Criterion Classic: MODERN TIMES (1936) Blu-ray Review

Last year, Criterion picked up the rights to the entire surviving filmography of Charlie Chaplin.  The first release in what’ll be a long-running series is my favorite Chaplin film by far, MODERN TIMES.  It’s one of the top Criterion releases of the year, and that truly makes it one of the best of the best.  It hits the street on November 16th (next Tuesday), so yes, that means that it will qualify for Barnes & Noble’s currently-going 50% off Criterion sale.

In Times, Chaplin’s Little Tramp has slightly evolved into “A Factory Worker”, who sings a song at one point, speaking on film for the first time.  He is joined by Paulette Godard as “A Gamine”, a homeless girl scrounging just to scrape by each day.  The two of them don’t meet until a couple of reels into the movie, but their journey together dominates most of the narrative, and their adventure that turns out to be something of a never-ending first date.

[caption id=“attachment_2096” align=“aligncenter” width=“575” caption=“Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think they echoed this gag in last year's Sherlock Holmes reboot, right?”]


Comrade Chaplin?

This was the first film of Chaplin’s that directly dealt with the iniquities faced by factory workers, who made up much of the working public.  As often as he is accused of being a partisan leftist even to this day, it’s often ignored that he writes this film such that not only does the capitalist factory work its people to the bone, but factory unionists sabotage themselves by striking.  If anything, I’ve always taken Modern Times to advocate the idea of diplomacy in the face of extremism.

The Look and Sound

The film went through a 2K high-definition re-scanning from a master positive, and then a computer-aided cleanup.  The film looks clean, but not too clean.  There is enough grain still present in the image so that it retains the look of a film print.  The detail is much finer than the previous DVD edition from MK2/Warner, and unlike that release, this one isn’t interlaced.  Here, you can see more detail in fabrics and matte paintings than in the prior release, but the added clarity doesn’t reveal things that shouldn’t be seen, like makeup lines, or matte painting seams, like other vintage film transfers from the last couple of years.  The Mono soundtrack sounds authentic, and thank heavens they banished the unnatural Dolby 5.1 track that was on the old DVD.

The Supplements

[caption id=“attachment_2095” align=“aligncenter” width=“575” caption=“One of the best optical effects in the history of cinema, which still holds up today.”]


Precious few of the extras are duplicated from the 2003 DVD release from MK2/Warner, but the additions (like The Rink), are substantive, and the beautiful restoration make this beyond worth it.  The pile of things not held over are for the best, like a recording of Liberace singing “Smile”.  Below, I’ve noted which extras are carried over from the MK2 release.

Commentary by by Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson
The track is very informative, and spans everything from the intense production schedule to which Chaplin held himself to the legal hullaballoo instigated over the film’s similarity to Rene Clair’s A nous la liberté. It isn’t so scene-specific that you even need to watch the movie while listening.

Modern Times: A Closer Look (Visual Essay) [16:53]
Jeffrey Vance provides a very insightful look at the production of the film, including the very few behind-the-scenes stills that exist.  He also gets into a reduced history of where Chaplin and Goddard’s lives went after this film.  Most fascinating to me have always been the stills from the alternate ending, which Chaplin tossed out.  The old DVD had them in a gigantic, overwhelming photo gallery.  I much prefer this kind of placement.

A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte: Special Effects in Modern Times [20:02]
Sound Designer Ben Burtt and Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Barron worked together on some little films like The Empire Strikes Back, and they’re two of the best in their respective fields.  They are both devoted Chaplin fans, and have some thoughtful things to say here regarding the use of audiovisual effects in his various films, but particularly those in Modern Times.  Those who want to maintain the full illusion of the movies may want to avoid this one, but for the rest of us, being able to see how Chaplin pulled off the bit with the roller skates and getting perilously close to the edge is just genius.

Silent Traces: Modern Times [15:06]
Historian John Bengston takes us on a tour of locations used to film various Chaplin movies, including Chaplin’s old studio, which still stands.

David Raksin Interview [15:48] & Isolated Orchestral Track [8:38]
Raksin, who arranged the music for Modern Times, is best known for the iconic theme music that he composed for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).  The interview included here is from 1992, and involves the rather amusing story of how Raksin got out to Hollywood, as well as the process of recording the score.  Also bundled in with it is Raksin’s score from the factory sequence, but presented without sound effects.

Two Bits (Deleted & Extended Scenes)
Crossing the Street [1:49]
Tramp’s Song Unedited [4:16]
“Crossing” is the only fully deleted sequence that survives.  It’s good, but wouldn’t have done anything to enhance the movie.  The “Unedited” version of the song includes a final verse not seen in the movie as it exists now.  [previously on the MK2 DVD]

Three Trailers [TRT 7:32]
U.S., French, and German Trailers

All at Sea [17:39] with Optional Score
Interview with Susan Cooke [13:00]
Journalist Alistair Cooke made a short 8mm film of a trip out to Catalina Island with Chaplin and Paulette Goddard.  It’s the product of some people being out on a boat with nothing to do other than make a short film.  I recommend watching the interview with his daughter Susan before the “home movie”, since it adds a fair amount of context.

The Rink (1916) [24:13]
One of Chaplin’s most popular two-reelers from his days at Mutual, Rink nicely ties into one of my favorite sequences in Modern Times, which features the Tramp on roller skates.  There are even similarities between pieces of the score used here and the Nonsense Song.

Chaplin Today: “Modern Times” [27:25]
This is one of the best short docs on Chaplin from the last couple of decades.  I like their take on his continued cultural relevance.  [previously on the MK2 DVD]

Por Primera Vez (For the First Time, 1967) [9:10]
This short Cuban documentary finds members of a remote rural community watching their first film ever…Modern Times.  The looks on their faces and their surprise and delight speak to the everlasting magic of cinema.  I love that despite the multitude of negatives surrounding the Castro regime, the Cuban Cinema Institute managed to champion a rolling roadshow for the people who lived out in the sticks.  [previously on the MK2 DVD]

Final Thoughts

The spread of titles that Criterion picked up in this acquisition is matched only by their catalogue of Ozu or Kurosawa films in significance.  That Modern Times is the lead-off title, and that it includes one of Chaplin’s most well-known two-reelers (The Rink, from 1916), shows that Criterion isn’t messing around on presentation.  I want all of the Chaplin sets now, but I’m happy to wait if this is an indication of what’s to come.

The cover art and case design (as well as fancy moving menu) come from House artist Sam Smith, who was kind enough to send me a print he made of the booklet’s cover art.  If you ask me, Criterion should do a limited run of these as their official Modern Times poster.  In the interest of full disclosure, Sam’s a friend of mine.  The recommendation stands.

The Blu-ray is only $19.99 from Barnes & Noble through November 21st.  The DVD is just $5 less at $14.99, but the extra five bucks for Blu is really worth it.