Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" (1936) has been referred to as the last great silent movie, the last appearance by the Little Tramp, and the funniest movie ever made. Those references may be close to the truth, but they may not be entirely accurate.
The French comic actor, writer, and director Jacques Tati would take up where Chaplin left off, producing half a dozen virtually dialogue-free films, of which several like "M. Hulot's Holiday" (1953), "Mon Oncle" (1958), and "Play Time" (1967) can arguably be called "great." Chaplin's Little Tramp is the principal protagonist in "Modern Times," true, but the little guy would reappear in "The Great Dictator" (1940) in the guise of the Jewish barber, complete with the Little Tramp's costume, demeanor, and mannerisms. As for "Modern Times" being the funniest movie ever made, well, that is obviously a subjective reaction. The American Film Institute ranks "Modern Times" #33 on their list of "100 Funniest Movies" and #81 on their list of "100 Greatest American Movies." "Modern Times" is, indeed, a fine and important film, but I would tend to place it a little lower on my own personal list of favorites.
In any case, it's good to have "Modern Times" remastered so well in an all-new digital transfer by Cineteca Bologna Picture Restoration and presented as a part of MK2 and Warner Brothers' "The Chaplin Collection" in a special two-disc set.
Chaplin's films were always strongly personal, but with "Modern Times" and four years later "The Great Dictator," they took exceptionally strong stands against what Chaplin saw as the ills of society. In "The Great Dictator" there are stands against persecution, dictatorship, Nazism, Fascism, Hitler, and Mussolini. In the earlier "Modern Times," made during the height of the Depression, there are stands against the dehumanizing elements of industrialization, big industry, big government, and Big Brother, (predating Orwell by more than a decade), plus the general issue of joblessness. Chaplin would make these issues telling through sound effects, music, minimal dialogue, and humor. But Chaplin himself never speaks in the film. He had thought about it, even written a script that included dialogue for his character, but decided against it. The familiar inter-scene cards of silent days report what he and others are saying.
Chaplin was clearly inspired by the assembly-line mechanization of the Ford automobile plants, so the movie begins with the Little Tramp, described only as a "factory worker" in the credits, working on an assembly line for a steel corporation. He must fasten bolts all day as they come down a conveyor belt. Chaplin humorously demonstrates the monotony of the routine.
The film's preface states it's "A story of industry, of individual enterprise--humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness." Certainly, Chaplin is on a crusade, one he hopes will remind his audience of their inherent humanity and the need to be treated as a human being and not as a machine or, as the opening reveals, as sheep. If the world is trying to suppress the little man, what better figure to rally against it than the ultimate little man, Chaplin's Little Tramp. He takes on the Depression, unemployment, riots, strikes, everything he can associate with the problems of the era. It's no wonder many of the democratic countries of Europe denounced it as Communist propaganda and that Communist Russia denounced it Capitalist propaganda.
It seems that everyone can view the film differently. Maybe it's best to enjoy its humor foremost and leave the philosophical ruminations for later. Enjoy, for instance, Charlie trying to keep up with his bolt-tightening duty while constantly falling hopelessly behind. Or his experience with the automatic feeding machine, especially the corn-on-the-cob feeder that goes berserk. Or Charlie getting caught up in the gears of the factory's machinery, a persuasive metaphor for how humans are an integral part of the machinery of modern life. Charlie becomes literally a little cog in a big machine, finally being driven mad by it all.
These initial scenes are the strongest, but then we are reminded that Chaplin had come to feature-length films through an endless series of shorts, thus rendering "Modern Times" itself a series of related short subjects. From the opening factory scenes we are taken to a prison scene, followed by a waterfront romance sequence, then a department store bit, and eventually to a dinner-club segment. Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's real-life lover and soon-to-be wife co-stars as the young woman he meets and falls in love with. Their closing scene together is unforgettable and inspiring.
Unfortunately, because the film is basically a series of brief sketches, it has little actual plot to tie things together, giving it a somewhat nebulous quality. Each sequence is linked thematically to the others, but they give the impression of a Monty Python movie. Not that that's bad. I love Python as I love Chaplin, but it doesn't always make for the most coherent story line. The film also gets inevitably sentimental, as all Chaplin films do; and while some of the comedy works, some of it doesn't pan out so well. So, it's something of a hit-and-miss affair. But for me there are more hits than misses, so the film remains a pleasure. To suggest it is a classic would be redundant.
The new restoration and transfer are probably as good as the original print, which was pretty good to begin with. The result is a picture that is very clean and easy on the eye. There are no signs of age whatever, no lines, spots, scratches, or flickers of light. The black-and-white contrasts are perhaps not so deeply pronounced as they are in Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" from this same source, nor are any of the images as sharply defined as possible, but I would not fault these conditions to the transfer. For an old film, the quality is excellent by any standards.
The audio options include either the film's original monaural soundtrack or a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The DD 5.1 sound is louder, clearer, and better focused than the mono track, as well as being more spread out across the front channels. Some small degree of musical ambience is allowed to seep into the rear speakers, as well as occasional crowd noises and such, but mostly this is a front-channel affair. The only drawback to the 5.1 sound is that it's slightly brighter than its mono counterpart and sometimes harsher. It's never obtrusive, but it's hardly state of the art, either.
Disc one in the set is devoted solely to the movie. It comes in a standard, 1.33:1 ratio, black-and-white screen presentation, of course, with its Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby mono soundtracks and twenty scene selections. English and French are provided for spoken languages, with English captions for the hearing impaired, and English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean subtitles.
The second disc is given over entirely to bonus items, the first of which is an introduction by David Robinson, Chaplin's biographer; and the most important of which is a new, twenty-six minute documentary, "Chaplin Today: Modern Times," by Philippe Truffault, in which French filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne analyze and discuss the movie. Then, there are several deleted scenes, including Chaplin's nonsense song in its complete version and a scene in which Charlie tries to cross a street against a mechanized stop signal. Next, there is a Karaoke segment, which helps clarify the mystery of Charlie's nonsense song, plus a rendition of the film's theme song, "Smile," sung by Liberace (1956). After that, you'll find a forty-two minute, government-sponsored educational film, "Behind-the-Scenes in the Machine Age" (1931); a ten-minute promotional musical film commissioned by the Ford Motor Company, the "Symphony in F" (1940); and a ten-minute Cuban documentary short, "Por primera vez/For the First Time" (1967), on the reaction of peasants while watching their first motion picture, "Modern Times." Finally, there are photo and poster galleries, scenes from ten other films in "The Chaplin Collection," and several theatrical trailers.
Whether "Modern Times" still works for modern audiences is a matter of taste, but there's no denying that many of the movie's satiric jabs at big business, industrialization, the working class, and the impersonalization of contemporary society are still relevant today. Indeed, our present lives may be more wound up in mechanical devices than ever before, with televisions, computers, and automatic conveniences galore.
The actual comedy in "Modern Times" is another matter. Some of it works; some of it doesn't. Only the viewer can decide what's funny. While I can't personally say it's the funniest motion picture I've ever seen, I can suggest that parts of it are brilliant enough to have induced me to watch it more than a few times.
"Modern Times" is one of ten Chaplin films that Paris-based MK2 and the Warner studios are releasing in special-edition DVD sets. Among the others in the first wave of entries are "The Gold Rush," "The Great Dictator," and "Limelight." I recommend them all.