Classic Cinema of the American Worker

Chaplin becomes part of the machine.
Chaplin becomes part of the machine. Via The Red List.

This month Fresno Filmworks is proud to present “Two Days, One Night”. This award winning film starring international sensation Marion Cotillard, follows a young woman as she struggles to save her job by connecting to her fellow workers. “Two Days, One Night” examines how our work defines us and gives us a sense of community and what happens to us when that is taken away.

That same push and pull between the value of individuals and the demands of the work place has been a subject of fascination to American filmmakers since the beginning of Hollywood. Two of the most iconic films about the struggle to remain human amid increasing economic demands have been beautifully curated for modern audiences by the Criterion Collection.

“Modern Times”

In his classic silent film, “Modern Times”, Charlie Chaplin explores how the  work environment can overwhelm the individual rendering us more machine than human. “Modern Times” is widely considered the last major silent film. The film itself is actually a hybrid with a limited amount of spoken dialogue. Chaplin stars as his most famous creation, The Little Tramp. The Tramp starts this film as a worker trying to keep up with his factory job. As the factory seeks to become even more efficient and profitable the Tramp is sucked into its mechanics and suffers a nervous breakdown at the loss of his identity. After escaping, his attempts to reconnect with humanity lead to a strike and being arrested as an agitator.

The films takes a comically sympathetic view of the often dangerous conditions that factory workers had to endure and the growing socialist movement in the United States in the 1930s. Like many of Chaplin’s films, the broad physical comedy is used as a tool for a nuanced social commentary. The plight of the poor, unequal power balances between workers and employers, and the often misguided attempts of middle class charity are all targets of Chaplin’s satirical eye.

“On the Waterfront”

1954’s “On the Waterfront” is one of the early films that transformed Marlon Brando from a rising actor into an iconic symbol of American cinema. Director Elia Kazan cast Brando in the career making role of Terry Malloy, an ex-prize fighter turned union dock worker. Brando’s depiction of Malloy as he wrestles with the moral dilemma of standing up to a corrupt union or keeping his head down and protecting himself, is a classic example of the new school of method acting that was transforming cinema at the time. Terry Malloy embodies the modern American man struggling with how to remain moral in a rapidly changing post-war nation that seemed to have fewer heroes than ever before. “On the Waterfront” became a symbol to a generation of Americans trying to determine how to be a contender in a new society.


Fae Giffen studies at San Jose State in the School of Library and Information Science graduate program. She serves on the Filmworks board, working on marketing and development.