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MODERN TIMES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Director:  Charles Chaplin
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  83 Minutes
Release Date:  July 1, 2003

“We’ll get a home…even if I have to WORK for it!”

Film ****

Everybody has a favorite Chaplin film…or if they don’t, they should get one.  My pick has always been Modern Times.

It may lack the poignancy of City Lights or the pluck of The Gold Rush, but for sheer comedy value, Times gives you the most for your money.  It maintains a comic energy from start to finish and features Chaplin as star, director and writer in top form.  His gags have never been so well constructed, perfectly timed or superbly executed.  And in this film, you get humor in both quality and quantity.

Chaplin had a gift for making people laugh at their troubles, and in the throes of the Great Depression, Chaplin returned that gift to the people when, in 1936, he released a hilarious but pointed statement about economic woes and the rise of the industrial age.  Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line into America’s work force created jobs, but as Chaplin pointed out, the machines sometimes dehumanized the men who became cogs in them.

He demonstrates this beautifully in two memorable scenes where men actually get literally caught up in the machines they man…the opening bit, which features Chaplin’s hysterical exploits as a bolt tightener on a line that moves faster and faster until he ends up sucked in, and a later bit where his boss ends up almost hopelessly entangled in the machinery.  The comedy is visual, and of course, symbolic as well.

But that’s only part of the Tramp’s woes in this film.  In hysterical sequences, he gets mistaken for a Communist leader, does a dangerous bit of roller skating in a department store (this bit will have you wincing with delight), tries to serve a roast duck dinner through a volatile sea of humanity, and ends up singing a nonsense song at a dinner show when he forgets the words!

The movie’s more tender moments come from his pairing up with real life spouse Paulette Goddard playing an orphaned girl who loses her family and tries to survive as best she knows how.  The chemistry between the two is genuine and winning…it’s no wonder the two remained friends even after their marriage ended.

What they bring to Modern Times isn’t so much a romance as it is a reminder of hope.  Here are two people who seem to have sunk as low as they can go, but by the end of the movie, they stroll off toward the future believing in one another and facing tomorrow with optimism instead of despair.  And while the laughs are big and plentiful throughout, your final smile brought about by these two characters will linger long as you switch discs to check out the DVD’s features.

I guess the reason I love this movie so much is that even though Charles Chaplin was a genius in many ways, he was a comedian first and foremost, and Modern Times is arguably his most generous banquet of laughs.  Previously, he had touched our hearts in City Lights, and he would go on to raise his voice and make a marked stand for humanity against the onslaught of fascism in The Great Dictator.  But in between, he proved that we could still laugh in spite of the world going crazy around us.  That, to me, is Chaplin at his finest.

Video ****

The new Warner editions of these classics impress greatly…Modern Times looks better than ever with its new digital transfer.  This is a clean, crisp black and white presentation with remarkable detail and very little in the way of signs of age.  The department store and factory scenes really come alive with little details that I’d never noticed before.  Lines are crisp and solid, blacks are deep and whites are crystal.  If this picture could look any better than it does here, it’s beyond my capacity to imagine.

Audio ***1/2

These 5.1 remixes are glorious!  Chaplin composed his own music for his films, and his scores are always lively, dynamic, and charming, and benefit greatly from DVD’s audio capabilities.  The open surround orchestration makes the listening experience come to life, and even the .1 channel gets plenty of action from the bass.  Chaplin’s synchronized sound effects and select bits of dialogue are also a plus.  The balance is nice; nothing overshadows or overwhelms anything else.  The original mono track is also included.

Features ***1/2

An interesting array of features complete the double disc experience, starting with a 26 minute reflective documentary on the movie (mostly in French, but dubbed) and an introduction by Chaplin biographer David Robinson.  Two rare deleted scenes are here, including the one-extra verse version of Chaplin’s song and a street crossing sequence, plus a karaoke version of the musical number…turns out, it really is just gibberish. 

You also get a vintage clip of Liberace performing “Smile”, which was Modern Time’s theme song (I didn’t know it had words), a 42 minute government education film from 1931 on the new modern age, an early promotional film from the Ford Motor Company, a short documentary on peasants seeing their first movie thanks to a traveling projectionist showing Modern Times.  Rounding out are trailers, a poster gallery, and clips from other Chaplin Collection movies.

Summary:

Modern Times is as funny today as it was 70 years ago.  These excellent Warner re-releases of Charlie Chaplin’s classic features prove that laughter never gets old or goes out of style.  These movies will continue to be around for a long time, and these discs are the best way to preserve their genius for future generations.