Modern Times

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin (A Factory Worker), Paulette Goddard (A Gamin), Henry Bergman (Cafe Proprietor), Stanley Sandford (Big Bill), Chester Conklin (Mechanic), Hank Mann (Burglar), Stanley Blystone (Gamin’s Father), Allan Garcia (President of the Electro Steel Corp.), Dick Alexander (Prison Cellmate), Cecil Reynolds (Minister), Myra McKinney (Minister’s Wife), Murdoch McQuarrie (J. Widdecombe Billows), Wilfred Lucas (Juvenile Officer), Ed Le Saint (Sheriff Couler), Fred Malatesta (Cafe Head Waiter), Sammy Stein (Turbine Operator)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: U.S.
Modern Times Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Modern TimesAlthough it arrived in theaters in February of 1936, nearly a full decade after The Jazz Singer made its New York debut in October of 1927 and set off an escalating rush in Hollywood to convert to synchronized sound, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is usually considered the last commercially produced silent film in the U.S., and the fact that it is one of Chaplin’s great masterpieces is testament to both his artistic resilience in the face of industry change and the enduring power of great silent comedy.

Modern Times was Chaplin’s seventh feature film; he had been directing himself in dozens of comedic short films (one- and two-reelers) since 1914, but had shifted to feature films starting with The Kid in 1921. As a result, by the early 1930s he was one of the most recognized and wealthiest men in the world, and Modern Times was particularly anticipated since he had been absent from the screen for five years. When it was released, the film divided critics and audiences, likely because it was fundamentally a transition film for Chaplin. It marked the last appearance of his indomitable, beloved Little Tramp character, thus marking the end of an era; at the same time, it opened a new epoch in Chaplin’s career as he used it to experiment with synchronized sound, adapting the new technology to his well-worn comedic style, thus creating a kind of hybrid film that is part sound, part silent, both modern and antiquated.

Critics and historians have long argued about the precise meaning of the film’s opening title card: “The story of industry, of individual enterprise--humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” The ideas in Modern Times emerged from Chaplin’s having observed the effects of the worldwide depression during his travels in 1931 and 1932, and it was understandably received as a film with a specific social/political agenda, something that Chaplin had never done outright. The opening title suggests as much, with its references to “industry,” “humanity,” and “happiness,” three pillars of the American dream that were sorely lacking during the Great Depression, and Chaplin visually confirms the film’s social bent with an opening shot that dissolves from similar-looking workers bustling out of a subway station to a herd of sheep. Yet, Chaplin was reluctant to label the film a “social satire” or anything that reeked of a message. As he put it in a 1931 interview during the first stage of his world tour, “I am always suspicious of a picture with a message.”

Yet, Modern Times is clearly a “picture with a message,” built as it is from a series of loosely connected sequences that all revolve around pressing social and economic issues. It was the first film in which Chaplin openly depicted the Great Depression (although homelessness, hunger, and quiet desperation were frequent themes in his films), and he pushed political boundaries with many of the film’s jokes, including one in which the Tramp picks up a flag that fell off the back of a truck and accidentally begins leading a labor march that culminates in his being arrested for being a “communist,” a label that had been applied to Chaplin more than once and would eventually lead to his being expelled from the country in 1952.

The film begins in a massive, almost futuristic factory (we never know what is being produced, which is part of the point) where Chaplin’s Little Tramp (identified in the credits as “A Factor Worker”) is essentially enslaved to the nonstop movement of an assembly line. The film’s most famous bits occur in this opening segment, with Charlie getting drawn into the massive cogs of the machinery and eventually losing his mind from the repetition of his work. Like most of Chaplin’s previous features, the Tramp is given a sidekick of sorts, in this case a homeless teenage girl known as the Gamine (Paulette Goddard, who at the time was Chaplin’s third wife). However, unlike previous sidekicks, the Gamine is very much her own character, as much in control of her destiny as the Tramp (his equal in virtually every since), and she is given appropriate treatment visually and narratively (I don’t think any of Chaplin’s films involve as many close-ups as this one, testament to both Goddard’s rich screen presence and Chaplin’s romantic infatuation with her at the time). The relationship between the Tramp and the Gamine is kept purely plutonic, removing any hint of sexuality and effectively imbuing it with a natural sweetness and innocence that underscores the film’s poignant portrayal of fundamental human desire for personal freedom and interpersonal connection.

Narratively, Modern Times is a step back from the more organically structured story in Chaplin’s previous feature City Lights (1931), although its semi-structured, episodic approach works for the material, allowing Chaplin to engage in all kinds of comedy and social commentary without having to tie it together too neatly. Thus, the Tramp’s disastrous turn at the factory is followed by sojourns in prison, working as a nightwatchman in a department store, returning to the factory as a mechanic’s assistant, and finally working as a waiter in a low-rent café where the Gamine has been hired as a dancing girl. Chaplin works the comedic potential of each situation in different ways, deploying high-energy slapstick humor in the factory while introducing a seemingly death-defying stunt in the department store that is actually a clever combination of camera angles and a glass matte painting. Even though he was encroaching on 50 years of age, Chaplin has never seemed more lithe, limber, and in control of his physical presence, whether he be roller-skating, prat-falling, strapped into an absurd “feeding machine,” or responding to threats with his unique mixture of external submission and behind-the-back defiance.

Of course, the fact that Modern Times uses as much sound as it does deserves mention, if only to illustrate how deftly Chaplin was able to deploy the new technologies while maintaining the purity of his silent art. There are human voices throughout the film, but aside from the scene in which the Tramp sings a nonsensical ditty in the café, all the voices are heard through some kind of mediating technology (an intercom system, a phonograph, etc.). As he had in City Lights, Chaplin used a synchronized soundtrack for the film’s carefully composed and arranged music while also employing strategic sound effects for comedic purpose, which range from the mechanical noises in the factory to the Tramp’s embarrassing flatulence (thus making Modern Times the first film to employ a fart joke). Had the sound stood out too much or dominated the visuals, Modern Times might have felt like a concession. Instead, it is one of Chaplin’s masterpieces, a film of timeless human comedy and social observation that is both firmly rooted in its time and place, yet destined to be universal in its humor and emotional impact.

Modern Times Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Modern Times is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP $29.95).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson
  • Two new visual essays by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance
  • New program on the film’s visual and sound effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
  • 1992 interview music arranger David Raksin, plus a selection from the film’s original orchestral track
  • Two segments cut from the film
  • All at Sea (1933), a home movie by Alistair Cooke featuring Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard, with a new score by Donald Sosin and a new interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge
  • The Rink (1916), a Chaplin two-reeler
  • For the First Time (1967), a short Cuban documentary about first-time moviegoers seeing Modern Times
  • “Chaplin Today: Modern Times” (2003) featurette with filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
  • Three theatrical trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz and a piece by film scholar Lisa Stein that includes excerpts from Chaplin’s writing about his 1930s world tour
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 16, 2010

    Criterion’s restored 2K-resolution digital transfer, which was created in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive that was wetgated from the original 35mm camera negative. The 1080p image (which is not windowboxed, although it is on the DVD) looks absolutely marvelous. As a result of digital restoration, the image is amazingly clean, especially for a film that is nearly 75 years old. Detail and contrast are excellent (the black levels are particularly impressive and improve quite a bit on previous releases), and the film maintains its inherent grain structure, which makes you feel like you’re watching a 35mm print rather than a digital disc. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is presented in linear PCM and sounds wonderful. The soundtrack is clean and smooth, with digital restoration having removed virtually all instances of hiss, crackling, and pops. The clarity of the soundtrack allows you to fully appreciate the detail of the film’s sound work, which is often sparse, but extremely effective.
    The supplemental material offers a wide range of approaches to understanding what Chaplin accomplished in Modern Times, which should satiate long-time fans of Chaplin’s work and help those who may be unfamiliar better understand why his work is so legendary. Much of the supplementary material has been drawn from Warners’ “Chaplin Collection” DVD from 2003, but quite a bit of it is new to this release. The new material begins with an audio commentary by film critic David Robinson, who wrote the definitive biography of Charlie Chaplin using unfettered access to the Chaplin estate that has been denied to almost everyone else. Thus, Robinson has particularly keen and well-researched insight into both Chaplin the man and the film. In addition, there are two new visual essays by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance (each about 15 minute long) that help situate the film historically, socially, and aesthetically, thus increasing our appreciation of Chaplin’s achievement that much more. Bengston’s essay focuses on the locations around Los Angeles where the film was shot and juxtaposes photographs of those locations in the 1930s with photos of what they look like now, while Vance’s is more of a close visual and historical analysis. Another new treat is a 20-minute interview with visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt, who explain the tricks behind the film’s visual and sound effects. From the archives, Criterion has dug up All at Sea (1933), a home movie by journalist Alistair Cooke (with whom Chaplin was working on a film about Napoleon) that was shot with Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on-board Chaplin’s boat. It includes a new score by Donald Sosin and also a new interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge. Criterion has also included The Rink, a Chaplin two-reeler from 1916 that looks like it could stand some restoration. From the earlier disc we get “Chaplin Today: Modern Times,” a featurette in which filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne talk about their appreciation for the film, and a 1992 interview with music arranger David Raksin, plus a selection from the film’s original orchestral track. The disc also includes two segments that were cut from the film, which is apparently all that is left of the many hours of footage that Chaplin shot, but didn’t use. For the First Time is an intriguing 1967 short Cuban documentary about a group of travelling film distributors who show Modern Times in a small mountain village where most of the residents had never seen a movie. Finally, the disc includes three theatrical trailers, while the insert booklet gives us an essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz and a piece by film scholar Lisa Stein that includes excerpts from Chaplin’s writing about his 1930s world tour.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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