Outside the jail, he discovers life is harsh, and attempts to get arrested after failing to get a decent job. He soon runs into an orphan girl (the "gamine"), played by Paulette Goddard, who is fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread. To save the girl he tells police that he is the thief and ought to be arrested. However, a witness reveals his deception and he is freed. In order to get arrested again, he eats an enormous amount of food at a cafeteria without paying. He meets up with the gamine in the paddy wagon, which crashes, and they escape. Dreaming of a better life, he gets a job as a night watchman at a department store, sneaks the gamine into the store and even lets burglars have some food. Waking up the next morning in a pile of clothes, he is arrested once more.
Ten days later, the gamine takes him to a new home - a run-down shack which she admits "isn't Buckingham Palace" but will do. The next morning, Chaplin reads about a new factory and lands a job there. He gets his boss trapped in machinery, but manages to extricate him. The other workers decide to go on strike. Accidentally paddling a brick into a policeman, he is arrested again. Two weeks later, he is released and learns that the gamine is a café dancer, and she tries to get him a job as a singer. By night, he becomes an efficient waiter though he finds it difficult to tell the difference between the "in" and "out" doors to the kitchen, or to successfully deliver a roast duck to table. During his floor show, he loses a cuff that bears the lyrics of his song, but he rescues his act by improvising the words in gibberish while pantomiming. His act proves a hit. When police arrive to arrest the gamine for her earlier escape, they escape again. Finally, we see them walking down a road at dawn, towards an uncertain but hopeful future.
Chaplin began preparing the film in 1934 as his first "talkie", and went as far as writing a dialogue script and experimenting with some sound scenes. However, he soon abandoned these attempts and reverted to a silent format with synchronized sound effects. The dialogue experiments confirmed his long-standing conviction that the universal appeal of the Tramp would be lost if the character ever spoke on screen. Indeed, this film marks the Tramp's last screen appearance, and is arguably the final film of the silent era. Most of the film was shot at "silent speed", 18 frames per second, which when projected at "sound speed", 24 frames per second, makes the slapstick action appear even more frenetic. Available prints of the film now correct this.
Although not a "talkie", Modern Times includes a synchronized sound track featuring a musical score (composed by Chaplin), foley effects, singers and voices coming from radios, loudspeakers and a Telescreen in the washroom. Towards the end of the film the Tramp's voice is heard for the first time as he ad-libs pseudo-French and Italian gibberish to the tune of Léo Daniderff's popular song Je cherche après Titine.
The reference to drugs seen in the prison sequence is somewhat daring for the time (since the production code, established in 1930, forbade the depiction of illegal drug use in films); Chaplin had made drug references before in one of his most famous short films Easy Street, released in 1917.
In fact, according to film composer David Raksin, the music was written by him, as a young and keen composer wanting to make a name for himself. Chaplin would sit (often in the washroom), humming tunes, and telling Raksin to "take this down". Then, Raksin's job was to turn the humming into a score, and create timings and synchronization that fit the situations. Chaplin was a clever violinist and knew something about music, but he was not an orchestrator, knew nothing about synchronization, and was incapable of writing music for this film. The song, "Smile", was composed by him, however. Raksin went on to create scores for such films as Laura and The Day After.