Charlie Chaplin's 1936 feature Modern Times marks a turning point: though the post-sound film represents a last hurrah of sorts for the silent-film form, it also demonstrates an ongoing evolution for the artist and the man. 1931's City Lights was essentially a silent with a synchronized soundtrack, and Modern Times inches forward with its use of sound effects and music, including Chaplin singing a tune. With its episodic structure, Modern Times evokes Chaplin's classic one and two-reel silent shorts, but it's also a seemingly conscious farewell to Chaplin's hugely successful comic persona of the Tramp, a character that the auteur vowed would never speak on film. Indeed, when the Tramp shuffles off at film's end, he walks into film history.
Modern Times marks a characteristically ambitious attempt by Chaplin, not only from an artistic standpoint, but from a place of social consciousness. This time, the Tramp is a "cog" in the machinery of a factory (operated by the suitably vague and modernistic "Electro Steel Corp."); like the "space monkey" of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, he "does the little job [he's] trained to do," a point emphasized in the film's rather cruel opening dissolve between a herd of sheep and a mass of factory workers. The Tramp works on an assembly line under the Orwellian observation of a President (Allan Garcia) who pointedly resembles Henry Ford. Inspired by true stories of assembly-line-induced madness, Chaplin turns the screws on the Tramp: the pace of industry and managerial lack of empathy for the worker push him into a nervous breakdown. After being used as a guinea pig for a feeding machine, the Tramp loses it on the assembly line, allowing his task of twisting nuts to fly freely into space. Prancing about the factory and out into the street, he even unwittingly threatens a passing lady with her dress buttons unfortunately located upon her bosom.
Though his ruin is no fault of his own, the factory worker finds himself repeatedly "helped" and prematurately abandoned by social services: still addled with nervous tension, he's released by a therapist and promptly stumbles into workers' street riots. He's swept up into prison, a source of comedy that leads to a daring routine involving accidental cocaine ingestion. Once happily settled into quiet routine, the Tramp finds himself rudely ejected onto the street again, where he meets a "gamin" (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's then-love and muse), a fierce and beautiful survivor of the Depression. Before long, she recognizes the Tramp's chivalry and they become partners in facing the world. The insistent focus on unemployment, institutional inadequacies, strikes and riots shows Chaplin's heightening political interest in the plight of the downtrodden and prefigures his victimization by the U.S. government as a presumed Communist, but the overriding narrative push of Modern Times resides simply in the struggle for the livelihood and soul of the individual overshadowed by social influences he or she cannot hope to control.
As political as it all sounds, the film just as often veers into the classic situational comedy of the silent tradition, like the age-defying, forty-seven-year-old Chaplin demonstrating his virtuosic physicality in a roller-skating sequence reminiscent of his 1916 short "The Rink." Chaplin's perfectionism as a filmmaker extends to his performance precision: whether in his peerless pantomime—emblematized by the Tramp's body language, including a signature wide-legged waddle—or the music-hall-esque song and dance that serves as the film's comic climax, Chaplin evinces an astonishing grace and crack timing. Chaplin gets priceless support from cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and ingenious art directors Charles D. Hall and Russell Spencer in crafting his vision of humanity being swallowed by industry: the film's most famous image remains Chaplin's body snaking between the gears of a machine. Finally, there can be no better description for Modern Times—or indeed, Chaplin's career—than the film's initial title card: "A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."
In great news for film fans, the Criterion Collection acquired the U.S. distribution rights to the Charlie Chaplin library. The first release under this new agreement is Modern Times, now available in a magnificent Blu-ray edition. Put simply, this is the best-ever home-video presentation of Modern Times, and this is a title that has seen dozens of iterations over the years, including a European Blu-ray release. The image has been handled with care to preserve film grain, finding a perfect balance with excellent contrast and wonderful texture and detail that make all other Modern Times transfers seem inadequate. Sound comes in clean LPCM mono that ably puts across Chaplin's intentions with clean, potent effects and music.
The bonus features contextualizing the film are outstanding, beginning with a gold-standard audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Robinson discusses the film as it fits into Chaplin's artistic output, career, and personal life, with encyclopedic production detail, and notations about the other cast and crew members. I can't imagine a better scholarly audio commentary for this film.
"Modern Times: A Closer Look” (16:53, HD) allows Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance to give his own take on the production timeline, including details about deleted sequences.
"A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte" (20:02, HD) brings in visual and sound effects experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt to discuss the film's technical mastery.
"Silent Traces: Modern Times"(15:06, HD) is a visual essay by author John Bengston, who takes us through the Southern California locations where Modern Times was shot and shows how they appear today.
The 1992 interview "David Raksin and the Score" (15:48, HD) finds the Hollywood great discussing his work as an arranger for Chaplin. Also here is the "Orchestral Track" (8:38, HD) for the film's first factory sequence, sanss sound effects.
Two Bits comprises the deleted scene “Crossing the Street” (1:48, HD) and extended scene “The Tramp’s Song Unedited” (4:16, HD) in its original form before Chaplin trimmed it for the film's 1954 re-release.
"Three Trailers" (7:33, HD) hail from the U.S., France, and Germany.
Alastair Cooke's 1933 8mm silent short "All at Sea" (17:39, HD) is a home movie recording a vacation outing to Catalina Island with Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. One can also view the film with an optional score by Donald Sosin. Cooke’s daughter "Susan Cooke Kittredge" (13:02, HD) appears in a brand-new interview to discuss her father, his friendship with Chaplin, and the discovery of the short film.
The 1916 Chaplin two-reeler "The Rink" (24:14, HD), from his Mutual Films tenure, makes a relevant complement to Modern Times. The plot involves the Tramp causing havoc at a terribly mismanaged restaurant and a roller-skating rink; the terrific 2004 score is by Carl Davis.
Octavio Cortazar's 1967 documentary short "For the First Time" (9:10, HD) captures the reactions of Cuban mountain dwellers watching a film for the first time, the film being Modern Times.
Philippe Truffaut's 2003 documentary "Chaplin Today: Modern Times” (27:24, HD) allows award-winning French filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne to discuss their love of Modern Times and how it has influenced their work.
Last but not least, the set includes a thirty-six-page illustrated booklet with credits, tech specs, and liner notes: "Exit the Tramp" by Saul Austerlitz and "Chaplin Sees the World" by Lisa Stein.
This certified classic gets its finest treatment from the Criterion Collection: I can't wait for more to roll down the assembly line.
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