Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Modern Times (1936)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

In Modern Times "The Little Tramp" battles it out with technology, unemployment, jail burglars, demanding customers, bosses and the Gamin. He wins some and loses more but, at the end, walks undaunted into the sunrise.

Although it is known as Charlie Chaplin's last silent film, Modern Times is remarkably unsilent. From the opening notes of the rich orchestral score to the first and last time the voice of "The Little Tramp" is heard near the end of the film, the effect is of a film that speaks with a clear, well-rounded voice.

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin; Paulette Goddard; Henry Bergman; Tiny Sandford; Chester Conklin; Hank Mann; Stanley Blystone; Al Ernest Garcia
DVD: Standard 1.33; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; 19 chapters; Not Rated; 87 min.; $29.99; street date 3/14/00.
Supplements: Interview with David Raksin; Documents from the Chaplin Archives.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C/B-

Of the three Charlie Chaplin movies found in the American Film Institute’s “Top 100”, 1936’s Modern Times was the final entry; the other two - 1925’s The Gold Rush and 1931’s City Lights - came earlier in his career. Interestingly, all three offer surprisingly unique experiences. While they clearly share some similarities - mainly because of the “little tramp” character portrayed by Chaplin in each film - the three movies had different emphases and looked at varied aspects of life.

Modern Times was Chaplin’s examination of contemporary society. Actually, that doesn’t seem totally true, as we witness technology that wasn’t exactly the norm in the mid Thirties; for example, factory workers are monitored and cajoled by a Big Brother-esque video screen. As such, MT forms more of a mildly futuristic fantasy than a depiction of life during the Depression.

However, Chaplin’s point seems clear: the dehumanized, cold society seen in MT is where he appears to think we were headed at the time. He shows a place in which individuality is lost and subsumed to the cold, faceless power structure. In that way, MT comes across as a cautionary tale, a warning against those who’d favor technological streamlining and “progress” over simple humanity.

Or perhaps his statement was less profound than that. Perhaps MT was nothing more than his reaction to the overwhelming encroachment of sound films. Within a very short period of time, “talkies” took over and silent movies went the way of the dodo. Stubbornly, Chaplin continued to avoid adding much sound to his pictures. MT offers something of a compromise, but a telling one. In addition to music and some effects, we do hear a little speech during the film. However, all of the audible dialogue comes from disembodied sources like the TV screen. Whenever real human characters interact, their lines come from old-fashioned title cards.

Was this Chaplin’s comment upon the soullessness of talking films? Perhaps, or maybe it was just his last jab at the excesses of the era. MT would be Chaplin’s last silent film, and also marked the final appearance of the “Little Tramp”.

At least Chaplin’s legendary creation went out on top. As I noted in my reviews of both The Gold Rush and City Lights, I never thought much of Chaplin’s humor and I expected to dislike all of these films. However, I found the first two to provide surprisingly charming and witty experiences, and Modern Times follows suit.

Frankly, The Gold Rush remains my favorite of the three, but each has a lot to offer. At times, the social messages in MT can seem rather heavy-handed, but happily these don’t overwhelm the comedy. This is the sort of movie from which you can glean deeper meaning if desired, or you can just go with the flow and enjoy the humor for its surface value. Those who desire the societal commentary are welcome to it, but such interpretation is not required to enjoy the film.

As one who has little experience with Chaplin’s work, it comes as a minor shock to discover how amazingly influential his films have been. While I viewed MT, I saw numerous bits that looked familiar to me since other comedians had “borrowed” them. From Lucy to Dick Van Dyke to the Flintstones, the film was chock full of gags that materialized elsewhere over the years.

Despite this familiarity, the material still worked well during MT. Although the whole “Little Tramp” routine could become a bit cloying at times, there’s no question that Chaplin was an extremely gifted physical comedian, and this movie offers a nice variety of excellent routines. Probably the best of the lot was the scene in which Chaplin is used to demonstrate an “automatic feeding machine”; the abuses to which he’s subjected in the name of “progress” are very funny, and the segment makes its point without too much overemphasis.

Not all of Modern Times follows suit, and Chaplin can become more than a little heavy-handed at times. Frankly, his negative view of new technology seems almost in the Luddite vein, and he seems a bit too closed to any advantages these changes may offer. Nonetheless, MT presents a spirited and engaging comedy that works well with or without social commentary.

The DVD:

Modern Times appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie has been windowboxed to better preserve the original aspect ratio; as such, black bars border the image on all four sides. Though these seemed a little excessively thick, they didn’t distract me at all and I had no complaints about them.

Although the picture definitely shows its age at times, for the most part it looked pretty good for such an old film. Sharpness seemed fairly accurate and well-defined throughout the movie. However, some modest fuzziness occasionally interfered; this tendency occurred mainly during wider shots, but close-ups weren’t exempt from some softness. Nonetheless, I thought the picture appeared acceptably crisp at most times. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns.

Black levels often looked mildly gray and bland, and contrast was somewhat weak due to this. Shadow detail appeared acceptably clear and visible, however; during low-light situations, I thought the picture seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively dark.

As you might expect from a movie that appeared in 1936, print flaws presented the DVD’s most significant problems. At various points during the film, I detected scratches, grit, blotches, streaks, grain, speckles and nicks. However, these seemed fairly modest for a movie of this vintage. I also need to note that the picture became slightly cleaner as the film progressed, and I thought that black levels in the second half of the story seemed darker and deeper than during earlier scenes. Ultimately, the image looked very watchable for such an old movie.

Also relatively positive was the monaural soundtrack of Modern Times. Since this is essentially a silent film, most of the audio involved music; we hear a few examples of speech and effects, but these are minor factors. The score seemed clean and clear for the most part, though the track was pretty thin and trebly and it lacked any dynamics or depth. I detected a hum in the background during much of the movie, and I also witnessed some popping sounds. Despite those flaws and the generally bland nature of the audio, it seemed quite typical for the era and displayed no unusual problems.

Modern Times includes a few nice supplements. First up is an Interview with David Raksin. Apparently from a 1992 laserdisc release, this piece lasts 17 minutes and offers the reminiscences of the film’s music arranger. Raksin’s comments are quite compelling, as he provides a candid and entertaining discussion of his work with Chaplin. The program is very good and deserves a look.

Also interesting is a substantial section called Documents from the Chaplin Archives. This combines a variety of different print elements into one running piece that lasts 33 minutes. The different subdomains cover “The Early Vision”, “Script Segments”, “Feeding Machine Segments”, “Advertising”, “Publicity and Promotion”, and “The Business of Modern Times”. In this area we discover lots of great text and photos as well as Chaplin’s personal notes. The format shows brief shots of the original materials and then displays newly-transcribed copies of the text for better readability. We read about how Chaplin considered making the movie with dialogue and many other interesting aspects of the production. I’m not wild about the running video format, but the material warrants your attention.

For much of my life I thought that Charlie Chaplin was nothing more than an overly-silly and lackluster comedian. I was wrong. I’ve never been a fan of physical comedy, but his material remains fresh and vibrant after many decades. In Modern Times, Chaplin offers a somewhat muddled but always entertaining social commentary that provides a consistently stimulating experience. The DVD features picture and sound that both seem pretty solid considering the age of the material, and it tosses in some interesting extras as well. Already-established fans should be very pleased with this release, and others should give it a look as well - they may be pleasant surprised.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

Menu:  DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top