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Modern Times: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


Trivia question: What movie closed out the 2003 Cannes Film Festival?

Answer: Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin's comic social satire from 1936.

Sixty-seven years after Modern Times premiered, a stunning restoration of it screened after Cannes' Sunday awards ceremony. It was a high point of the festival, where an empty seat was illuminated by a spotlight to honor Chaplin, who died in 1977.

Why Modern Times? Why this black-and-white artifact created almost a full decade after the beginning of sound technology yet which exhibits its director's belief that movies didn't need dialogue to communicate effectively?

Well, first of all, Modern Times is good. Very, very good. World-famous, inventive, and productive throughout the previous twenty years, Chaplin in the mid-1930s was still at the height of his movie-making powers. For him this was a creative golden age that began with The Kid (1921), peaked with The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), and concluded with The Great Dictator (1940).

Secondly, Modern Times is about something. You could create a PowerPoint presentation on Chaplin's long history of subtly dotting his work with topical social and political concerns. In Modern Times his preoccupations step up to the footlights while subtlety gets the hooked cane thrust from the wings. This is Chaplin's rage against the machine. In lesser hands, the result would be a blunt-object diatribe like H.G. Wells' Things to Come, made the same year. But this is Chaplin, and the result is a delight. Unlike Wells' technofetish polemic, Modern Times remains fresh for the 21st Century by living up to its title. The problems he uses comedy to pin down like beetles — unemployment, poverty, drugs, strikes, strike-busting, riots, the soul-eating inhumanity of the workplace — still pack a wallop of modern currency.

Inspiration for Modern Times came during an eighteen-month tour of Europe. While there, Chaplin met with such eminent personalities as H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi. With Gandhi he discussed his belief that machines, if used wisely, could be a boon to mankind, but if used only for profit would deliver only misery. More influentially, he observed the ravages of the Great Depression and the resulting despair and political inequality, particularly the whiff of rising Fascism, beating down entire populations.

When he returned to America, he found his adopted country likewise eroded. Unemployment was endemic. The can-do optimism of the pioneer days was gone. Automation and economic disparity were robbing workers of their livelihoods and their hope. Chaplin, socially conscious and the product of a boyhood spent under devastating poverty in the London slums, couldn't not speak up. So his movies became his platform, and the Little Tramp — the most recognizable human figure in movie history — was his voice, even when that diminutive character with the bowler hat, shabby clothes, floppy shoes, and bamboo cane remained vocally silent.

Granted, by this point in his life Chaplin possessed a seemingly pathological need to be loved as, among other things, a great thinker and a champion of the Common Man among the rarefied smart set. It was a need born more from his ego and insecurities than from any innate intellectual prowess or formal education. Modern Times marks when this need, and its shortcomings, began to drive his filmmaking. As comedy Modern Times is exquisite. But as social commentary it isn't terribly penetrating. The opening shot of herded sheep cross-fading into rushing workers was already pat in '36. Nevertheless, by shining a light through holes in the capitalist fabric, Chaplin hadn't even completed writing the screenplay before Modern Times stirred controversy for its presumed politics. "Red"-alert watchdogs pointed to scenes where they saw, or imagined, overtly "Soviet" sentiments. After this, controversy over Chaplin's political and private life grew until he was thrown out of the U.S. in 1952 while attending the London premiere of Limelight.

There's no question that Modern Times wears its politics on its sleeve, although by the final fade-out any political tub-thumping is so diffuse and self-contradictory that the movie is more of a Rorschach test for the viewer than a bullet-pointed manifesto. Not firmly anti-capitalist or pro-Marxist (there's more of a free-spirit social libertarianism on tap), the movie leans left without toppling over onto any single color of the political Twister mat. "Unemployment is the vital question," Chaplin wrote in '31. "Machinery should benefit mankind; it should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work." That's hardly taking up a red flag and leading a workers' parade — an image, by the way, that Chaplin trip-wires for humor early in the picture.

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You could always recognize "a Chaplin film," but rarely allowed his work to succumb to cookie-cutter sameness. Here we can see a difference right from the get-go, with the introductory card that reads: " 'Modern Times'. A story of industry, of individual enterprise ~ humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness." What we have is not just a story about a funny little man, but a morality fable, or cautionary tale, about people on the chuckholed road to the American Dream.

Modern Times was the final film to star the Tramp, and the difference between this Tramp and his formative years in the classic shorts (1914-1923) is worth noting. Back then he was a little fellow alone in a nascent society of other immigrants and vagabonds and petty miscreants. Now he's billed as "a factory worker," and he doesn't exchange his work overalls for the familiar outfit until almost twenty minutes have passed. His suit fits a little better than it used to, he's a bit more polished and well-fed than before, and the world he inhabits isn't the dangerous urban 'hood of Easy Street or the dingy cityscapes of The Kid or City Lights. Instead, Modern Times opens with the Tramp placed in an antiseptic futuristic milieu. Before, the Tramp was an underdog up against the police or a unibrowed bully or the Alaskan frontier. Now he's a more emblematic Everyman, and his antagonist is society itself. The enemy is named in the movie's title. Our modern times are memorably represented in gargantuan dynamos and enormous gears and a high-speed conveyor belt where the Tramp works as an assembly line drone.

Although you won't find it referenced in the Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the first segment of Modern Times' episodic narrative gives us a tidy little science fiction allegory, worthy of Ray Bradbury, that's a complete short film all by itself. The factory setting is a metal-enclosed world where men are tiny collective components in an immense machine. We never know what it is the factory produces. All we need to know is that the Tramp's job is to tighten bolt after bolt after bolt on identical metal widgets whizzing by before him. The factory's president — when he's not playing with puzzles or reading comic strips — observes the workers via giant two-way video screens (the sparking Jacob's Ladder alongside his screen is a nice Frankenstein touch). The Tramp can't even take a break for a smoke in the washroom without the president's wall-sized pre-Orwell Big Brother face appearing and barking orders to get back to work. What a stylized look at the Machine Age this is! When the president picks up a newspaper, we can imagine him reading about that nasty business involving the scientist Rotwang in the German-speaking super-city of Metropolis.

Like all good science fiction, though, Modern Times isn't about the future. It's all about the present, at least as Chaplin saw it in the 1930s. It encapsulates his evaluation of the Great Depression, mass production, and the treatment of workers. Modern Times literalizes common fears that those workers lucky enough to have jobs were dehumanized by mechanization and by a corporate mindset that valued productivity over basic humanity.

*          *          *

Thirdly, of course, Modern Times does all this by being supremely funny. Such as when the Tramp has tightened so many bolts that when he walks away from the assembly line his body keeps up the herky-jerky robotic movements it has become conditioned to. The machine has infected the man, and we laugh while we get the message rising from the humor.

Or take the "Billows Feeding Machine" sequence, for instance. Thanks to a mechanical salesman that speaks via a phonograph record (with one significant exception near the end of the film, all human voices in Modern Times speak only through machines), the president tests a new contraption designed to increase efficiency by eliminating a worker's lunch hour. The feeding machine is a chrome monstrosity, all jointed metal arms and servos, like something that would come crashing through the walls of a dentist's office. The recording exhorts us to admire

"...its beautiful, aerodynamic, streamlined body, its smoothness of action, made silent by our electro-porous metal ball bearings ... Notice the revolving plate with the automatic food pusher. Observe our counter-shaft, double-knee-action corn feeder, with its synchro-mesh transmission ... Then there is the hydro-compressed, sterilized mouth wiper: its factors of control ensure against spots on the shirt front ... Remember, if you wish to keep ahead of your competitor, you cannot afford to ignore the importance of the Billows Feeding Machine."

The Tramp is conscripted to test the device, and one of Chaplin's most inspired scenes arrives when the gizmo goes haywire with the Tramp trapped like a torture victim by mechanical arms shoveling food into his mouth or onto his face, while that "sterilized mouth wiper" keeps dutifully patting his mouth until, berserk, it whacks bang-bang-bang his besmeared face. What's the president's opinion after he's witnessed his employee abused in such an undignified fashion? "Not practical."

Driven to the brink by it all, our bedeviled factory worker goes stark raving nuts. Like a man hypnotized, he wields his wrenches like weapons, tightening everything, such as the buttons on the back of a secretary's dress, before chasing after a bosomy matron with her own pair of ill-placed fashionable "bolts."

Now we get one of Chaplin's indelible images. It's the crazed Tramp being drawn into The Machine, where he's threaded through giant cogwheels, stopping only to blithely tighten another pair of bolts. Right there Chaplin's genius hands us an ageless visual metaphor, one that any 21st Century employee who has clipped a Dilbert cartoon will greet with a knowing smile. Chaplin almost certainly planted a personal message of his own in those gears that grab and digest the Tramp: They look suspiciously like the threading path of a motion picture camera. The Tramp, a creation of pantomime in a medium that by '36 was all about sound, is overtaken by mechanization. After Modern Times he is never seen again.

Fortunately, with insanity comes freedom. Released from his machine-like life, the Tramp dances and twirls in giddy drunken glee. Instead of robot-like repetition, his movements are now balletic, spontaneous, human. Wearing an enraptured — enlightened? — smile, he traipses about sabotaging the machinery and his fellow drones until he's captured and sent to a hospital to be "cured."

That's all within the first twenty minutes. Chaplin was never one to keep you waiting for the good stuff.

*          *          *

But sustained narrative was not Chaplin's strong suit. Modern Times is more a linked string of self-contained one- or two-reel shorts than a single full-bodied story. After the factory worker is sent to the hospital, Chaplin abandons the "science fiction" scenario to follow the Tramp, now back in his famous too-tight jacket and baggy pants, into the outside world. It's a world of hunger, political inequality, and good people getting by as best they can against powerful oppressive forces.

But there's also love, and Modern Times is a splendid love story.

Paulette Goddard is billed as "a gamin." The word is a gender-switch misspelling of gamine (gam'En, ga-mEn', -n. 1. a neglected girl who is left to run about the streets. 2. a diminutive or very slender girl, esp. one who is pert, impudent, or playfully mischievous). She is "a child of the waterfront, who refuses to go hungry." We meet her stealing bananas from a shipyard loading dock, tossing the food up to a gaggle of hungry street urchins. She is spirited and vivacious, almost feral. Alternately wild and coquettish, she sports the haughty swagger of a Robin Hood outlaw, then sweetly looks after her father ("one of the unemployed") and her two young sisters.

Goddard was Chaplin's third wife, and is handily the most beautiful of his leading ladies. Today, after the better part of a century, her gamin is among the sexiest of ingenues — how many of the Tramp's other love interests first appear onscreen in a short rag dress and with a knife in their teeth?

After her father is gunned down in a street riot, she's an orphan who prefers life on the lam to imprisonment in the hands of social workers who, like the police, are depicted as thuggish Authority types. The Tramp is also having his dustups with The Law. It feels inevitable when at last he introduces himself to the lovely, bedraggled young woman by offering her his seat in their shared police wagon.

Unlike previous women the Tramp has fallen for, the gamin is given equal status carrying the movie. The Tramp loves a girl who loves him back. Finally he has a partner. Chaplin called the duo "the only two live spirits in a world of automatons." For the rest of the movie they are companions, even sharing a tumbledown shanty together. Chaste? Yes, but Modern Times differs from its predecessors by giving the Tramp someone to share his story with. Neither character is subordinate to the other. Chaplin's message was good enough for Casablanca six years later: In this crazy, mixed up world sometimes all you've got is each other.

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Favorite scenes briskly wend their hilarious, sometimes thoughtful, way toward the most famous curtain shot in Chaplinology:

Also in Modern Times is the only scene, ever, in which we hear the Tramp's voice. Sound technology hit the movie industry fast and hard starting in 1927. As with any artistic transition period, some brilliant directors foundered in that sea change between the silent years' refined artistry — the mature and highly developed editing and purely visual narrative — and the "talkies'" potential to widen a film's canvas of expression and subject matter. Chaplin resisted full acceptance of sound for as long as he could. Films such as F.W. Murnau's masterful Sunrise bridged the technological spark gap between silent and sound by employing sound effects and music to accent otherwise silent films that avoided dialogue and kept the intertitle cards. In 1931, City Lights was one such triumphant validation of silent artistry in the sound age. By '36, though, Chaplin was the last anachronistic hold-out in a resolutely sound-oriented era. Modern Times is packed front to back with sound effects, voices issuing from machines, and Chaplin's own musical score (which made his song "Smile" a standard for generations). The clincher arrives near the end. For the first and last time, the Little Tramp faces the camera and sings.

This scene in the Red Moon Cafe is a delight. The gamin gets work as a dancer. He takes a job as a singing waiter. But he can't remember the lyrics! Due to a careless fling of the arms, he's "on stage" without his lyrics while the band vamps waiting for him to open his mouth. The gamin urges him to sing anything because words don't matter — get it? — so the Tramp throws himself into an improvised vaudevillian routine built on mock-Italian gibberish. They're not real words, but that's Chaplin's voice proving that strictly verbal language isn't the point of cinema.

Like the gamin, the Tramp has finally found his place, and his humanity, in an environment that couldn't be more distinct from the factory where he began — performing live before an appreciative audience. THere's little need to wonder how much autobiography Chaplin was letting slip through here.

Happiness doesn't last, however, and before long the two vagabonds are forced back onto the open road for one of cinema's most beautifully wistful exits. Despairing alongside a country road, the gamin sobs, "What's the use of trying?" The Tramp — once again the scruffy no-surrender optimist the world had watched for an entire generation — urges her to "Buck up. Never say die. We'll get along!" Then he reminds her how to put a smile on her face. She agrees, and the spark returns to her eyes. In Chaplin's best-remembered fade-out, the two tramps set off hand in hand down the dusty road toward a mountainous horizon, silhouetted against a welcoming sunrise. Two survivors, resolute and no longer alone, with the totality of their worldly possessions tied up in kerchief bundles, walk away toward an unknown, but also unprescribed, future.

If you don't think that last scene is a lump-in-the-throater, there's no hope for you.

Between its slapstick, clever antics, dewy-eyed American Dreamism, and upfront social commentary, Modern Times exalts, slantwise like all good stories, the value of kindness, self-determination, and responsibility. And, of course, being really, really funny. As the programmers at Cannes understood, this fresh and ageless masterwork will always be one for, you guessed it, modern times.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes Modern Times, The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

How's the picture and sound quality?

For the Modern Times restoration, experts at Cineteca Bologna assembled the best footage from a variety of sources into a new print. MK2's technicians painstakingly touched up all 126,000 frames individually, then transferred them back onto traditional 35 mm film.

The final product is a marvel. For its entire length (1:23:05) there are no scratches or dust specks. Definition is sharp, contrast is well balanced, and the black-and-white tones look natural with generous grayscale. It's gorgeous, a real testimony to what modern film preservation has to offer.

The audio comes in three options remastered in Dolby Digital — English DD 2.0 monaural, English DD 5.1, and French DD 2.0 monaural. All are strong and clear and remarkably free of hiss or wear. The 5.1 option does a nice job spreading out the musical score and sound effects. It's a respectful remix that keeps the surrounds engaged while maintaining mindful balance and avoiding gimmicky directional tricks or other anachronistic temptations.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Disc Two: Special features

Introduction (6:06) — Biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) narrates this preamble that looks at such topics as Goddard, Modern Times' original "nun" ending and early "talkie" planning (both wisely dropped), and the nuisance lawsuit brought against Chaplin by representatives of René Clair's similar À Nous la Liberté.

Chaplin Today - Modern Times (26:13) — This documentary by Philippe Truffault places the film within the context of Chaplin's concerns about socio-economic strife afflicting industrial societies. Newsreel clips include Chaplin's world tour, his meeting with Gandhi, the Depression's impact on American society (some discomfortingly timely resonances here), and the brief German footage of Chaplin's first-ever utterances on sound film. The historical material alternates screen-time with deep-analysis by Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Dogma 95), who aren't above plugging their own film Rosetta by showing its similarities to Chaplin's.

Outtake (1:42) — A deleted scene of the Tramp attempting to cross a busy street. It's unrestored with no audio.

Nonsense Song (4:15) — Before a 1956 reissue of Modern Times, Chaplin edited out the last verse from the Tramp's nonsense song in the cafe. The deletion truncates the song's gibberish-mime "story" and results in an abrupt cut to the next scene. This supplement gives us the song uncut in its entirety. (For the sake of comparison, the cut remains in Disc One's presentation of the film. The earlier Image Entertainment DVD edition of Modern Times, supervised by David Shepard, restored the complete song into the body of the film.)

Karaoke (4:06) — The nonsense song scene with karaoke lyrics added digitally. Not as goofy as it sounds, really. The lyrics are a treat of undiluted jabberwocky.

Documents — This leads to a collection of tangential oddities:

Trailers (7:16) — A compilation of three trailers from around the world. The languages on display in the voice-overs are American-accented English, French, and German. The German promo is from a 1972 revival clearly aimed at serious-minded cineastes. The audio for all four is DD 2.0 monaural.

Photo Gallery — This collection of over 250 production and behind-the-scenes stills, original story notes, the shooting log, and production reports is divided into eight click-to video compilations. Irritatingly, once a compilation begins you can't (at least I can't) rewind it to see again a photo that has passed. In a few cases, the parade of stills is (also irritatingly) interrupted by snippets with audio from the movie:

Film posters — Here's a click-through collection of 24 posters for Modern Times from various countries and decades.

Scenes from films in The Chaplin Collection — Finally, this "coming attractions" ensemble presents scenes from ten titles slated for the series (The Chaplin Revue is absent):

—Mark Bourne



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