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Modern Times
Savant Blu-ray Review

Modern Times
Criterion 543
1936 / B&W / 1:33 flat / 87 min. / Street Date November 16, 2010 / 39.95
Starring Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Rollie Totheroh
Original Music Charles Chaplin
Written by Charles Chaplin
Produced by Charles Chaplin
Directed by Charles Chaplin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"Buck up - never say die! We'll get along."

Seven years ago Warner Home Video released the entire Charles Chaplin library to DVD, with extras organized by mk2. The handsome boxed sets had a salient flaw -- they were NTSC conversions from PAL transfers, with odd motion artifacts and an incorrect PAL speed of 25 frames per second. That means the 87-minute Modern Times, on the old disc, ran only 83 minutes long.

Criterion has contracted to bring the Chaplins out once more, and has begun with this final screen appearance of "The Little Tramp", from 1936. Newly restored by an Italian archive, Chaplin's final silent film -- made seven years into the talkie era -- looks better than ever on Blu-ray.

Modern Times finds Charlie the comedian transformed into Charlie the social critic. Although Chaplin showed definite intellectual roots in all of his pictures -- his understanding of comedy went way beyond lining up his gags -- Chaplin used his second sound-era film to put voice to his concern for the big issues of the Depression years: unemployment, labor strife and big-scale mechanization of industry. The show is hilarious, which is good, because if it weren't, it would play as a disorganized rant.

In structure, Chaplin's script sticks to old formulas. A factory worker (Charlie Chaplin) driven half-mad by assembly line conditions is driven into the streets, where he has constant trouble with society. Most of his fellow workers are unemployed. The law mistakes him as a leader of Communist agitators. A prison warden commends him for foiling a prison break, but he fails miserably as a shipbuilder and a night watchman. Realizing that staying in prison might be the best thing for him, the Tramp tries to get himself arrested. Along the way he meets the Gamin, a girl of the streets avoiding court-appointed guardianship (Paulette Godard). They evade the police and try to set up house as a couple. He gets work in a re-opened factory, which immediately goes on strike. After another prison term, he finds the gamin dancing in a nightclub, where he has a successful tryout as a singing waiter. But the foster-home detectives catch up with them, and they once again try their luck on the road.

City Lights made Charles Chaplin so wealthy that he could easily have retired. But six years after the change to talking pictures, he instead bounced back with an essentially silent comedy. Maybe he felt that The Little Tramp needed the silent world around him to properly function. Chaplin was very aware of the universality of his silent pictures - if the Tramp spoke English, it would spoil the illusion for internationals who imagined him speaking in their own languages. Thus the only time we hear The Tramp speak in Modern Times is when he sings the lyrics to a nonsense song.

Modern Times shows Chaplin eager to express his social opinions. The first quarter is set in a vast factory of giant, fanciful machines constantly threatening to grind up the workers. Management accelerates the assembly line until the workers can't keep up; the repetitive motion gives Charlie a nervous breakdown. The factory owner uses Charlie as a guinea pig to try out a tortuous feeding machine, so that workers won't have to leave their posts. The big boss spies on his workers via closed-circuit television. The idea that modern business is trying to turn men into machines is traceable to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The difference is that Chaplin doesn't give a darn about futurism or industrial production, and instead sides with the 'little guy' all the way.

Chaplin champions the individual but fumbles his way when dealing with The Masses. That was actually a working title, wisely abandoned. Often accused of being soft on Communism, Chaplin actually gives Marxist imagery a hard time here. His first gag is a direct Eisensteinian comparison of workers and sheep, but the joke seems to be on the workers. Chaplin's hero is a falsely accused Communist, but a real thief. All authority is seen as anti-freedom: social workers break up families and hound Paulette Goddard's poor Gamin character, while the cops are relegated to the role of villains -- clubbing strikers and shooting down Goddard's father. The real theme is "Innocent Tramp against the World".

The grandiose Metropolis poetically evoked 'modern problems' while making little social sense. H.G. Wells' Things to Come rebutted with a detailed argument for what looks like a technocracy -- a dictatorship of industrial and social engineers. Chaplin's Modern Times, made the same year as the Wells film, probably communicates more to the average viewer than did either of the science fiction movies. Its basic message is that industry, labor movements and the government are all enemies of the common man. Chaplin has no suggestions for the masses, and can only offer his lumpen Tramp as an involuntary anarchist, knocked around like a pinball but always ready to bounce back.

The production is Chaplin's most elaborate yet, with some impressive, functioning fantasy machines up front, and excellent sets throughout. One clever matte or foreground miniature effect convinces us that Charlie is about to fall off a department store mezzanine - an illusion 'sold' with some nice camera motion. Always cinematically conservative, Charlie moves his camera a lot more than usual. It retreats before a crowd of marching men, and cranes up and down in a nightclub to show Charlie's hapless waiter trapped in a mob of dancers.

This is Chaplin's last official appearance as the Little Tramp, although the little Barber of The Great Dictator is also very Tramp-like. Charlie plays him with undiminished grace and athleticism. He does most everything else he was doing at Essanay and Mutual twenty years earlier, with equal panache: diving into shallow water, skating backwards blindfolded.

After the maudlin extremes of City Lights, Modern Times goes easy on the sentiment, which Chaplin reserves mostly for Paulette Goddard's character. It's a definite twist, to give The Tramp a female vagrant for a love interest, instead of making her his usual remote feminine ideal. When outside forces again turn them into wanted fugitives, the Gamin's despair is Charlie's cue to provide hope. The road that Goddard and Chaplin go down at the end remains a silent-movie 'future' where a smile will see one through, but it's also a very uncertain future. Along with everyone else who read the papers, Chaplin knew that world conditions were becoming strained, but could not guess how much danger his simple hero would soon have to face.

Criterion's Blu-ray of Modern Times is a definite step up from the older Warners disc, correcting the film's frame rate while from the extra resolution and detail of HD. Much of the film consists of carefully designed sets that place The Tramp in a Brave New Mechanized World that brutalizes workers; the designs for the elaborate factory machines make use of excellent visual illusions. The picture has been cleaned up and the sound is bright and robust; we can hear the different kinds of filters used on the voices that come over public address systems. Criterion has not retained the doctored 5.1 audio of the older transfer.

Some but not all of the older extras have been retained. Critic and Chaplin biographer David Robinson is back, but this time with a new commentary track. Jeffrey Vance contributes a 'visual essay', and locations expert John Bengtson pinpoints exactly where many scenes for the show were filmed. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt's featurette examines the film's special effects and sound track.

Composer David Raksin was a music arranger for Chaplin's original score. He appears in a 1992 interview linked to a sample of the film's orchestral music. A scene dropped from the film appears, along with stills showing Chaplin's original ending. Also present is the extra stanza of Chaplin's nonsense song, which he cut from the film at the last minute.

Other extras include two excerpts from a 1933 Chaplin home movie filmed by Alistair Cooke, All At Sea; Chaplin's 1916 comedy The Rink, and that terrific ICAIC Cuban short subject ¡Por Primera Vez!, the one in which some country folk see their first movie -- Modern Times. Plus a French TV show on the film and three trailers. The insert booklet (36p) carries essays by Saul Austerlitz and Lisa Stein, and excerpts of Chaplin's writing.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Modern Times Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Many, see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 8, 2010

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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