Modern Times: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Charlie Chaplin, according to Roger Ebert, was the most famous person in the world for the first half of the twentieth century. That may or not be true (or a slight exaggeration on fact), but it’s unquestionable to deny the sheer genius and pathos of the man. Chaplin was somewhat always in contention with another silent film great, Buster Keaton. In the last few years, Keaton has been recognized as the superior filmmaker, but the two’s talents as comics are undeniably debatable until someone is blue in the face. “Modern Times” is in many ways Chaplin’s best film for a few reasons…First, he SPEAKS! Yes, after movie after movie, we finally hear Charlie Chaplin (as the Tramp) sing his nonsense song. Second, this film seemed to say a bit more than his others; after this he made The Great Dictator which was a blatant assault on Hitler. While it was true that he was just one man, what an impact that one man had on the entire world. With this film, Chaplin was coming to the end of his career; in that the silent movies were all but a thing of the past. In 1936 (when this movie was made) talkies had been the Hollywood standard for nearly a decade, yet though the sound effects were present and there was talking in it, it was for the most part a silent movie.

Assuming that you’ve never viewed a Charlie Chaplin movie, then this might be a good one to start out with. However, the film is considered great as it is funny, but it’s more than just a typical comedy. In 1936, we were in the middle of the great depression. People were hungry, out of work and homes and literally living on the street. Chaplin plays his character of the Tramp who we meet while working in a factory. The film was meant to make a mockery out of the industrial progress that we were making by showing the boss as a Big Brother figure. The Tramp resorts to madness as an escape from the monotony of his job of tightening bolts on an assembly line. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the Tramp literally gets sucked into the machine and gets caught in the gears (only to be backed out again). He then is taken away to a mental ward where he is released and told to avoid excitement. Naturally it’s only a few minutes later that he’s mistaken for the leader of a union strike and then taken into jail (the first of many times) where he seems to fit in. After saving the lives of the policemen, he is released with a note from the sheriff, thus guaranteeing him work in places where others might not find it. This, though, is just half of the story. We also meet a gamin (Paulette Goddard) who resorts to stealing food for her family and we watch as she witnesses her father murdered. Hungry and tired, she steals a loaf of bread and is caught only to meet the Tramp who attempts to try and take the blame for her.

Chaplin’s movies are often marked with a muse and his long-time wife, Paulette Goddard, fits the role nicely here. The two keep bumping into each other until they’re both out of work and hungry. The Tramp, though sheer luck, manages to get a job at a department store (after the night watchman had broken his leg) and invites the gamin to work with him. There she gets a good night’s sleep and he can do his job with a paycheck to look forward to. Naturally, the Tramp messes this job up too and is fired after he is found underneath a stack of clothes, hungover from the night before. Finally, their luck starts to turn around as the gamin finds a job singing and dancing at a local café. Once the Tramp is released from jail, she recruits him to sing and dance with him; hence the famous scene where we hear the Tramp talk!

Video: How does it look?

“Modern Times” is an old movie and there’s no denying that. For its debut on Blu-ray it’s been given a brand new 2K restoration that breathes a little new life into the transfer. Naturally the 1.33:1 full-frame transfer looks the best it ever has. There is a bit of noise and grain throughout the film, but considering the age of the film, it was expected. What impressed me was the smoothness that gave it a more film like look. While the standard DVD looked good, this Blu-ray does make the proper improvements. The black levels are deep and rich and contrast is improved over the standard DVD as well. Naturally we lose the entire color spectrum with the black and white transfer, but suffice it to say that the film has never looked better.

Audio: How does it sound?

I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but this contains a DTS HD Master audio uncompressed mono track. That’s a mouthful to say about an audio track concerning a movie that’s for the most part, silent! Still, the associated score does sound fairly good and when we hear the tramp speak it does seem to resonate. Again, considering the age of the movie, the bar is set pretty low and Criterion did do a good job at restoring the soundtrack. One doesn’t usually associate a Chaplin movie with sound, but this one is certainly the exception.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This movie was originally released by Warner back in 2003 and while that version contained some ample supplements, Criterion has long since proven that they go above and beyond the bare minimum when it comes to their titles. This Blu-ray does contain some of those previously-released supplements, but some new content has been added as well. We start off with a new commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. It’s an interesting track and Mr. Robinson certainly knows what he’s talking about here. “Modern Times”: A Closer Look is a 15 minute discussion dealing with the making of this classic and is new as well (made in 2010). A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte: Special Effects in “Modern Times” has Ben Burtt and Craig Barron give us their viewpoints on the visual and special effects of the film. Silent Traces: “Modern Times” John Bengston explains how the different locales are engrained in Hollywood lore. We also get a look back by composer David Raskin and his reflections on his work on the film. We also get nine other isolated bits of the soundtrack from the factory sequence. We get a couple of deleted scenes Crossing the Street and The Tramp’s Song. We also get an eighteen minute silent film with the score being optional with Charlie Chaplin and his wife (at the time) on a weekend sailing adventure. Rounding out the supplements is The Rink in which we see the Tramp on skates of all things. For the First Time is a 1967 documentary about showing old movies to those who have never seen them which is fairly intriguing when you think about it. Chaplin Today: “Modern Times” is a 30 minute feature (from the 2003 Warner DVD) of present day people looking back at Chaplin and his work. We also get some trailers, international style.

Disc Scores