Modern Times

January 28, 2012 14 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!

Modern Times a rather delightfully enjoyable movie, even considering that the film is 65 years old. Chaplin’s statement against the progress of our nation was felt by nearly everyone who saw the movie and it’s amazing how well it still translates today. While we saw the dusk of his career (in hindsight), it’s clear to acknowledge that Charlie Chaplin might have been the funniest person who ever lived. The film, much like The Apartment predicted what the world was like and when big business and mass production take over, what can happen. It’s loaded with classic scenes, Chaplin caught in the machine, the mechanical eating machine sequence and the classic walk off into the sunset (which has bee copied over and over again). While many argue that City Lights is his best film, I’d have to make a strong case for this. Ranked as one of the American Film Institute’s (#81) best movies of all time, one thing is clear: it deserves to be seen.

Video: How does it look?

Naturally, a film made in 1936 will be shown in a ratio of 1.33:1 as widescreen movies were still about twenty years down the road. This is now the second edition of this classic and this boasts a much-improved transfer. Warner has conglomerated with the Chaplin estate to get access to new prints to all of his movies and the result is stunning. Though movies like Citizen Kane look like they were made yesterday, this edition of Modern Times doesn’t look too shabby, especially considering the age of the film. The black and whites of the film look strong, giving the picture a very “real” look to it. The placards, used frequently in the film (and all of his films) seem to have been re-mastered as well as some of the supplements show the same scene with a black background, whereas the ones in the feature have a textured background to them. Having seen some films from this era, it’s amazing how good this does look. There isn’t any edge enhancement to speak of (no pun intended) and the resulting image if very vivid. Additionally, the film is only 83 minutes long and it’s the sole occupant on the first disc of this two-disc set, so it’s plenty of room for bit rate. No real complaints here, it’s not up to standards like that of Citizen Kane, but it’s not too shabby!

Audio: How does it sound?

Something out there tells me that watching a Chaplin film in 5.1 sound is just plain wrong. That’s a matter of opinion, of course; but nevertheless a new 5.1 mix has been created for this (and other) releases in the Chaplin Collection. I watched the movie in its original mono mix and then went back and watched a number of scenes in the new 5.1 mix and there really isn’t that big of a difference. Dialogue has always been the one thing that has held old movies back with it’s “hissing” in the speech. Thankfully, this really isn’t much of a factor here as the film is silent. A few lines of dialogue are spoken from time to time and we can’t forget Chaplin’s song; but aside from that, the mix sounds fairly decent. It does sound a bit dry and brittle at times, but these can be overlooked as it’s an improvement over the previous edition’s soundtrack.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Modern Times is loaded with supplements, all of which can be found on Disc 2. We begin with an introduction by David Robinson, who tells us a brief history of Chaplin and the movie and “to put the film in its historical and cinematic contest”. Next up we find a listing of the rest of the supplements, and we’ll go right on down the line. We find a featurette “Chaplin Today – Modern Times” which is a 26 minute piece on the influence and impact of the movie and how it would stand up today. Interesting, but there are far better featurettes on the disc. There are some deleted scenes (labeled “Outtakes”) in which we see an extended scene of Chaplin’s nonsense song and another in which he has a terrible time crossing the street (he can’t seem to get the idea of the “Stop” and “Go” of the street sign). Four smaller featurettes are also included, beginning with a Karoake to the “Nonsense Song”. We can now sing along with the Tramp as he sings his jibberish, all thanks to the karaoke machine! The one and only Liberace sung the most famous Chaplin theme song and we can now hear it in its entirety (Warning: this is “Pre-diamonds” days for Liberace, so you’ve been warned). We then find the most robust feature on the disc; “Behing the Scenes: In the Machine Age”. This is a 45 minute documentary sponsored by the Government in which is depicts the assembly line of the United States of the 1930’s. Though not directly related to the movie, we can see where it does have its place.

A sanctioned number by the Ford Motor Company is also included in that it’s essentially a 10 minute montage of factory workers doing their jobs to a symphony. Aptly titled “Symphony in F”; this was donated by Ford (whose assembly line inspired “Modern Times”). We then find a ten-minute featurette with some Cubans, many of which have never seen a movie before in their lives. The feature tells about the impact that this movie had on them and what the future of movies would be, now that they’ve seen one of the best. Broken into about 9 sections, there is a Photo Gallery of some 250 stills in which you can see most every aspect of the movie. Though you’ll have to Fast Forward through them to see all you want, it’s a nice feature and always a welcome addition. There is also some advertising in the form of a Poster Gallery, too. The gallery shows the original U.S. posters from the 1930’s and the 1970’s as well as posters from all around the world. The original theatrical trailer is included as are some clips from the other movies in the Chaplin Collection running about 24 minutes. All in all, if you’re a Chaplin fan, this is certainly the way to experience the movies. I found myself wanting a bit more, but am more than pleased with what has been offered here. Highly recommended.

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