Modern Times appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Overall, the film looked very good for its age.
Sharpness mainly came across well. The majority of the flick appeared nicely crisp and well defined. However, a few shots displayed slight softness. No concerns with jaggies or shimmering materialized, though, and edge haloes remained absent.
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 flicker a bit at times. Black levels looked very good, as 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.
Since this was essentially a silent film, most of the monaural audio involved music; we heard a few examples of speech and effects, but these remained minor factors. The score was the major component, and the music usually sounded quite good. The loudest pieces could be a bit shrill, but those instances remained rare; most of the score was surprisingly robust and full.
Effects usually worked fine. A few loud bits like gunshots were a bit distorted, and the elements never seemed especially accurate, but I wouldn’t expect much from them; after all, this track was recorded 74 years ago. While the effects weren’t terribly impressive, they seemed more than adequate for their age.
As for the speech, it failed to sound natural, but it was never meant to come across that way. The film never offered lines directly from its characters; the only dialogue came from electronic sources. That made the soundtrack an old recording of old recordings, which obviously reduced its fidelity even more – and that factor became exacerbated by the decision to give the lines a cold feel in the first place.
With all those restrictions in place, I still thought the speech sounded fine. Dialogue was mechanical and somewhat harsh, but I didn’t have any problem with that. Really, the audio was quite positive given the movie’s age.
In terms of extras, the set launches with an audio commentary from Chaplin biographer David Robinson. In his running, screen-specific chat, Robinson discusses cast and crew, social/political context and the film's place in Chaplin's career, Chaplin's shooting techniques, some controversies, Chaplin's shift to sound movies, sets and locations, music and various production areas.
That’s exactly the kind of material I want from a commentary such as this, so Robinson delivers a useful piece. He covers the movie in good detail and keeps us engaged along the way. We learn a ton about the flick and enjoy ourselves through this winning track.
Next we find two “Visual Essays”. Modern Times: A Closer Look goes for 16 minutes, 53 seconds and offers notes from Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance. As we watch production photos, Vance discusses the film’s genesis, deleted scenes, various aspects of its production, and the movie’s reception/aftermath. Vance manages to avoid repetition with Robinson’s commentary, so we get a lot of good new details. The photos also add a lot to the package.
For the second “visual essay”, we head to the 15-minute, six-second Silent Traces: Modern Times. Author John Bengtson chats about Chaplin’s career and the creation of Times with a heavy emphasis on various studios and filming locations. It also uses stills to flesh out our understanding of the different spots. Bengtson delivers interesting details about the LA spots.
Next comes a featurette called A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte. It lasts 20 minutes, two seconds and provides info from visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt. As you might expect, they talk about Chaplin’s use of audio and visual effects. We get some of this info elsewhere, but Barron and Burtt offer a good historical perspective on their specialties.
We get into the movie’s music via the 15-minute, 58-second David Raksin and the Score. This offers a 1992 chat with the composer as he talks about his experiences with Chaplin and his work on the film. Though we already know about his firing and other controversies, Raksin digs into his music well and makes this a rich conversation.
The Raksin interview also comes with an orchestral track. This runs about nine minutes and features score from the factory sequence. What makes it interesting? We hear the music without any of the film’s sound effects.
Under Two Bits, we get deleted scenes. “Crossing the Street” (1:48) never appeared in the film, while “The Tramp’s Song (Unedited)” (4:16) was there in 1936 but got dropped for a 1954 re-release. “Street” has some comedic value but seems kind of dopey; it shows the punishment a jaywalking Worker gets from a cop. The officer’s actions don’t make much sense – why not just give the guy a ticket? “Song” simply extends the existing scene and helps alleviate a bad edit, which makes it worthwhile.
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. This seven-minute and 33-second package of trailers offers some good stuff.
For some candid footage, we go to All At Sea. It goes for 17 minutes, 39 seconds and documents a 1933 boat trip taken by Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and journalist Alistair Cooke. This never becomes terribly fascinating, but it’s still a moderately interesting slice of real life. (Note that the film can be viewed silently or with score from Donald Sosin.)
“All At Sea” also includes an interview with Susan Cooke Kittredge, Cooke’s daughter. In the 13-minute, two-second chat, she talks about her father – best known as the host of Masterpiece Theater - as well as his relationship with Chaplin and the creation of the short film. Though she wasn’t there at the time, she manages to flesh out the reel well.
From 1916, we get a short film entitled The Rink. It lasts 24 minutes, 14 seconds and shows Chaplin as a waiter. Why does it appear here? Because at one point, the waiter rollerskates, an activity that would turn up in Times. That’s a pretty tenuous connection, but I still think it’s nice that the Blu-ray tosses in an old Chaplin short.
Shot in 1967, a featurette called For the First Time runs nine minutes, 10 seconds. It shows residents of rural Cuba who see their first movie. The picture in question? Modern Times, of course. The documentary works better as an idea than as a film; some of the pre-screening comments are interesting, but mostly the piece falls flat.
Chaplin Today: Modern Times 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.
Finally, the set includes a 40-page booklet. It features film critic Saul Austerlitz’s essay about Times as well as film scholar Lisa Stein’s piece about a world tour Chaplin conducted in 1931-32. This becomes a classy way to end the package.
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 Blu-ray provides very strong picture and audio along with a nice set of supplements highlighted by an excellent commentary. It’s hard to imagine a superior home video release of the film, as this Criterion release served the Chaplin classic well.
To rate this film, visit the Charlie Chaplin Collection review of MODERN TIMES