The Way It Was — Charlie Chaplin in Metro Detroit

By Bill Dow

As a guest of the Detroit Board of Commerce, which honored him at a dinner banquet at the Board of Commerce Building, the “Little Tramp” first met with students at seven local schools and told a group of children, “Health is a state of mind, … and laughter is the best tonic that I can suggest.”

Chaplin later met with acting Mayor John C. Lodge at City Hall, then visited the Cadillac plant and posed with General Motors Co. executives at the newly opened GM Building. Finally, he toured Ford Motor Co.’s Highland Park factory with Henry Ford and his son, company President Edsel Ford, pictured here with Chaplin, where the actor witnessed the production of the Model T.

As the birthplace of the assembly line, the factory nicknamed the Crystal Palace for the many glass windows in its roofs and walls, saw the production of a million Model Ts from 1910 until production ceased in 1927.

Upon meeting Chaplin, Henry Ford said, “I have come 10 miles from Dearborn to see you.” Chaplin retorted, “That’s nothing. I came all the way from Los Angeles to see you.” When they said their goodbyes, Ford told Chaplin, “You keep on making us laugh.”

Ford may not have been chuckling 13 years later when the film was released.

Largely inspired by his visit with the Fords at the auto factory that gave wheels to the world, in 1936 Chaplin released Modern Times, a satirical look at industrialization and the frantic pace of the assembly line and his last movie as the Little Tramp. The dictatorial head of the fictitious Electro Steel Corp. bears a striking resemblance to Henry Ford, while the exterior factory shot shows a building that could pass for the Highland Park plant.

Four years earlier, the Detroit Institute of Arts, through funding from Edsel Ford, commissioned frescoes from Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who produced his iconic — but at the time controversial — Detroit Industry Murals that largely depict factory laborers at Ford’s River Rouge plant.

This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition. Plus, find even more The Way It Was articles at

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