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MODERN TIMES
Blu-ray Review

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Director:  Charles Chaplin
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  83 Minutes
Release Date:  November 16, 2010

“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 go back to the menu and check out this disc'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 ****

Beautiful...if you don't believe a silent movie could be worthy of a four-star video rating, you really need to check out this immaculate and stunning Blu-ray issue from Criterion.  Black and white photography benefits from high definition as much as color, and Chaplin's films are remarkably well preserved to boot...put them together, and you have a gloriously detailed experience that really, REALLY enhances the already enjoyable film.

Audio ***1/2

Charlie Chaplin didn't just star and direct, he also composed, and he was very good at all three.  This uncompressed mono makes excellent use of not only Charlie's memorable music, but his clever use of synchronized sound (and yes, even a bit of speech here and there).  The silent era was over, but Chaplin's change over was gradual, and this final effort from him showcases he already had as much genius for audio as video.  The soundtrack is lively and fairly dynamic, and quite clean for its age...terrific!

Features ****

Criterion was very generous with their first Chaplin Blu-ray offering!  There is a terrific new commentary from Chaplin biographer David Robinson that's a pleasant and informative listen.  Perhaps even better are two new visual essays, one on the film itself, and one specifically on the films audio and visual effects...and if you're asking "what visual effects?", that's a sign of how well concealed they actually were!

There is a 1992 interview with music arranger David Raksin with a selection from the film's original orchestral soundtrack, a pair of segments cut from the film that managed to survive all these years (including a great jaywalking gag).  There is "All at Sea", a home movie of Chaplin and Goddard, an early look at Charlie on skates in the two-reeler "The Rink", and "For the First Time", a Cuban documentary showing people seeing Modern Times for the first time....very cool! 

There is a 2003 documentary on Chaplin, three trailers (including two international ones), and a terrific booklet that even includes some excerpts from Chaplin writing about his world touring experiences in the 1930s!

Summary:

Modern Times is as funny today as it was 75 years ago.  I am absolutely enthralled with what Criterion has done in delivering this Chaplin classic to Blu-ray for today's fans, and I hope it won't be the last we see of the Little Tramp, either on Blu-ray or from Criterion!

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