Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Blu-ray (1936/2010)
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Studio: Chaplin/Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 543 [11/16/10]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W
Audio: PCM mono
Extras: Commentary track by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, Two visual essays by Chaplin historians, New featurette on the film’s visual ideas, special effects and sound effects, 1992 interview with film’s music arranger David Raksin plus sel. from original orchestral track, Two segments cut from the film, “All at Sea” – 8mm home movie shot by Alistair Cooke with Chaplin & Goddard, New score by Donald Sosin, New interview with Cooke’s daughter, “The Rink” – Chaplin two-reeler, “For the First Time” – 1967 Cuban short about first-time audience seeing Modern Times, “Chaplin Today: Modern Times” – 2003 TV special with French filmmakers, three theatrical trailers, Illustrated booklet with essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz, and article about Chaplin’s 1930s world tour.
Length: 87 minutes
This was Chaplin’s last appearance on screen as his famous Little Tramp character, and though made nearly a decade into the sound era, is regarded not only as the last great silent film but one of the greatest films ever made. It has a much more involved plot than other Chaplin films and in a way deals with similar big concerns such as industrialization and dehumanization – also dealt with in an entirely different way in another great silent film, the German Metropolis. But unlike the dour Germans, Modern Times is thoroughly hilarious, in the style of the best of Chaplin’s Little Tramp movies.
It was shot in the midst of the Depression, and that comes thru strongly with scenes of destitute, out-of-work people, protest parades, riots being brutally squelched by the police, the two main characters being penniless, homeless and at odds with the law – depending only on one another. The mix of touching concern, tragedy and humor is amazingly well brought off, and hasn’t aged a bit. When it’s accompanied by Chaplin’s own most memorable song “Smile” on the soundtrack, the combination is overwhelmingly emotional. Paulette Goddard, who was Chaplin’s companion at the time, is gorgeous and equally adept in her gamin role.
Several of the scenes have become some of the best-known and often-referred-to in any films. Of course the most famous would be Charlie as the put-upon factory worker flowing thru the giant gears of the machinery, turning the nuts with his wrenches. As well as chasing the women wearing big buttons with his spastic factory wrench-turning. One never finds out exactly what the big factory makes – something to do with steel, but it doesn’t matter – it represents the worst evils of blind industrialization at all cost. Then there is the scene with the pastor’s wife and their embarrassing indigestion. And the one where Charlie innocently picks up a red flag that has fallen off the back of truck and is waving it to get the driver’s attention, but suddenly a mass march of communist workers is behind him and he looks like their leader. Who would have thought that this 1936 film would touch on both communism and cocaine? The extra concerning Chaplin’s special effects was fascinating; one doesn’t usually connect them with his films, but he used them most effectively. The two French fiilmmakers in the extras analyze some of his gags and even show how Chaplin instructed his cinematographer to crank the camera at various specific speeds to get different effects when they were projected at 18 frames.
An original opening scene in Chaplin’s earlier City Lights had the mayor and a lady delivering speeches before the unveiling of a new statue, but their voices are merely gibberish sounds. Chaplin did similar parodies of the "talkies" in this film. His forte was pantomime and he wanted films to stay silent forever. And near the conclusion he actually sings for the first time – but in faux Italian nonsense syllables. (I think that bit goes on too long, but at the time it provided an amazing surprise to audiences.) The only real dialog heard in the film comes from the voice of the factory owner during his videos on the wall, from a wind-up gramophone, or from a radio. The rest is intertitles.
This is the only Blu-ray I’ve reviewed recently in which I viewed every one of the extras, and they were all fascinating. The little silent movie shot by young Alistair Cooke of a sail on Charlie’s yacht to Catalina Island is a kick, the Cuban film of natives who have never seen a movie before viewing Modern Times is most touching. The documentary as well as one of the essays goes into Chaplin’s 16-month tour of Europe and the Far East in the early 30s and how it affected his ideas about humanity and the downtrodden. Einstein, Ghandi and H.G. Wells were among his good friends. Though that was not the beginning of Chaplin’s outspokeness about the human condition – the documentary reveals that the FBI started a file on him in 1919. He originally shot the scene of the burglars stealing things in the department store while Charlie the nightwatchman drunkenly stood by. But then he reconsidered and reshot it with the men confessing to Charlie, “We’re not burglars – we’re just hungry!” A wonderful satirical touch – presaging his parody of Hitler in The Great Dictator four years later – was that he selected an actor for the stentorian owner of the big factory that looked exactly like a cross between Joh Fredersen of Metropolis and Henry Ford! This was after Ford had given Chaplin a proud personal tour of his factory.
Criterion’s restoration work – which was done in Italy – is absolutely superb. One doesn’t notice any flicker as with most other silents, but Modern Times is basically a sound film that is projected at 24 frames per second. The images are super-clear, with plenty of grey tones. Who says black & white films don’t benefit from Blu-ray? The re-done soundtrack is also excellent, and not being Dolby mono it can be ported thru ProLogic II Matrix to spread it around your surround speakers and not be stuck just on the center channel. The music has a greater role in this mostly silent film than in most films, and brings the whole experience to life.
— John Sunier