Modern Times Review

Man against machine in Chaplin’s Modern Times, now on Blu-ray.

A factory worker (Chaplin) works day in, day out on a factory production line, repetitive work which he is forced to do ever faster…

While Chaplin believed, rightly, that the worldwide appeal of his Tramp character would be limited as soon as he opened his mouth and uttered words in English, by the mid-1930s it was clear that the sound film was no passing fad. Modern Times was the result. Chaplin wrote it as a talkie, but soon abandoned that idea. Opening in 1936, it became the last film released by a major US studio – other than later parodies and pastiches like Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie and The Artist – made as a silent, with intertitles replacing narration and dialogue. Like City Lights before it, it had a synchronised soundtrack with Chaplin’s own music score, and sound effects. There are more of the latter than before, showing that Chaplin was quite capable of making use of sound creatively as part of his comedy. There is also, for the first time, some spoken dialogue, but in keeping with the film’s theme it issues from mechanised devices: the factory PA system, the orders of the factory boss (Allan Garcia) for his workers to work harder, an instructional record, a radio. And, towards the end of the film, the last to feature the Tramp, Chaplin says goodbye to his regular persona by letting him open his mouth…and out comes a nonsense song in cod-Italian. The need not to synchronise dialogue for the most part enabled Chaplin to undercrank the camera in many scenes – to eighteen or sixteen frames a second, instead of the sound speed of twenty-four – to increase the on-screen speed of the action to comic effect.

Chaplin’s Tramp character arrived in a world about to undergo seismic social change due to World War One, one moving away from the social norms of the Victorian era Chaplin had been born into. In Modern Times, the Tramp is in a world coming out of the Depression and facing the rise of automation and mechanisation and what Chaplin saw as its threat to the working man and woman. His ideal was a more equitable distribution of wealth and labour. He begins his film with a pointed cut between a herd of sheep and the workers reporting to the factory. Chaplin is clearly on the side of the workers, forced to work ever harder to increase the factory’s output. The devices used are in advance of what was in use at the time, or even now, taking the film, for the first and only time in Chaplin’s career, into the realms of science fiction. In one key scene, Charlie is the guinea pig for a new automated feeding machine, designed to increase output by eliminating the need for lunch breaks. No wonder he eventually goes berserk.

The leading lady this time is Paulette Goddard, playing a gamine (as the credits bill her), who lives by the waterfront, keeping ends meet for her and her younger siblings when her father is killed in a labour battle. By then she had become Chaplin’s partner offscreen. It’s clear from the way Chaplin films her, giving her frequent closeups, that he was besotted with her, and in 1936 became his third of four wives and he her second of four husbands. (Her third husband was Burgess Meredith.) Unlike almost anyone else except for maybe Jackie Coogan in The Kid, she was a fully-fledged co-star. Chaplin’s original ending was bittersweet, with the gamine becoming a nun. He shot this ending, of which stills survive, but he replaced it with a more upbeat one.

The first version of the Hays Code was drawn up in 1930 and enforced in 1934, so City Lights was a Pre-Code film in all but name. By the time Modern Times was made, Chaplin, like all filmmakers in Hollywood, had to deal with the Production Code Administration, headed by Joe Breen, and they had a few things to say about the film. Chaplin had to remove gags referring to effeminacy, much of the scene with the minister’s wife’s stomach rumbling, a bra gag in a departments store, the use of the word “dope” in a printed title and a close-up of a cow’s udders. After the film was released, the production company Tobis tried to sue Chaplin for what they saw as plagiarism of their film A nous la liberté, directed by René Clair. Clair, a great admirer of Chaplin, was deeply embarrassed by this lawsuit, which continued after the second World War. While the case was flimsy, and widely seen as revenge by this German company for Chaplin’s later lampooning of Hitler in The Great Dictator, in 1947 Chaplin’s company eventually made a settlement to get rid of the matter.

In Modern Times, Chaplin bids farewell to the character which had brought him worldwide fame and fortune over the past two decades. It could be said that Chaplin’s Tramp is one of, if not the, most recognisable fictional characters of the twentieth century. His swansong is an endlessly inventive stream of visual gags of a high quality and sentiment is held in check, avoiding becoming mawkish. Many of Chaplin’s films number among people’s favourites. Modern Times is mine.

The Disc

Modern Times is one of Artificial Eye’s series of reissues of Chaplin’s films, on Blu-ray and DVD. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. Comments and affiliate links refer to the Blu-ray edition. Affiliate links for the DVD can be found here. The film begins with the BBFC U certificate from 1936 but has a digitally-added copyright-renewal notice from 1986.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, which is near enough correct. (Academy Ratio, which would be the standard between 1932 and the coming of widescreen in 1953, was actually 1.37:1.) This transfer is very good, much sharper than some of the earlier ones in this series, with grain that’s natural and filmlike. The greyscale and contrast look right. Screengrabs follow, the 2003 DVD first then this Blu-ray.

Modern Times was released in cinemas with a monophonic soundtrack, and that’s what is provided on this disc, rendered as LPCM 2.0. It sounds fine, with Chaplin’s score – the main part of it – sounding fine, and demonstrating how much optical soundtracks had advanced in the five years since the early-talkie era. Given that there are spoken dialogue and sound effects in the film, it’s regrettable that there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available for the feature or the extras.

As with the other films in the Chaplin Collection, Modern Times was originally released on DVD in the UK by Warner Home Video, with a transfer and extras licensed then as now from the French company MK2. Some of the extras have been brought forward to this Blu-ray but not all of them, so completists may wish to hang on to their DVDs. Missing this time are an additional deleted scene (the nonsense song including an extra verse that Chaplin cut before release), Liberace performing the song “Smile”, an educational film from 1941, Behind the Scenes in the Machine Age, another promotional film, Symphony in F (1940), a 1967 documentary short For the First Time, showing Cuban peasants watching their first film, which was Modern Times and a stills and poster gallery.

The extras begin, as usual, with an introduction by Chaplin biographer David Robinson (6:06) and another featurette in the Chaplin Today series, and inevitably these overlap. The featurette this time is particularly detailed, taking in Chaplin’s meeting in London with Mahatma Gandhi (we see footage), in which they discussed ideas about machinery as a potential boon to humanity but if used purely to profit a threat. We also see Chaplin speaking to a sound camera for the first time, a brief piece of footage shot in Vienna in 1931. (This was an extra on the 2003 City Lights DVD but not carried forward to Artificial Eye’s Blu-ray.) The featurette also shows comparisons of shots at the speed they were shot (eighteen or sixteen frames per second) and that which they were shown in (twenty-four). As before, we have input from a guest director, or in this case directors: the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who speak in Fremch with a voiceover translation. As well as discussing Chaplin’s filmmaking methods, they show how they drew on Chaplin’s Little Guy persona to become a Little Girl in their own Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Rosetta, of which we see extracts.

With “Karaoke” (4:06) you can sing along to the Tramp’s nonsense song. Next up are three trailers (7:16): one from the UK in 1971 (complete with U certificate), a French one and a German one, ironically beginning with a Tobis logo, featuring journalist and critic Karsten Peters talking to camera. In the latter two, the voiceovers are given English subtitles. An outtake (1:42, mute) shows Charlie trying to cross the street. Also on the disc is a trailer for the film’s showing at Cannes in 2003 (2:17). There are also the same 10:44 of extracts from the films in Artificial Eye’s Chaplin collection which have been on all the discs so far.

Finally on this disc, and not on the original DVD, is an entire short film, Chaplin’s The Idle Class (29:04) made by Chaplin in 1921 as part of his contract with First National, the same year he made The Kid. In this, the Tramp sneaks into an upper-class golf resort, and he meets an unhappy wife (Edna Purviance) of a rich husband (also played by Chaplin) and identity confusions ensue in a prefiguring of what would be Chaplin’s next film after Modern Times, The Great Dictator.


Updated: Sep 08, 2015

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