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Modern Times

Modern Times
Mk2 / Warner
1936 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 83 87 min. / Street Date July 1, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin, Stanley Blystone, Allan Garcia, Dick Alexander, Gloria DeHaven
Cinematography Ira Morgan, Rollie Totheroh
Original Music, Written, Produced and Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Modern Times finds Charlie the comedian growing into Charlie the social critic. Although he showed definite intellectual roots in all of his pictures - his understanding of comedy went way beyond just lining up the jokes - Chaplin used his second sound-era film to put voice to his concern for the 1930s of unemployment, labor strife, and big-scale mechanization. The show is hilarious, which is good, because if it wasn't, it would play as a disorganized rant.

Synopsis (spoilers):

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. He's given a commendation from the warden of a prison after he foils a prison break, but fails miserably as a shipbuilder and night watchman. Realizing that prison seems to be the most peaceful place for him, he 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 together, 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.

Charles Chaplin was so wealthy after City Lights, he could easily have retired. But six years after the change to talking pictures, he instead came back with an essentially silent comedy. Maybe he felt that the Tramp needed the silent world around him to properly function. He also 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 plays like a film made by a man desperate 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 makes the assembly line go so quickly, the workers can't keep up; Charlie has a nervous breakdown from repetitive motion. The official solution is 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 televsion. The idea that modern business is trying to turn men into machines is directly suggested by 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 rather unfairly relegated to the role of villains - clubbing strikers, and shooting down Goddard's father. The theme is really Innocent Tramp against the World.

The grandiose Metropolis poetically evoked 'modern problems' while making little social sense, and H.G. Wells' Things to Come rebutted with a detailed argument for what looks like a technocracy - a dictatorship of scientists. Chaplin's Modern Times, made the same year as the Wells film, probably communicates more to the average viewer than either of the science fiction movies, but its basic message is that industry, labor strife and government are all the 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 very 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 craning up and down in a nightclub to show hapless Charlie the waiter trapped in a mob of dancers.

This is supposed to be Chaplin's last appearance as the Little Tramp, although the little Barber of The Great Dictator is clearly very Tramp-like. Charlie plays him with undiminished grace and athleticism. He dives into shallow water, skates backwards blindfolded, and does everything he was doing at Essanay and Mutual twenty years earlier with equal panache.

After the maudlin extremes of City Lights, Modern Times goes sparingly 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 his usual remote feminine ideal. When outside forces make them wanted fugitives again, The Gamin's despair is Charlie's cue to provide hope. The road that Goddard and Chaplin go down at the end is still a silent-movie 'future' where a smile will see one through, but it's also a very uncertain one. 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.

MK2/Warner's DVD of Modern Times is a beauty. The film is intact, clean, and in excellent condition; and the transfer retains the full grayscale of the image. There's an enhanced surround distribution of the track in 5.1, as well as an original mono track.

Disc one has the feature in English and French, with 7 different subtitle choices. Disc two has a rather eclectic range of extras.

This episode of Chaplin Today lasts 26 minutes, and takes the film on from a European point of view. The Introduction by David Robinson (6 minutes) is again both more concise and definitive an advent into the film and its historical context.

There's a deleted scene, of Charlie trying to cross a street, probably dropped for time, but possibly because it made him seem simply too meek.

The Nonsense Song Charlie sings in the nightclub is repeated here twice, uncut. Apparently a last stanza of slightly suggestive lyrics was censored from the film itself. A second pass adds Karaoke-like subtitles for the goofy nonsense words.

Liberace (no mistake) sings Chaplin's Smile on his 1956 TV show. Pretty scary. I barely remembered Liberace, and this brought back a flood of childhood terror. (this extra played out of sync on my disc)

1931's Behind the Scenes in the Machine Age is a old social-reform docu that will be of interest to academics studying labor history. It goes on for 42 minutes, showing poor labor conditions and petitioning for better treatment of workers, particularly women. An excerpt would probably have done the job for average viewers.

The F in 1940's Symphony in F stands for Ford; this is a very expensive-looking color hymn to the assembly-line demonized in Modern Times.

&0161;Por Primera Vez! means For The First Time. It's a 1967 Cuban short where rural campesinos are shown a movie (Modern Times) for the first time. It's a delightful demonstration of the universality of Chaplin. It also shows the non - U.S. source of this disc's production - what American company would contract a Communist Cuban ICAIC film? (this extra played out of sync on my disc)

There's also a massive (250 stills) photo gallery, a poster gallery, the international trailers, and a repeat of scenes from the rest of the Chaplin collection.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Modern Times rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 4, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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