Modern Times

Modern Times (1936)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Extras: Original Story Notes, Video interview with David Raksin, Advertising & Publicity Materials, Production Data

Charlie Chaplin would have loved digital filmmaking. Watch his films (especially the Mutual two-reelers) and you see an artist in love with the technology of movies. When film was not malleable enough, only then did he resort to props (e.g. the shoe dinner in "The Gold Rush, " or the ballet with the globe balloon in "The Great Dictator") or the elasticity of his own frame. Had he the ability to bend, shape and mold celluloid as filmmakers now have the luxury to do, he might have painted some truly wondrous landscapes.

What prompts such overarching speculation? I’m willing to bet that "Modern Times," Chaplin’s 1936 cautionary comedy warning against the encroachment of arrogant technology on an unsuspecting humanity, inspired the later achievements of an stellar list of filmmakers who taxed the limits of their film technology to tell a story with an anti-technology message. Just as Menzies, Kubrick, Lucas and Cameron have done since, Chaplin used all the then-powers of film to make a statement defending the human capacity for self-determination. Just as 1936-film technology breathed life into this premonitory tale, Image Entertainment employed the current heights in home video technology to give us a sparkling DVD edition of this timeless classic.

The dilemma that faced Chaplin and his celluloid persona in "City Lights" resurfaced with "Modern Times." As recognizable a movie icon as Mickey Mouse, the Little Tramp spoke all languages by not speaking at all. Giving him a voice just because the means existed to capture it would rob the Tramp of his ability to communicate universally. As a result, there is a misconception that "Modern Times" is a silent film and, as such, would hardly be considered a film utilizing the full capabilities of the medium at the time of its making. "Modern Times" IS a sound film, just not a "talkie." It has a music track synched to the action, sound effects and spoken dialogue, though sparsely so.
The first scene of "Modern Times" compares a mass of humanity rushing to work with herds of sheep channeled and processed, conceivably on their way to the slaughter. Plugging into concepts reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World," (published in 1932, 4 years before the film’s release), "Modern Times" deposits the intrepid Tramp on an assembly line at the Electro Steel Corporation. Perched along a cursed conveyor belt, he spends his days tightening bolts endlessly, his goal of completion eternally just one bolt ahead of his pace. With the president barking "more speed" via a telescreen (shades of Orwell), our Sisyphus-in-a-bowler slowly loses control. Unable to control his physical actions (he cannot hold a bowl of soup without his convulsions spilling it everywhere) or even enjoy the simple pleasures of a smoke, he has become part of the monolith machine.

Chaplin dramatizes the Tramp’s mechanical predicament with a series of imaginative sight gags. Two moments that stand out are the feeding machine sequence where Charlie is a guinea pig on a new machine that feeds workers while they toil, only to go disastrously wrong; and the archetypal image of gliding through the giant cogs, tightening bolts and completely oblivious to his dilemma. Cavernous sets and camera trickery makes literal the Tramp’s slow drain of his humanity when faced against the "machine."

Escaping the factory, the Tramp undergoes a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized. Once recovered, he finds a world in the merciless grip of the Depression. The ever-swelling ranks of the unemployed bring about unrest and, in some cases, violence. A quirk of fate finds our hero an unwitting leader of a "workers" parade that eventually lands him in jail.

Incarceration treats the Tramp well and he is devastated when told that he has paid his debt to society and must join the ranks of the "free." Trouble is, he’s seen "freedom" and it isn’t there. Scheming to return to the sanctity of prison, Charlie sets out to get himself arrested. As we all know, there’s never a cop around when you need one. Chaplin takes it even farther: you can never get arrested when you want to. During his escapades, he crosses paths with a "gamin," a child of the streets. Played by Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s then wife), the Gamin is a female version of the Tramp. Plucky, resourceful and wise beyond her years, she fends for herself, finding that an increasingly mechanized world does not know what to do with someone like her and therefore relegates her to the flotsam and jetsam that all cities produce.

Within its 87 minute running time, Charlie Chaplin the storyteller ruminates on the need for imagination in a desperate world. The final scene of the Tramp and the Gamin walking a lonely stretch of road bittersweetly captures Chaplin’s plea for allowing the individual to shape their own destiny and not fall prey (as expressed in the final speech in his masterful "The Great Dictator") to "machine men with machine minds and machine hearts."
The scene also works on several other levels: marking the final appearance of the Little Tramp, summarizing the burdens of all dreamers and offering a glimmer of hope for a Depression-weary world.

The DVD’s cover art proclaims "extraordinary quality achieved from digital mastering of the best remaining negative in the Chaplin archives." This is no idle boast. The images here are pristine and sharp. Black levels are a little soft, sometimes subject to varying degrees of contrast. Aside from a smattering of speckling and wear, the source is in remarkably good shape.

The image is window-boxed on all sides. Just as letterboxing protects <$PS,widescreen> frame compositions, window boxing similarly preserves the Academy (1.33 or 4×3) aspect ratio from overscanning TV displays. However, in this instance, the window boxing is a little too cautious, as the black bars are mystifyingly thick.

The original monophonic track, faithfully presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, is relatively distortion-free, with the infrequent pop and hiss to remind us we are listening to a 64-year-old soundtrack. From the bittersweet strains of "Smile," Chaplin’s signature motif for the film to the Tramp’s nonsensical song in the cafe (representing the only time we hear his voice), the audio is crisp and clear when played back on the center channel, despite a few moments of congestion and peaks.

Special features on the "Modern Times" DVD include a video interview with film composer and music arranger David Raksin, detailed production & story notes, a still-frame gallery of promotional materials and production data, including budget sheets and box-office receipts.

The supplemental materials provide a textual glimpse into Chaplin’s creative methods. For anyone remotely interested in how a film sometimes organically "grows," browsing through the extensive notes would be time well spent. For instance, the original title for the film was "The Masses" and, in an early script treatment, Chaplin toyed with the idea of having the Tramp speak on-screen, even commissioning screen tests to that end (sadly, they are not included). Other production tidbits include specific script references to camera speed and re-takes. Especially interesting are the financials for the film, which the DVD states are being made available for the first time.

The David Raksin video interview provides some rather convivial insights into the creation of the score. David is very articulate in his remembrances about how he got the job, how he was fired a week into the gig and how he confronted Charlie to get his job back. At times, David is so technical in his discussions about music timing, Chaplin’s composing style (he had an ear for melodies, but no formal training) and various aspects of film music composition that one feels that he is addressing a fellow composer or musician. David recalls how the original concept for the love theme was something "Puccini-esque," explaining how it eventually became "Smile." Whether it’s David recollecting his exhilaration at meeting Chaplin for the first time or recounting how they would improvise music cues during the scoring sessions, no one can mistake that the experience is one David relishes and shares so generously during the 17 minute interview.

A still-frame gallery of the promotional materials shows that, despite 60-plus years of progress, we still flock to the weird and outlandish publicity stunt. Suggested gimmicks include staging a "Chaplin Parade," offering "Laugh Insurance," or detailing a "Safety Campaign." There is even a section in the press book entitled "Stunts to Attract the Kiddies."

At one point, the Mechanical Salesman, in selling the feeding machine, prompts a demonstration "for actions speak louder than words." As we enter a new millennial chapter in human affairs, "Modern Times" shouts to us from across the decades, paradoxically as both a warning and an affirmation.

If "Modern Times" isn’t in your DVD library, your player is going to waste.