on a voice at once puzzling and hilarious.[24]

Every moment that breaks the “silence” of Modern Times is significant. Donna Kornhaber remarks that in Modern Times, “To the powerful goes the voice.”[25] For the most part, the voices seem to signify the power of capital—of the boss or the fetishized commodity. The voices signify not dialogue between characters (persons) but relations of force between objects, following the logic of fetishism developed by Karl Marx in Capital. The commodity, writes Marx, “a definite social relation between men, . . . assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things . . . the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.”[26] In this way the commodity in Modern Times doubles the coercive power of the boss. As Michael North observes, in general “speech appears only in the form of orders and directives” (Machine-Age, 191). Voice is granted the powerful, such as the president of the Electro Steel Company, where the Factory Worker works. The president appears on a kind of telescreen to give orders to foremen and command the Factory Worker to leave his cigarette break in the restroom and “quit stalling”—“Get back to work!” If the president represents power, he specifically represents the power of capitalism, which other voices of Modern Times in a mechanized or involuntary way. A moment later, a record plays the sales pitch for the Bellows Feeding Machine, which is supposed to improve efficiency by providing lunch for workers while they continue their frantic pace on the assembly line. A voice ruptures the silence, momentarily, from the radio outside the prison warden’s office, to give another advertisement, this time for the cure of the “gastritis” that happens to be afflicting both the Worker and the chaplain’s wife as they share an awkward moment of tea drinking. It seems that only the power of capital or commodity can have a voice—a sensical voice—in the otherwise silent Modern Times. Within Modern Times, to cite Marx’s early essay on “Alienated Labor,” only a power autonomous from the alienated worker, “an alien object,” can have a voice.[27] Chaplin and Marx seem to converge, then, on at least a class analysis of alienation.[28]

None of the lead characters, the ostensibly powerless characters in the film, such as the Factory Worker and the Gamin, has a literal voice. Even at momentous junctures in the plot we must rely on lip reading, as when the Gamin races to a dead body in the street and cries, “My father!” Silence, it seems, figures the alienation of the Factory Worker as well as the unemployed. But alienation, for Marx, characterizes labor as well as capital: if the worker is alienated from the product, the capitalist is doubly alienated from the product, for the capitalist’s relation is mediated through the worker. Voice in the film, then, seems to figure a different sort of alienation: the alienation of the capitalist from the worker and the alienation of the fetishized object or commodity from the worker. This is a revision of Chaplin’s approach in City Lights, where the politicians are the ones who speak nonsense.[29] It seems the Factory Worker can only be granted speech on condition that it not actually attain to voice but remains at the level of non-linguistic signs or gibberish. Yet strangely this instance of voice is the most powerful, the most poignant, of the film, overwhelming the songs of the other waiters.

In his own performance the Worker does not overcome the alienation of his humanity: he does so at the expense of speaking nonsense himself and reducing his body to an object. “Our objects in their relations to one another,” wrote the young Marx, “constitute the only intelligible language we use with one another” (“Excerpt Notes,” 280). The language that the Factory Worker seems to have at his disposal is the language of the body as object; without this language, the nonsense lyrics would be sheer gibberish. To be sure, the language of the Worker’s body is crucial to conveying the “meaning” of his gibberish. Were the Worker standing still like the waiters, the effect would be quite surreal—alienating for all, including the old folks. But the dance itself, taken alone, is also a form of nonsense. The dance and the gibberish are two forms of nonsense that, taken together, become necessary and sufficient conditions of sense. If the word becomes reduced to mere sound, the sound is, in turn, liberated as meaning. This is a dubious liberation, because it entails being immediately reinscribed into the symbolic order. By contrast, in a story treatment of Modern Times Chaplin envisioned his two lead characters as “spiritually free,” essentially overcoming alienation as “The only two spirits in a world of automatons. They really live” (Robinson, Chaplin: His Life, 459). Nonsense lyrics and pantomime are at once resistance and acquiescence to the logic of the labor for which the Worker has been hired: to entertain with the automated humor of stereotype. This contradiction of resisting and relenting is what happens when the Worker, “spiritually free,” is nonetheless forced to work as a material object. After all, as Joyce Milton notes, the Worker is horrified that he must sing (Tramp, 352).

If Modern Times aspires to do something new in film, it grudgingly does so through the newness of the voiced word. Into the mid-thirties Chaplin famously resisted the technological “progress” of the talkies, even reversing his original resolve to turn Modern Times into a talky. Most instances of voice are merely complicit with power, and the working class only gains a voice by singing minstrel tunes. Say something new against this tradition, and you have to talk—but perhaps you can perform a double movement of resisting the tradition and resisting speech by talking nonsense.

That Worker’s nonsense is a kind of parole (voice) outside of langue (the symbolic order). In this sense, this parole, voiced in Ferdinand de Saussure’s realm of individual freedom, as opposed to the realm of necessity structured by langue, escapes the signifying logic that precedes it.[30] While the lyrics of the waiters’ songs are firmly established in the symbolic order, the nonsense of the Factory Worker’s song in a sense makes a break with the symbolic order. This is not to say the song is a form of Lacanian psychosis. It is only a partial break, for the Worker’s song is not strictly speaking what Robinson calls “a make-believe jabberwock language” (Chaplin: His Life, 460). It is, rather, a bricolage of various languages articulated with the Tramp’s vaguely intelligible dance. Robinson’s transcription runs like this:

Se bella piu satore, je notre so catore

Je notre qui cavore, je la qu’, la qui, la quai!

Le spinash or le busho, cigarette toto bello,

Le rakish spagoletto, si la tu, la tu, la tua!

Senora pelafima, voulez-vous le taximeter,

La zionta sur le tita, tu le tu le tu le wa! (quoted in Chaplin: His Life, 468)

The apparent “universality” of Chaplin’s dance is its intelligibility despite its position outside of langue, yet it is not a jabberwock language but bricolage, fragments of various langues, set to the melody of Leo Daniderff, Bertral Maubon, and E. Ronn’s playful 1917 song “Je cherche après Titine.”[31] This song was rebaptized as “Titina” and introduced to English-language audiences in Charles Dillinham’s production Puzzles of 1925. The transformation of “Je cherche après Titine” into “Titina” is worthy of note because these first two iterations of the song already attest to the transnational character of the song’s bricolage. While “Je cherche” begins with an apology to the listening ladies and gentlemen for such a “l’air inquiet et confus,” the first lines of “Titina” declares “I’ve always been a restless rover / In search of femininity . . .” The original song makes the lost love interest Titine generic, placeless and timeless, but the English-language song about Titina sings, a little more specifically, of “This Spanish kid in old Madrid” whom the singer pursues “from Palestina / To London and Peru.” Chaplin’s version of the song seems to take up both preceding versions and turn the song into a global bricolage, replacing a song about lovesickness with first a song about an anonymous tryst and then, finally, with a song that makes playful nonsense of these clichés. The trend in the transformations of “Titine” is from universal to transnational, from French to multilingual bricolage.[32]

In the background of Modern Times, there is the presence of a suppressed voice on race, the suppressed presence of what Toni Morrison has called American Africanism, “the ways in which a nonwhite, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served” (Playing, 6). Morrison does not credit American literature or its authors with awareness of this suppressed voice; it is a voice that, for authors like Chaplin, insists on being heard despite the seeming oblivion to which it has been consigned. The primary use it served was the imagination of freedom for the construction of a “new white male.” Morrison observes, “Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery” (38). Morrison points out that it was not just freedom that was highlighted but “the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination” (38). Not only freedom, then, was highlighted by “blackness and enslavement” but limitation in general, the limitation of the self. The most radical form of human limitation—ownership of one human by another—haunts the imagination of texts by white authors, and perhaps filmmakers, too. Implicit in Morrison’s analysis here, however, is a disavowed sense that the not-me is also a part of me, a thesis she has developed more recently in her book The Origin of Others.[33] As Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man finally suggests (to his target audience of white readers), “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”[34] The implication of the Invisible Man’s suggestion is the obverse of the usual image of Chaplin. As a “universal” figure, Chaplin “speaks for” everyone, but as a clown among minstrels, an invisible African American male speaks for Chaplin. Chaplin’s body, Chaplin’s nonsense, can only mobilize objects in relation to one another. One of those objects is blackness. “In the Evening by the Moonlight” demonstrates the limit of the universality of the Worker’s subject position, just as Chaplin’s revision of “Titine” signals the end of the universality of Chaplin’s pantomime.

Since the waiters sing the language of blackface minstrelsy, there is a very thin color line between the waiters and blackface minstrels; perhaps the waiters are even more monstrous in their caricature, their “masking” of the African Americans they parody, if we take Ralph Ellison’s characterization of the blackface mask seriously: “The racial identity of the performer was unimportant, the mask was the thing . . . and its function was to veil the humanity of Negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience’s awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask” (“Change the Joke,” 49). The waiters’ quartet alienates them, and their audience, from the human ambiguities of the presence of American Africanism.

Legacy of Bert Williams

Universality is a position of sovereignty, whiteness a position of debt. The very form of the four waiters’ ensemble is indebted to African American culture. In his illuminating study of the intersection of “modernist imagination” and “African American imaginary,” Geoffrey Jacques observes that the barbershop has been neglected by critics as “a major point of interracial contact at the turn of the twentieth century,” and the ensembles of twentieth-century popular music in the United States are to an extent “derived from these amateur quartets that performed in black-owned barbershops.”[35] Jacques analyzes the barbershop quartet as having contributed “two aspects of modernist poetic language and popular music making at the same time”: the “subordination of the word to its sound” and the “process” “in which sound is suspended . . . until it overwhelms any logic, sense, or narrative that the lyrics may have meant” (A Change, 2–3). It might, then, be argued that the Factory Worker’s nonsense is a kind of abrupt passage from the language of minstrelsy to a modernist idiom, in which only sound, not meaning, counts in this instance of parole. Although one can still imagine the entire scene of the pretty girl and the gay old man playing out through the Worker’s dance, gestures, facial expressions, and tone, Chaplin’s transformation of “Je cherche après Titine” attests at a merely formal level to the reworking of the universality of cliché and stereotype into a clowning—or condemning—bricolage.

It turns out not only that Chaplin’s singing waiters are indebted to the minstrel tradition, however; Chaplin’s Factory Work is more particularly indebted to a prominent Black comedian who performed in blackface, Bert Williams (1874–1922). Williams, universally lauded as one of the great comedians—if not the great comedian—of his day, most well-known for his song “Nobody” (1905), occupied a position between “type” and “universality” and performed an ambiguous kind of parody. Jacques argues that it was the early twentieth-century Black comedian Bert Williams who through parody transformed the image of the Black minstrel into a “universal” and “humanist” image. For Jacques, Williams and his professional partner George Walker “not only parodied the stereotypes inherited from minstrelsy but also presented a pair of new figures that sought to transcend the bounds of the stereotype by signifying a more ‘universal’ and humanist character” (88). As Jessie Fauset wrote in her eulogy for Williams in the May 1922 issue of the NAACP organ The Crisis, Williams’s Black blackface performances established him as “symbolic” of “the racial type itself.”[36] Specifically, for Fauset, Williams’s “rôle was always that of the poor, shunted, cheated, out-of-luck Negro” (12). When Williams passed from the minstrel stage to Ziegfeld’s Follies, “he struck the truest artistic note in that medley of banality, rich costumes and shining flesh” (13). Yet, as Fauset observed, Williams “could not forget his color and the limitations it imposed on him in his chosen field” (13). In her eulogy Fauset maintained this memory of color while affirming, as Jacques would observe, the universality Williams would come to represent. Fauset declares,

I have tried jealously to keep Bert Williams with his struggles, his triumphs, his heartbreaks and his consolations as the symbol of our own struggling race. But it is not the part he played as the helpless creature,—always beaten, always conquered,—symbolic of all poor human flesh which is ever worsted by life or the things of life, by love or the lack of love, by poverty or riches, by loveliness or a satiety of companionship? Yet does not this same poor human flesh meet all this with a tear, a sign, a shrug, a brave smile and a realization that this is life? All that the most unfortunate can do—provided he wills to live—is to buckle down to life and try it again. (14–15)

The “out-of-luck Negro” was also a human “type” that would, in the decades following Williams’s death, become called “Chaplinesque.” In “Nobody”—at least the 1906 recording that would maintain a universality independent of his role in the musical Abyssinia of 1905, when he first performed the song—Williams’s persona declares an absolute isolation from others: “When life seems full of clouds and rain / And I am full of nothin’ and pain / Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain? / Nobody!” With lyrics by Alex Rogers and music by Williams, Williams’s 1906 recording differs from Alex Roger’s published lyrics, which run, “When I am full of naught but pain.”[37] By instead rewording the line nothin’ and pain, Williams emphasizes the hollowness of his subjectivity—the fact not only that nobody helps him, but that he, too, is literally nobody. Williams’s persona, in turn, will help nobody, either: “And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime, / I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody no-time.” Williams’s persona’s nothingness or lack—lack of mutual aid and lack of recognition—prefigures Chaplin’s Tramp’s own alienation, his famous combination of selfishness and isolation from others, which would markedly shift to a stance, however hapless, of solidarity in City Lights and, especially, Modern Times.

Williams’s shift to universality should be understood not as abandonment of Blackness but more, perhaps, as a preservation of it internal to his universality: misrecognition that the comedians who were his white counterparts did not face in anything like as acute a form. The trajectory Williams’s career should not be understood as an erasure of Blackness but, as Louis Chude-Sokei argues, a kind of exposure of a mask, an invisibility, of the white performer behind the blackface minstrel mask. For Chude-Sokei, Williams parodied a parody, demonstrating the distortion, the construction, of “the Negro”: as Black blackface performer, “Bert Williams appropriated from whites the very right to perform and symbolically possess ‘the Negro.’”[38] Chude-Sokei writes that as a Black artist Williams “ultimately mocked and erased that primary caricature” constructed by white minstrels, “eras[ing] that fiction from within” (The Last, 5, 6; emphasis mine). Finally, this was not just an erasure of blackface but an exposure of whiteness, “how white comedians made themselves—not African Americans—look ridiculous” (33; emphasis in original). Williams represented not merely universality but an antiracist universality (7).

If Chaplin stepped into the role of universal “nobody,” the position of being the most celebrated of comedians, that Williams had established then vacated, what reversal is involved in his own humanism? It is significant that the uncredited songwriter James Bland was, like Williams, a renowned Black minstrel. The waiters’ song, like Chaplin’s construction of the nobody Tramp, is indebted to the tradition of Black blackface minstrelsy. At the same time, the Worker parts ways with the minstrel tradition, and indeed Chaplin’s previously established universality, by opening his mouth, and breaking with the mise en abyme in which the waiters are caught, between recalling the “darky” and exposing their whiteness.

In his transformation of “Titine,” the Worker’s bricolage moves from clowning, according to the same logic of the minstrel show, to a condemnation of its racism. But so much depends upon the audience of so various and ambiguous a show. The Worker’s audience in the cabaret is at once a mirror and challenge to Chaplin’s broader audience in the theater. Will the Worker’s nonsense be taken as a continuity of the same logic of racism of his fellow workers, or will it be taken as an interruption, a partial break from it? Will the nonsense of “Titine” challenge the nonsense of “In the Evening by the Moonlight” and “Hop Along, Mary”? If so, then Modern Times is both a confession of the failure of universality, an instance of American Africanism, and a white worker’s first important gesture towards solidarity across the color line.

Racism and the Worker

The place of minstrelsy of Modern Times enacts a similar ambiguity towards the tradition that Lott finds in the nineteenth century. Yet how can such a contradiction constitute anything more than a self-cancellation of the Worker’s critique of minstrelsy? How can an anarchic parole alter the rigidity of langue in this instance? Only, perhaps, by sundering Chaplin the Worker, who breaks with the frame of minstrelsy, from Chaplin the Auteur, who has attempted to smuggle minstrelsy into his vision of universality. Mikhail Bakhtin points to Dostoevsky’s characters as people who maintain an “autonomy” from their author: “Dostoevsky . . . creates . . . free people, capable of standing alongside their creator, capable of not fully agreeing with him and even rebelling against him.”[39] Chaplin’s own character—his own persona—similarly rebels against his creator. The auteur is no longer universal sovereign over his mise-en-scène, any more than the company president or the café owner can control the antics of the Worker. That is, the auteur himself is equivalent to the company president or the chaplain, and for the Worker to find voice is to employ parole against langue, to set freedom against necessity. This is a moment of a Worker’s almost self-conscious proletarian revolt against capitalist, against director. It is a kind of “death of the author” in Roland Barthes’s sense of the term: the “human person” itself, of which both author and the universalized character of the Worker, and the alliance between them, are called into question; here it is “necess[ary] to substitute language itself”—in this case parole in its various anarchic forms—“for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner.”[40] This resistance against the auteur is, for Barthes, emblematic of modern times and modernism: the eruption of the new. It is not merely a moment of resistance against alienation inherent in the class structure—the alienation that Marx analyzed—but the process of resisting the alienation of a racialized class structure: of the opposition of white worker and minstrel. Chaplin the Auteur has produced a film—a series of films—in which the white Tramp or Worker is central, and Black subjects are stereotyped, but with this moment of the Worker’s revolt against the tradition of minstrelsy, the production and reproduction of the centrality of whiteness in the struggle against alienation has been decentered, and for the first time the focus turns from the Worker’s struggle to shine a spotlight on the shared struggle of white workers and workers of color.

This is not to say that Modern Times is an unqualified blow against the racism of blackface minstrelsy. Modern Times does not attain the realization that Robin D. G. Kelley attributes to Chaplin’s contemporary, Claude McKay: far from their role as simulacra of minstrelsy, Kelley writes, Black workers “stood at the fulcrum of class struggle; there could be no successful working-class movement without black workers at the center.”[41] The political ambiguity of Modern Times, noted by so many critics, is finally a contradiction. In the Worker’s moment of nonsense, the logic of the film works against itself. On the one hand, Chaplin the filmmaker seems complicit in racial exclusion and caricature in a twofold sense: in the erasure of the presence and agency of African Americans from his film and in their replacement by white waiters singing minstrel tunes. On the other hand, Charlie the Factory Worker seems to break with Chaplin’s complicity. It is Charlie the Worker, rather than Chaplin the director, who in his nonsense song takes a strange stand against the minstrelsy in the cabaret. Charlie the Worker’s song attempts to break with the logic of minstrelsy, the logic of racism. The moment when the logic of Chaplin’s pantomime breaks down is the moment when Chaplin’s universality disappears and Charlie gains a voice, not of humanity, but of a bewildered Factory Worker who can thus, in his particularity, in his inimitable speech, break with and contest the logic or signifying chain of racism that has reified the white working class.[42] The moment of Chaplin’s failure of universality is the condition of the Worker’s first gestures towards solidarity.

Only in Chaplin’s first fully-fledged sound film, The Great Dictator (1940), would his use of nonsense as a critique of inhumanity attain a precarious kind of coherence.[43] The Worker, having lost his universality, has disappeared and is split between the roles of Jewish Barber and fascist dictator, modeled on Adolf Hitler. In this film, Chaplin plays the dual roles of the Jewish Barber and the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Returning to the association of nonsense with power that he had used in City Lights, in The Great Dictator it is the anti-Semitic, racist dictator who speaks a hilarious nonsense, a bricolage and indeed gibberish of German and English, while the Barber, finally, speaks out eloquently against inhumanity. This is a quasi-intersectional account of inhumanity in the sense that “humanity” here is not a “universal” white subject but acknowledges solidarity across racial or ethnic diversity. In the course of the 1930s with the institutionalization of fascist anti-Semitism, racial oppression had been given a name, racism, and Chaplin implies, in his final speech, that “Jew” and “Black man” occupy a similar position with respect to white supremacy.[44] (This is a progress beyond Chaplin’s universal persona as Tramp or Worker, but also his early exploitation of Jewish stereotypes, as in the pawnbroker and moneylender of his 1916 short film The Pawnshop.)[45] Wearing the guise of Hynkel himself and speaking to the massed crowd at a rally, the Barber makes a stirring call for “universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all”—“Jew, Gentile, Black man and white.” Recalling the opening montage of Modern Times, with its juxtaposition of sheep and factory workers, the Barber tells the mystified masses that “You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!” Yet it is through radio, the medium of sound, that his voice reaches Hannah, the Jewish character played by Paulette Goddard. Here is the final scene with its exhortation to the masses—but specifically to Hannah—to “unite” in the acknowledgement that “We are coming into a new world.” At this moment Chaplin not only acquiesces to sound, as in Modern Times, but embraces its liberatory potential, and his utopian rhetoric exceeds the capacity of the mere exhortation to smile, tracing the gesture with his finger, that he can offer the Gamin at the close of Modern Times. In a sense, by donning the mask of the fascist dictator, the Jewish Barber reverses the logic of minstrelsy: this time it is not the oppressor in the mask of the oppressed; it is the oppressed who, like Bert Williams, unmasks the oppressor’s supreme whiteness.

Chaplin’s achievement in Modern Times, then, is indeed more ambivalent even than critics have supposed: it represents a failure of the Auteur and the contradictory consciousness of the Worker. Chaplin’s repudiation of minstrelsy, indeed an achievement of Hollywood modernism and the cultural front, goes beyond the achievement of Keaton or the Marx Brothers, who seem to poke fun at the facade of greasepaint only for a laugh. Chaplin’s waiters are patently unmasked as they sing minstrel songs, and their fellow Worker sings with a melancholy (“full of nothin’ and pain”) that fills our own laughter with pain, elevating his nonsense to the level of resistance against the nonsense of racism.


[1] Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin (1936; New York: Criterion Collection, 2010), DVD.

[2] Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 205.

[3] Ryan Jay Friedman, Hollywood’s African American Films: The Transition to Sound (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 2011. See especially chapter five.

[4] James Snead, White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side, ed. Colin MacCabe and Cornel West (New York: Routledge, 1994), 52.

[5] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 30.

[6] Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1995), 45–59, 48.

[7] Saverio Giovacchini, Hollywood Modernism: Film and Politics in the Age of the New Deal (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001), 2.

[8] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 2010), 92, 125.

[9] I take this information from the IMDb website. See City Lights, directed by Charlie Chaplin (1931; New York: Criterion Collection, 2013), DVD.

[10] The Kid, directed by Charlie Chaplin (1921: New York: Criterion Collection, 2016), DVD.

[11] According to Peter Ackroyd, Chaplin’s score does draw on the jazz-influenced music of George Gershwin, so the influence of jazz is mediated through a white composer (Peter Ackroyd, Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life [New York: Doubleday, 2014], 203).

[12] Stephen Weissman in Chaplin: A Life (New York: Arcade, 2008) sums up a common line of argument in the statement that “Modern Times . . . was an entirely self-conscious meditation on the most pressing social issue of the day, the Great Depression” (263). See too Garrett Stewart, “Modern Hard Times: Chaplin and the Cinema of Self-Reflection,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 2 (1976), 295–314, 295–96. Mark Winokur also gives a plausible political interpretation of the film: “the oppression of the individual by the political-industrial complex” (“‘Modern Times’ and the Comedy of Transformation” Literature/Film Quarterly 15, no. 4 [1987]: 219–226, 220). Neither Chaplin’s work nor Chaplin’s life has been related to issues of race and racism. Of recent biographies, neither Richard Carr’s Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America (London: Routledge, 2017) nor Simon Louvish’s work Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2009) treats the subject of race.

[13] For example, see Ilka Brasch’s argument in “The Impossibility of Silence in Chaplin’s Modern Times,” Pivot 3, no. 1 (2014): 54–79, 59. Donna Kornhaber’s Charlie Chaplin, Director (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014) does not discuss race, and leaves out any mention of the waiters’ lyrics in her discussion of the “singing waiters” scene.

[14] See Michael North, Machine-Age Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 186, 188.

[15] Acknowledging the ambiguity of the social critique, Charles J. Maland comments on “a confusing mixture” of social critique and “rather typical American optimism” in Modern Times (Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989], 157). Stephen Weissman argues that Chaplin criticizes both “big business” and “strike-happy organized labor” (A Life, 264). Lawrence Howe also criticizes Modern Times for its “ambiguous stance towards its social critique” (“Charlie Chaplin in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Reflective Ambiguity in Modern TimesCollege Literature 40, no. 1 [2013], 45–65, 47). Michael North finds Chaplin ambivalent about technological “progress,” arguing that Chaplin aims “to criticize the machine age directly,” but that this critique is “essentially romantic” (Machine-Age Comedy, 186). Furthermore, North finds a tension between Chaplin’s reliance on and criticism of machines (188). George Potter acknowledges an ambiguity in critical stance of the film but contends that, despite an escapist ending in Modern Times, Chaplin shows a vexed “possibility of progressive comedy”: Chaplin’s works “at least show an attempt to engage the issues of Chaplin’s time coupled with a growing stridency in a period of poverty, mechanization, and violence” (“The Tramp and the Culture Industry: Adorno, Chaplin, and the Possibility of Progressive Comedy,” Arizona Quarterly vol. 69, no. 1 (2013), 73–90, 77). In Modern Times, Potter observes, Chaplin “pointed his finger directly at the upper class and the state in his critique” (“The Tramp and the Culture Industry,” 80). Joyce Milton provides an account of Chaplin’s contemporaries’ perceptions of the film’s political ambiguity (Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin [New York: HarperCollins, 1996], 346–53).

[16] David J. Lemaster, “The Pathos of the Unconscious: Charlie Chaplin and Dreams,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 25, no. 3 (1997), 110–17, 110.

[17] David Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 95.

[18] It must be noted that the Depression’s sorrows were not monolithic but varied and multiple, the unemployment rate for people of color far higher than for their white counterparts, in addition to their second-class and terrorized status, especially in the South (see chapter six of David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]).

[19] Sandra Jean Graham, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 165.

[20] Graham shows a tension in the production of songwriters and performers such as James Bland: “even though some white performers used commercial spirituals as a vehicle for racist commentary, some black performers capitalized on the genre for their own ends” (Spirituals, 180). Considering the example of “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” this “capitalizing” did not, apparently, necessarily entail that such performers removed the racist commentary from their songs, but, as Louis Chude-Sukei argues regarding Black blackface comedian Bert Williams, such commentary may be taken ironically (see The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006]).

[21] In her 1960 recording Nina Simone at Newport, Simone would signify on Bland’s original lyrics to remove the racial slur altogether. The “old folks”—the racial identity of whom was ambiguous in the original lyrics—become “my mother.” In this way, Simone reclaimed the song for a new era, calling on her audience to recognize a song about family and heritage rather than the stripping away of these parts of the past:

In the evening by the moonlight

You could hear banjos ringing

You could hear them by the moonlight

You could hear my folks all singing

How my mother she would enjoy it

She would sit all night and listen

As we sang in the evening by the moonlight. (“In the Evening by the Moonlight,” track seven on Nina Simone at Newport, Colpix, 1960).

[22] See Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[23] I am indebted to Graham for the full text of these lyrics, available here.

[24] For an analysis of the “interruptions” that spark Brecht’s estrangement effects, see Walter Benjamin, “What Is Epic Theater?” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 147–54.

[25] Donna Kornhaber, Charlie Chaplin, Director (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), 215.

[26] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, (New York: The Modern Library, 1906), 83.

[27] Karl Marx, “Alienated Labor,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 265–82, 289. Here, following the line of interpretation by István Mészáros, I assume the continuity and consistency between Marx’s early concept of alienation and later concept of commodity fetishism. For Mészáros, alienation is “the core of Marx’s theory: the basic idea of the Marxian system” (István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation [London: Merlin Press, 1970], 93; emphasis in original).

[28] This analysis holds even if the politically ambiguous Chaplin seemed to recommend ameliorative rather than revolutionary measures to deal with the condition of alienation. In a 1931 interview Chaplin calls for “Shorter hours for the working man, and a minimum wage for both skilled and unskilled labor, which will guarantee every man over the age of twenty-one a salary that will enable him to live decently” (quoted in David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985], 457). According to David Robinson, Chaplin advocated a “capitalist utopianism” of a uniform world currency to relieve Germany’s war reparations burden and was a supporter of FDR and the New Deal (Chaplin: His Life, 458).

[29] See Kornhaber, Charlie Chaplin, 215.

[30] Saussure stipulates that “what we shall designate by the term speech [parole]” is that aspect of language of which “the individual is always master” (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger, trans. and annotated by Roy Harris [Chicago: Open Court, 1986], 13). That is, individuals have control over their own speech (parole), though not over the rules of the system of language (langue) itself: “The language itself is not a function of the speaker. It is the product passively registered by the individual” (14). Saussure insists that “the individual has no power to alter a sign in any respect once it has become established in a linguistic community,” but he is vague about the means by which signs are in fact altered over time, resting his argument with statement that “time changes everything” (68, 77).

[31] Leo Daniderff, Bertral Maubon, and E. Ronn, “Titina (Je cherche après Titine),” (Orono, ME: Vocal Popular Sheet Music Collection, Score 5288, 1922). Here I’m indebted to Robinson, who notes that Chaplin’s song relies on “the tune of Titine” (Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion, 101).

[32] For a theory of “modernist bricolage,” see chapter five of Jahan Ramazani’s A Transnational Poetics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Ramazani finds the relationship between European modernism and postcolonial poets as marked not merely by domination but bricolage and exchange. Although Chaplin’s use of the songs of minstrelsy in the waiters’ performance is a troubling form of bricolage, the Worker’s own bricolage lyrics of the song “Titine” arguably breaks with the logic of minstrelsy.

[33] Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 38.

[34] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1995), 581.

[35] Geoffrey Jacques, A Change in the Weather: Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 1, 3.

[36] Jessie Fauset, “The Symbolism of Bert Williams,” The Crisis 24, no. 1 (1922), 12–15, 12.

[37] For the original lyrics, see Williams and Rogers, “Nobody” (New York: Crown Music/Attucks Music Publishing Company, 1905), available online at the DigitalCommons at UMaine. The 1906 recording is available on YouTube.

[38] Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 5.

[39] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 6.

[40] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142–48, 143.

[41] Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2002), 47.

[42] See Roland Barthes’s argument that Chaplin’s persona is most powerful when speaking from a position of “mystification” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, [New York: Hill and Wang, 1972], 39). But, as I have argued, the moment when the Factory Worker attains a voice is a kind of break with this mystification.

[43] The Great Dictator, directed by Charlie Chaplin (1940; New York: Criterion Collection, 2011), DVD.

[44] According to George M. Fredrickson, “The word ‘racism’ first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews” (Racism: A Short History [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002], 5). Fredrickson gives an account of the intertwined stories of anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism. He argues that anti-Semitism was the nascent form of racism and that the twentieth century was the culmination of the modern development of racism in the form of white supremacist regimes such as the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany.

[45] The Pawnshop, directed by Charlie Chaplin (1916; Los Angeles, CA: Mutual Film Corporation),