Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is one of the paragons of silent comedy — that it was created nearly a decade into the sound era is a testament both to Chaplin’s stubbornness and the virtuosity of his craft. His iconic Little Tramp was a pure expression of Chaplin’s wit and charm, unencumbered by the need for speech, and this swan song for the character measures up as one of the greatest accomplishments for Chaplin the actor and Chaplin the director.
Equally effective as physical comedy, heartfelt drama and ironic commentary, Modern Times does feature moments that bridge the gap between silent and sound cinema, with judicious uses of synchronous sound to accentuate the film’s themes of mechanization and its corresponding dehumanization. Structured episodically, the film retains a cogent and compelling subtext about the marginalization of the common man in the industrial era. Chaplin was an enormously intelligent filmmaker, and his ability to make an audience laugh, feel and think all at the same time is perhaps at its apex with this film.
The Little Tramp begins the film as an assembly line worker in a factory, turning screws all day long until the tyranny of the job causes him to have a nervous breakdown. Ordered around by a Big Brother-like figure on video screens (one of the few uses of synchronous sound), subjected to a preposterous mechanical feeding machine and eventually becoming part of the machinery itself in the film’s most famous scene, the worker gets put through the ringer.
After a stay in a mental hospital, the Tramp is released into the world, where he is promptly mistaken as a Communist leader (a charge Chaplin endured in real life) and put in jail. Accidental cocaine ingestion leads to a heroic jailbreak prevention that lands him back on the streets again, where he meets a starving gamine (Paulette Goddard, soon to be Chaplin’s common law wife) in whom he finds a common soul — mischievous, adventurous and marginalized by society.
Throughout the rest of the film, the Tramp struggles to find work amidst the devastation of the Great Depression and bounces in and out of prison, with the gamine always ready to collect him when he’s released. Together, the two dream of making a new life for themselves, and their optimism remains intact up through the film’s downbeat, but hopeful conclusion.
Modern Times is a masterpiece of tone, with Chaplin knowing just when to transition from sly jabs at modern society to sweetly sentimental (although not really romantic) moments between the leading characters. The film’s finale in a crowded restaurant juggles subtle wit and outright farce with amazingly adroit timing. Chaplin was one of cinema’s greatest artists, and Modern Times will always endure as one of his greatest accomplishments.
The Blu-ray Disc
Modern Times is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This is the first in what will be a number of Chaplin Blu-rays from Criterion, and it sets the bar high with this newly restored version of the film from a 2K digital master. This print is pristine, with hardly a trace of damage of any kind to be found. The image displays fantastic contrast, with deep blacks, bright whites and a whole host of grays rounding out the finely detailed spectrum. The visual presentation retains a wonderful layer of film grain, and the image remains totally consistent throughout. This is easily the best this film has ever looked on any home presentation.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that is very clean and free from any background hums or hisses. The synchronous sound moments come off quite well — not tinny, but rather sounding naturally integrated with Chaplin’s score.
Criterion has gathered a really nice selection of supplements for this release, with quite a few new ones that were produced exclusively for this edition, including an audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, two fantastic visual essays — one by Jeffrey Vance that uses production stills to recount the making of the film and one by John Bengtson that tours the locations used in the film and what they look like today — and a featurette on the film’s innovative visual and sound effects by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, both of whom have worked on the Star Wars films, among many others.
Also newly produced is an interview with Susan Cooke Kittredge, the daughter of journalist Alistair Cooke, to accompany the newly found home movie All at Sea, which features Cooke alongside Chaplin and Goddard on a boat trip. A new score by Donald Sosin can be played with the film.
A 1992 interview with music arranger David Raskin features him talking about his contributions to the score, with an exceprt from the film’s original orchestral track included. There are also two brief deleted scenes — a completely silent sequence where the Tramp struggles to understand the ins and the outs of crossing a busy street and an extended cut of his song in the restaurant.
A unique inclusion is a brief Cuban documentary from the 1960s, For the First Time, which shows a group of people seeing their first movie ever — Modern Times. The disc also includes an appreciation of the film from 2003 with French filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers, three theatrical trailers and the Chaplin two-reeler The Rink from 1916, which presages some of the gags and ideas seen in Modern Times.
The set also includes a booklet with essays by critic Saul Austerlitz and scholar Lisa Stein.
The Bottom Line
Criterion getting a hold of the Chaplin films is one of the most exciting pieces of news on the classic film front from the past year. This first release makes it clear — Chaplin fans have a lot to look forward to.