Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Al Ernest Garcia
Running Time: 87 min
BBFC Certificate: TBC
Charlie Chaplin took a gamble by making the silent comedy City Lights in 1931 at a time when ‘talking pictures’ were becoming all the rage. It paid off though and the film was a big success around the world.
Touring the production throughout America and beyond, however, Chaplin saw the effect the Depression was having on the States and issues of poverty elsewhere around the world. Profoundly moved by this, the filmmaker decided that his next project would reflect social issues of the day.
Chaplin’s follow-up to City Lights was a relatively long time coming though. Sound films rapidly became the norm through the first half of the decade and Chaplin was still hesitant to make the shift to ‘talkies’. Having autonomous means of producing films through his own company, he could do as he pleased though. So, when Chaplin finally embarked on his new socially-conscious project, Modern Times, he stuck to his silent guns. Almost.
Yes, technically Modern Times isn’t a silent film. There are sound effects on top of a pre-recorded score, as well as a few lines of dialogue, but the latter are few and far between so, in essence, Modern Times is what you would call a silent film. It proved to be Chaplin’s last, as well as the final Hollywood silent in general (discounting homages and parodies). The film was also the last time Chaplin played his classic Tramp character.
So Modern Times, ironically, given its title, marked the end of an era. It proved less popular than usual with contemporary critics and audiences, but has gone on to be considered among Chaplin’s greatest films.
I used to be of the opinion that Chaplin was a bit hit and miss but, in recent years, I’ve realised it’s only The Great Dictator that I’m a little lukewarm on. So, keen to address my reviewing balance on silent comedians (I’ve reviewed most of Keaton’s feature films, one of Lloyd’s, but none of Chaplin’s), I got hold of a copy of Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Modern Times to give my thoughts.
The film opens with The Tramp (actually credited as A Factory Worker and played by Chaplin of course), working in a large factory on the production line. The repetitive, fast-paced work and his boss’ decision to use him as a human test subject on an automated feeding machine cause The Tramp to snap though. After causing chaos in the factory, he’s shipped off to an asylum. Once out though, he soon ends up in prison after accidentally leading a Communist march.
The Tramp finds life in the prison quite peaceful compared to the fast pace of modern life, so he’s not happy when he’s released following his foiling of an escape plan. He, therefore, tries his best to get sent back to prison.
During his escapades, he literally runs into the Gamin (Paulette Goddard), a young woman struggling to make ends meet. The pair grow close after The Tramp takes the blame for her theft of a loaf of bread and, during their time together, they dream of a better life.
Vowing to make this dream a reality, the couple attempt to earn a living however they can.
Modern Times is a classic that truly deserves its reputation. First and foremost, it’s still very funny. Chaplin’s talent for physical comedy is immeasurable. Scenes such as the production line ‘ballet’, the rollerskating sequence and the skit when he’s waiting tables towards the end are perfectly executed and still a whole heap of fun.
Though producing a film that was, in essence, behind the times, Chaplin was forward-thinking in other aspects. Some of the ideas shown on screen, particularly the CCTV system controlled by the factory boss, predicted what would only come many years into the future. Also, in terms of film production, there are some very impressive hidden special effects in play. The factory scenes use a mixture of forced perspective, hanging miniatures and matte paintings to give the impression of a massive operation, despite being shot on an average-sized studio. The famous rollerskating scene also uses a mightily impressive bit of matte painting work that is barely detectible and includes camera movement, making it all the more gobsmacking.
You could also argue Chaplin’s setup is an early attempt to address mental health issues with factory workers. His lead character can’t handle the stress and strain of being a mere cog in a machine (literally in its most iconic sequence), so has a nervous breakdown. This concept of dehumanisation in processes that were still relatively new and highly regarded back then was bold for a film that, on the surface, is just a piece of broad, mainstream entertainment.
This and other social issues explored in the film (the treatment of protesters and the poor, for instance) are still relevant today and pitched very effectively too. I find the soapbox moments in The Great Dictator a bit much but here the commentary and satire never step on the toes of the comedy.
As mentioned, this isn’t a totally silent film and Chaplin does make great use of sound here, even if it’s largely free of dialogue. Sound effects are used but only minimally. You don’t hear the full realistic mix of diegetic sound, just key important elements, such as the machinery going round, the feeding machine whirring or characters’ stomachs grumbling. These are well selected and, again, serve the comedy above anything. The indigestion gag, in particular, is hilariously done.
The music is excellent too, perfectly complementing the comedy on screen. The factory scenes are particularly well accompanied, especially in the ‘ballet’ sequence. Chaplin is credited as the composer, though he worked alongside arrangers David Raksin and Edward B. Powell, as he couldn’t actually read or write music. There’s an enjoyable song near the end too, which marks the first time you hear Chaplin’s voice on screen, though, in a wonderful twist, it’s not performed in any known language. Based on Léo Daniderff’s comical song ‘Je cherche après Titine’, Chaplin distorts the lyrics to create what is often called the ‘Nonsense Song’.
If I were to make one complaint about the film, I would say it’s rather episodic. So much so that originally the scenes were planned to come in a different order but Chaplin changed it during production. The film’s sweet and beautifully simple ending does a good job of tying things together though and gives the sense of a single narrative, even if, in essence, it’s a series of skits.
Overall then, Modern Times is sweet without getting cloying, impressively staged, sharp and, most importantly, very funny, It’s a (semi-)silent film that has stood the test of time, still finding relevance in its core tale of two people that don’t quite fit in with modern society but get by through love and a smile. A cast-iron classic, through and through, that is one of many testaments to the genius of Charlie Chaplin.
Modern Times is out on 14th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks incredible for a film of its age – sharp, detailed and free of damage. Audio is strong too, with the wonderful score delicately handled.
The film comes with a horde of extra features. These include:
– Restored 2K-resolution digital transfer, created in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
– Audio commentary from 2010 by Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson
– Two visual essays, by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance
– Program from 2010 on the film’s visual and sound effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
– Interview from 1992 with Modern Times music arranger David Raksin, plus a selection from the film’s original orchestral track
– Two segments cut from the film
– All at Sea (1933), a home movie by Alistair Cooke featuring Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard, with a score by Donald Sosin and an interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge
– The Rink (1916), a Chaplin two-reeler
– For the First Time (1967), a short Cuban documentary about first-time moviegoers seeing Modern Times
– Chaplin Today: “Modern Times” (2003), a program with filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
– Three theatrical trailers
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz and, for the Blu-ray edition, a piece by film scholar Lisa Stein that includes excerpts from Chaplin’s writing about his 1930s world tour
David Robinson’s commentary is incredibly rich with facts about the production and discussion of various analyses of the film. It’s a superb track that greatly enriches your appreciation of the film.
Of the two visual essays, one acts like a behind the scenes featurette, using production photographs to try to piece together the production process. It’s a wonderful little video.
The other essay examines the locations used. It wasn’t of great interest to me, to be honest, but I imagine there are many film fans and L.A. residents out there who are fascinated by where some of the scenes in Modern Times were shot. The piece includes some archive production photos too, which are nice to see.
The featurette with the Dardenne brothers cuts between them giving their thoughts on the film with narrated details about the production and Chaplin’s life and work at the time. In this sense, it provides a nice mix of background and analysis.
I really enjoyed the visual and sound effects piece with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. It helps better appreciate all the hidden effects and such that went into making the film so effective.
I loved the interview with David Raksin too. It offers a rare first-hand interview with someone that worked on the film. He explains his and Chaplin’s working process on the score as well as the story of how he initially got fired after a week but was brought back.
For the First Time is a short 1967 documentary about a group of projectionists who set out to show films to rural communities in Cuba for the first time. The short documents one audience’s response to their first film, Modern Times. It’s a bit brief and I’d love to hear some more thoughts from the audience after watching the film, but it’s interesting to hear from people that haven’t been exposed to films at all and see the looks on their faces as they watch the magic of Chaplin on the big screen.
All at Sea is a home movie made by Chaplin and friends. It contains a lot of goofing around from Chaplin but isn’t all that special, to be honest. There’s an interview with Cooke’s (one of the friends) daughter too, explaining where the film came from and analysing it. The inclusion of this adds more value to the footage.
The inclusion of The Rink, one of Chaplin’s classic shorts, is more than welcome too. It’s chosen for inclusion here as there are a few vaguely similar gags and ideas, most notably Chaplin showing off his rollerskating skills. It’s a lot of fun.
There’s also a deleted scene and an extended version of the nonsense song. I didn’t really notice the difference in the latter, to be honest, but enjoyed the former, which sees The Tramp try to figure out a mechanised pedestrian crossing.
I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.
Overall then, it’s a fantastic package for an undisputed classic, so comes wholeheartedly recommended.