Criterion // 1936 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 24th, 2010
Laugh, cry and thrill to his genius!
"Buck up -- never say die. We'll get along."
A factory worker (Charlie Chaplin, City Lights) suffers a nervous breakdown due to his intense job on a production line, and loses his job as a result. Unfortunately, the depression makes finding a new job a real challenge. Over the next few months, the factory worker finds himself tackling new jobs, facing imprisonment and falling in love with a local gamine (Paulette Goddard, The Women). Will he ever find steady employment and some measure of peace?
Modern Times is something of an oddity; a silent film of sorts made in a time when silent films were all but dead. Sure, there's an orchestral score, some sound effects, a few lines of dialogue and even a couple of musical numbers...but in spirit, it's a silent film (relying on dialogue cards as frequently as possible). It is the last of Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" films, and one of his best.
The film has been hailed as one of Chaplin's most thought-provoking and socially-relevant efforts. Critics have elaborated (and continue to do so in this excellent release from Criterion) on the manner in which American class warfare of the Great Depression is analyzed, on the way the film humorously but intelligently explores the complicated relationship between man and machinery and in the way it passionately depicts the unfortunate social conditions that destroyed the lives of innocent, hard-working people. Chaplin was a smart, socially conscious individual and the intellectual subtext of Modern Times is definitely intentional, but let me make one thing clear: this is first and foremost an immensely entertaining motion picture.
It seems just about every modern review of any Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film jumps into the "who is the true champion of silent comedy?" debate, and I feel obliged to offer my two cents: Keaton is slightly better on a technical level, but Chaplin's films are funnier. There's so much comic gold to be found in Modern Times, from the opening assembly line sequence to the cocaine-fueled prison scene to the Little Tramp's desperate, unsuccessful efforts to carry a roast duck from one side of the room to the other. Chaplin spent an inordinate amount of time and money on the film, and it shows: every throwaway gag and piece of slapstick has been specifically choreographed to elicit as much laughter as possible out of each comic situation. Some silent comedies are better appreciated than enjoyed, but this isn't one of them; it's genuinely hilarious from start to finish.
Some have suggested that the romantic subplot between the Little Tramp and the gamine distracts from the film's larger purpose and doesn't quite fit with the rest of the movie, but such readings fail to take into account the radiance Paulette Goddard brings to the film. She's given a sublime introduction; grinning madly, her sparkling eyes wide open, holding a knife between her teeth like some sort of homeless pirate and tossing stolen bananas to hungry waifs. The actress has never been better, and her scenes with Chaplin have a surprisingly potent tenderness. The Little Tramp's world is one of endless misery, and the ray of sunshine Goddard brings to his life has an intoxicating effect on both the character and the audience.
The brilliance of Chaplin's film is in the way it manages to be both a great social commentary and a relentlessly entertaining comedy. On a surface level, the film is so consistently amusing that one is too caught up in the delights of the moment to really contemplate the subtext. Even so, there are images and scenes that linger with us after the laughter has died down. When the film has concluded, the slyly profound nature of what Chaplin has achieved begins to sink in. Modern Times is masterful filmmaking on every level.
The 1080p full-frame transfer is quite good for a film nearly 75 years old, offering excellent detail and minimal scratches, flecks, dirt and grime. There are occasional bits of damage that simply couldn't be corrected (note the black marks at the top of the screen during the final reel), but nothing distractingly bad. Blacks are quite deep throughout, while shadow delineation is pretty impressive. There's a minor level of natural grain present throughout. The audio is quite sturdy, presenting Chaplin's fine score in crisp detail. What little dialogue there is comes through with complete clarity (absolutely no hissing or crackling), while the sound effects are equally sharp.
The supplemental package is particularly strong, giving Chaplin fans plenty to explore after they've finished the film. Things kick off with an excellent audio commentary from Chaplin biographer David Robinson, who explores just about every angle of the film in a precise, engaging manner. Next up are two informative visual essays: "Modern Times: A Closer Look" (17 minutes) and "Silent Traces: Modern Times" (16 minutes). In the former, Jeffrey Vance spends a good deal of time discussing Chaplin's relationship with Goddard, while the latter permits John Bengtson to explore the locations of the film. "A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte" (21 minutes) is a fascinating featurette in which Ben Burtt and Craig Barron explore the visual and sound effects of the film, while "David Raksin and the Score" (16 minutes) offers a 1992 interview with the composer/arranger.
Next up is "The Rink" (25 minutes), a Chaplin two-reeler from 1916. It's basic Chaplin slapstick, but still well worth a look. "All at Sea" (32 minutes) offers some silent footage of Chaplin shot by journalist Alistair Cooke, along with an interview with Cooke's daughter Susan Cooke Kittredge. "Two Bits" (7 minutes) presents two sequences which were deleted from Modern Times, while "For the First Time" (10 minutes) documents the reactions of assorted audiences in Cuba witnessing the film...well, for the first time. "Chaplin Today: Modern Times" (28 minutes) is a French television program in which directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne discuss and analyze the film. Finally, you get three theatrical trailers and a booklet featuring essays by Saul Austerlitz and Lisa Stein.
A great film gets a great Blu-ray release. What more could you ask for? Here's hoping that this is the first in a long line of Chaplin releases from Criterion.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Visual Essays
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Film
* TV Program