Modern Times appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Most of the time the picture looked amazingly good for its age, but some niggling concerns knocked down my grade below “A” territory.
Sharpness mainly came across well. The majority of the flick appeared nicely crisp and well defined. However, a few shots displayed slight softness. Occasional examples of jagged edges and shimmering occurred, and I also noticed some light but moderately persistent edge enhancement at times.
Given the age of the material, print flaws remained remarkably minor. I discerned a few specks and the odd hair or two, but otherwise none of those concerns appeared. However, the image did wobble a bit at times, and some cuts were moderately awkward.
Black levels looked very good. Dark tones were deep and rich, and contrast seemed strong. The movie exhibited a nicely silvery appearance from start to finish and didn’t suffer from any blandness in that domain. Low-light shots were clear and well delineated. Ultimately, Modern Times presented a very positive picture.
For this new release, Modern Times got a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Since this was essentially a silent film, most of the audio involved music; we heard a few examples of speech and effects, but these remained minor factors. The 5.1 version spread out the score to the side speakers, though stereo delineation seemed muddled. Never did I discern good definition of the various instruments, as the presentation felt like broad mono for the most part. Effects and speech occasionally showed some localized material on the sides, but they mostly stayed within the center channel. The surrounds may have kicked in light reinforcement of the front speakers, but I noticed nothing in particular from them.
The quality of the 5.1 track seemed decent but not great. The rare examples of speech were a bit shrill and edgy, and those tones affected much of the track. Effects were somewhat harsh and slightly distorted. The score came across as reasonably smooth and free from obvious defects, but the music seemed thin and tinny in general. Other than an occasional pop, the mix appeared free from source defects. The extra spread of the track and the decent quality meant that I felt it deserved a “B-“ when compared to other soundtracks of this era, but it wasn’t a terribly positive mix.
The DVD also provided the original monaural track, which I definitely preferred. Yes, it lost the modest dimensionality of the 5.1 version, but I didn’t think much of the latter’s “stereo” music or effects; they seemed somewhat gimmicky and didn’t add anything to the film. The mono mix appeared noticeably richer and less strident. It still appeared dominated by the treble elements, but they were smoother and didn’t appear as harsh. It also didn’t present any significant source flaws. If I offered a grade for the mono track, it’d get a “B+” for it offered a very fine auditory experience when compared to other movies of its generation.
As a two-DVD package, Modern Times packs some good supplements on its second platter. We open with an Introduction from Chaplin biographer David Robinson. In this six-minute piece piece, he gives us some general notes about the film and its production. Most of what Robinson says appears elsewhere, though he adds some details about legal issues that affected Times. It’s a quick and moderately engaging program.
Entitled Chaplin Today: Modern Times, the next piece runs 26 minutes and 10 seconds. It shows bits from the movie, some archival and historical materials, and also provides narration and remarks from filmmakers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. We get a general feeling for the roots of the film and its production, but much of the piece gives us interpretation from the Dardennes. Too much of it falls in that category, unfortunately, as we find lots of pretentious and not terribly useful introspection. The occasional bits about the making of the movie – such as its unused ending – seem much more compelling, but because they appear infrequently, this is a pretty spotty program.
Next we get an outtake. At about 95 seconds, this presents a segment in which Chaplin’s character tries to cross the street. It makes him look like an idiot and was a good piece to cut.
Nonsense Song shows the full version of Chaplin’s number from the end of the movie. It goes for four minutes, 15 seconds, and works better in its edited version. We also get a Karaoke presentation of the film’s song that lets you sing along with Chaplin.
The “Documents” domain includes a mix of archival materials somehow related to Modern Times. 1931’s Behind the Scenes in the Machine Age gives us a US government sponsored paean to automation. The 42-minute and 20-second silent film from the Department of Labor emphasizes the role of women in the work force as it touts the ways that machines embellish humanity. A serious piece of propaganda, “Age” doesn’t seem terribly entertaining, but it’s a great program to see from a historical viewpoint.
Made in 1940, Symphony in F gives us an ode to the factory. It plays classical music alongside images of successful machine work. More propaganda, this short lasts nine minutes and 55 seconds and also seems useful mainly from an archival perspective.
From 1956, ”Smile” by Liberace runs three minutes, 55 seconds as it gives us a TV performance by the pianist and singer. The final component of the “Documents” area, Por Primera Vez/For the First Time offers a Cuban piece from 1967. It shows “the reaction of peasants while watching their first movie, thanks to a traveling projectionist showing Modern Times”. It lasts nine minutes and 10 seconds and shows the village, the locals’ preconceived notions about movies, and their reactions. It’s a pretty interesting piece.
In the trailers area, we get reissue ads. These come in English, French, and German. From the early Seventies, the German clip seems the most unusual because it apparently includes some commentary about the film. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t translate the German dialogue. Still, this seven-minute and 10-second package of trailers offers some good stuff.
Inside the Photo Gallery, we get eight subsections of material. It splits into “The Factory” (74 stills), “From Jail to Paradise” (60 shots), “Factories Reopen” (43), “Back Again!” (eight), “Outtakes” (24), “Sets and Production Sketches” (71)), “Searching for Locations” (21), and “Paulette Goddard” (16). All told these pictures offer a terrific little collection of shots that help embellish our understanding of the production. Film Posters provides more stills, as we see 23 ads from different eras and nations.
Lastly, DVD Two provides a package called The Chaplin Collection. This features short clips from the following flicks: The Kid, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York.
One nice – and surprising – touch: most of the DVD’s supplements include subtitles in English and a mix of other languages. Other than on DVDs from Paramount and DreamWorks, text accompaniment for extras occurs exceedingly infrequently, so the additional subtitles are much welcomed here.
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 movie looks and sounds better than ever, and the DVD’s extras add some useful information about the flick and its creator. All Chaplin fans will want to get this new version of Modern Times, as it clearly seems like the best edition on the market.