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Modern Times – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #543 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

November 3, 2010 by  



Prepare yourself for this HD treatment of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece “Modern Times” because it is the definitive version of the film to own! I have enjoyed “Modern Times” in various video releases in the past but this Blu-ray release looks magnificent, sounds great and you get a number of informative and enjoyable special features to make this release a must-own, must-buy Blu-ray! Highly recommended!

Image courtesy of © 1936 Roy Export S.A.S./2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Modern Times

YEAR OF FILM: 1936

DURATION: 87 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio), Black and White, Monaural

COMPANY: Janus Films/MK2/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: November 16, 2010

Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin

Produced by Charles Chaplin

Music by Charles Chaplin

Cinematography by Ira H. Morgan, Roland Totheroh

Set Decoration by Charles D. Hall, J. Russell Spencer

Starring:

Charles Chaplin – A Factory Worker

Paulette Goddard as A Gamin

Henry Bergman as Cafe Proprietor

Tiny Sandford as Big Bill

Chester Conklin as Mechanic

Hank Mann as Burglar

Stanley Blystone as Gamin’s Father

Al Ernest Garcia as President of the Electro Steel Company

Richard Alexander as Prison Cellmate

Cecil Reynolds as Minister

Mira McKinney as Minister’s Wife

Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s last outing as the Little Tramp, puts the iconic character to work as a giddily inept factory employee who becomes smitten with a gorgeous gamine (Paulette Goddard). With its barrage of unforgettable gags and sly commentary on class struggle during the Great Depression, Modern Times—though made almost a decade into the talkie era and containing moments of sound (even song!)—is a timeless showcase of Chaplin’s untouchable genius as a director of silent comedy.

Charlie Chaplin, the English comic actor and film director who is known as one of the silent kings of comedy. One of the most well-known, influential and creative personalities of the silent film era and is considered one of the greatest male screen legends of all time (voted #10 by the American Film Institute). Known by his peers as a true genius of entertainment.

In 1936, it had been five years since the successful release of Chaplin’s 1931 film “City Lights” and many have wondered how Charlie Chaplin would transcend from his career in silent cinema to the era of the talkies. After all, It is well-documented of how many major silent film talents were unable to succeed or survive during a time when most audiences clamored for movies with sound, movies with spoken dialogue and for Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, the Tramp has never talked and so, there was an expectancy for Chaplin to go with the times.

So, audiences have waited five long years since “City Lights” to find out if Chaplin’s new film would usher a new age of Chaplin talkies.  Questions were asked if Chaplin would embrace the talkies and most of all, will the audience finally hear his character, the Tramp, finally talk?  Would Chaplin finally say goodbye to silent films in 1936?

Sure enough, Chaplin’s “Modern Times” would answer those questions that have persisted and the answer would be “yes” and “no”.

“Modern Times” can be seen as somewhat of a hybrid film which would be a silent but also a talkie. While the film would have sound and visual effects alongside a musical score, there would be dialogue spoken from those using new technology and possibly one of the most surprising sequences, a musical scene, which would feature the only spoken dialogue to be used by the Trap. Granted, it’s not in English and purely gibberish but the Tramp does finally speak in this Chaplin masterpiece.

Inspired by his trips around the world meeting Ghandi, Winston Churchill and many well-known contemporaries of that time, Chaplin would be influenced and inspired by them but also to create a film that would highlight the suffering of people in America during the Great Depression and the plight of factory workers as well as people working during a time of modern industrialization (or more so, the dehumanizing effects of technology) and the social disorders of the early 1930’s. Although the film has a message that people at that time could relate to, the film is practically a satire of , “Modern Times” stays true to the Tramp character featuring plenty of gags and hi-jinks.

And in 1936, “Modern Times” would be hailed as a masterpiece by Charlie Chaplin who had various roles in the film as the director, a writer, a composer, editor, etc. “Modern Times” was so highly anticipated by his fans and Chaplin knew that this film had to be carefully crafted and knew the risks involved. He knew that many people have grown out of favor of silent films. People wanted sounds, music and spoken dialogue, something that his character, the Tramp is not known for and something he was not willing to do. But he would make a compromise.

But the fact is that the film is considered one of the greatest comedy films of all time and considered as one of the greatest films of all time (voted #78 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Movies in 2007) and the expensive film budgeted at around an estimated $1.5 million made over $8.5 million in box office revenue which was significant considering the number of theaters around the country at that time.

“Modern Times” is about a factory worker (played by Charlie Chaplin) who works his job on the assembly line doing the same thing over and over. He’s not very good at his work but he does try.

One day, the boss of the factory has chosen him to take part in a “modern” feeding machine which ultimately fails and with the factory workers expected to work at a much faster speed (via increasing the speed on the conveyor belt), it literally drives the factory worker into a nervous breakdown and causing havoc at the factory and in process, getting him fired.

Meanwhile, a woman known as “a Gamin” helps her siblings while her unemployed father looks for a job. Unfortunately, to feed her family, she has no choice but to steal food. One day, while walking near the factories, a riot breaks out and a gun is shot. Her father was the one shot and now a Gamin and her siblings are orphans. While the two siblings are put into an orphanage, Gamin must fend for herself.

As for the factory worker, now unemployed and starving, while looking for a job, he finds a flag and when he goes to pick it up and holds it up, coincidentally he walks in the front of a major strike for a communist demonstration and is immediately booked into jail because the police thinks he is responsible for the strike.

In jail, he notices that he gets free meals and a place to stay and in many ways, despite the danger, for him, it’s a lot better than being unemployed and starving. While in prison, he accidentally uses someone’s smuggled cocaine (which he accidentally has mistaken for salt) and when a prison break takes place and the thugs put the officers in a jail cell. The factory worker is threatened by the jail breakers but manages to beat the jail breakers and manages to free the officers. Because of his good deed, he is released from jail.

But for the factory worker, he liked being in jail because he was not starving and now, he feels that the only way to survive is by committing a crime that will land him back in jail. So, he goes into a cafeteria and orders a lot of food without paying and he is arrested again.

Meanwhile, a Gamin sees a truck unloading bread to a bakery and steals a loaf of bread but a witness alerts the police. While, a Gamin is running away to escape, she runs into the factory worker and both take a fall. As police officers go to arrest the girl, the factory worker takes the blame for stealing the bread (in hopes it will send him back to jail) and a Gamin looks at the factory worker and it is love at first sight.

But due to circumstances, both end up being arrested but somehow managing to escape from the police.

Now together, both the factory worker and a Gamin have no idea what they will do with their lives. With no food, no home… all the two can do is dream of a better life together. Where he is a working man and she is a wife who prepares food for him. Both love that dream and from that day on, the factory worker promises gamin that he will do what it takes to get a job and try to make that dream a reality, while a Gamin will do what she can to make that dream a reality as well.

Will the once-a-factory worker be able to get a job and provide for him and a Gamin?  Will a Gamin manage to evade from the police and find a job herself?

VIDEO:

This is the best looking “Modern Times” to date. I was floored because David Shepard and company did a wonderful job with the older Image DVD release of the film but “Modern Times” looks great in HD. Presented in 1080p (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and in black and white, the blacks are nice and deep. The contrast is just right and there is a good amount of grain. Previous releases usually were devoid of grain and dust and scratches can be seen. While for this release from Criterion, they did a wonderful job of eliminating the dust and scratches that were seen on the original DVD release.

There is noticeable detail in the images from the close ups of Paulette Goddard, you can see the shimmer in her eyes and she absolutely shines in this film and in HD, she looks terrific. We can literally see the grime on her face, the tatters on her dress. During the technology experiment when Chaplin is eating corn, we can actually see those kernels of corn quite clearly, and those cogs and gears, we can also see the detail and clarity of them even better than before. We can see the wool on Chaplin’s clothing, this release really showcases detail. No offense to previous DVD releases which look very good but those were older releases and you can tell that technology has improved so much since those DVD releases that both Criterion Collection and Cineteca di Bologna really came through for this release. Impressive!

While there are some very short sequences of flicker, for the most part, this Blu-ray release shows us how impressive a silent film can look in HD and for “Modern Times”, the picture quality is fantastic. I was very impressed, especially when I began comparing the BD and DVD. Blacks were more noticeable, picture was sharper and more pronounced. Once again, this is the definitive version of “Modern Times” to own when it comes to picture quality.

According to Criterion, the new high-definition digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN digital scanner from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive that was wetgated from the original 35 mm camera negative. Color correction of the 2K data was done using Assimilate’s Scratch software. Pixel Farm’s PFClean systemw as used to deflicker and stabilize the image, and to remove thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps and jitter. Additional marks and splices were removed using MTI’s DRS system.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Modern Times” is presented in uncompressed monaural. It’s important to note that the film is a silent and talkie. The final silent film to be created by Chaplin and his first talkie. While the majority of the film is silent, there are special effects that can be heard throughout the film, as well as an impressive music score composed by Chaplin. As for the “talkies” portion, dialogue is only featured when a form of technology is used. For example, a video screen of the president of the steel company talking to the employee or a radio program and when Chaplin sings in gibberish for his “nonsense” song. But for the primary characters, intertitles are used at times.

One thing that fans of the film will notice is how clean the track is. No hissing or pops and for the most part, the monaural soundtrack is quite crisp, clear and very clean.

According to the Criterion Collection, the monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, his and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation.

Subtitles are presented in English SDH.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Modern Times – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #543” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary by Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson – A wonderful, informative and excellent commentary by David Robinson.
  • Modern Times: A Closer Look” by Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance – (18:53) This featurette goes into the production photography and how Chaplin was very strict on what photos were taken and were released to the public.
  • A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte – (20:02) A featurette on the film’s visual and sound effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt.
  • Silent Traces: Modern Times – A Visual Essay by John Bengston – (15:08 ) A very cool featurette by John Bengston that shows the locations of where “Modern Times” was shot in LA back in 1935 and how those locations have changed today.
  • David Raksin and the Score – (15:48 ) This featurette is from the 1992 interview with Raksin about arranging the music for “Modern Times”. Also, included is a selection from the film’s original orchestral track (8:38 ).
  • Two Bits – Featuring a deleted scene “Crossing the Street” (1:48 ) which Chaplin deleted in 1936 before its release the premiere and “The Tramp’s Song Unedited” (4:16) which features the entire nonsense song sequence with a sequence cut by Chaplin for the 1954 re-release.
  • Three Trailers – (7:33) Theatrical trailers for “Modern Times” for U.S. France and Germany.
  • All at Sea – (17:35) In 1933, a home movie by Alistair Cooke featuring Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard was found in 2004. Alistair Cooke is known for his radio programs and Masterpiece Theater but he was also one of the few in media that Chaplin let into his inner circle at that time. While the three were going to Catalina Island for some R&R (alongside with Andy Anderson ala Keystone Cops fame), the group shot a silent film on Cooke’s 8mm camera. Watch Chaplin show off his Greta Garbo and Janet Gaynor imitation. Also, features an optional new score by Donald Sosin.
  • Interview with Alistair Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge – (13:02). In this 2010 interview, Susan talks about her father and how when she was a child, her father would tell the children of how he shot a film of Chaplin but the kids always thought he was joking. After Cooke’s death in 2004, after cleaning the home, they found a canister of the 8mm reel titled “All At Sea” and discusses the relationship of Alistair Cooke and Chaplin and the things she remembered told by him to her.
  • The Rink – (24:14) A Chaplin two-reeler. The eighth short film of the 12 that Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual Films, “The Rink” is presented in HD.
  • For the First Time – (9:10) In 1967, filmmaker Octavio Cortazar and filmed a short Cuban documentary about a traveling moving picture company that shows films in remote areas where people have never watched a film in their lives. In this documentary, we see people who live in the mountains of Cuba watching their first film ever… Chaplin’s “Modern Times”.
  • Chaplin Today: “Modern Times” – (27:24) Director Philippe Truffault created a documentary in 2003 starring filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (directors of “L’enfant”, “Rosetta”, “La Promesse”) who are big Chaplin fans and love the film “Modern Times”. The two talk about why they love the film, their favorite scenes and how Chaplin inspired them a little for their 1999 film “Rosetta”. Presented in French and English with English subtitles.

EXTRAS:

Included is a 36-page booklet with photos of Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and essays: “Exit the Tramp” by Saul Austerlitz (author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy”), “Chaplin Sees the World” by Lisa Stein (who is writing a biography about Charlie’s half brother, Sydney Chaplin which is forthcoming).

As we start to see quite a few silent films being released on Blu-ray, many silent fans have wanted to see an HD release of Charlie Chaplin’s popular films and with the announcement by Janus Films of screenings of Charlie Chaplin films remastered, needless to say, for months now, many of us have been quite giddy about the first Chaplin to be released on Blu-ray. And now it’s here and what a wonderful debut of “Modern Times” from The Criterion Collection.

I was absolutely floored by how beautiful this film looked on Blu-ray and how it compares to the previous DVD version. This is a clean print, visually the images just pop out, detail is much more evident and literally, this is the best I have seen of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Gogdard yet and I’m hoping for more Chaplin on Blu-ray in the near future.

As for the film, “Modern Times” begins with the following words: “Modern Times.’ A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.”

The fact was that in the early ’30s, many people were suffering because of unemployment. Families were in poverty and many people were starving and those individuals with good hearts were being forced to commit crimes to survive or keep their families healthy. Chaplin makes a point of that in this film and also, most importantly how technology has affected factories. How automated technology was taking over jobs once held by human workers but at the same time, those workers at these factories worked as if they were like automated machines themselves and Chaplin does a remarkable job with creating various scenes to show the struggle between man and the machine.

As the film would focus on the dehumanizing effects of technology, we also see the social disorder of the early ’30s. It was a time of the Great Depression, people were starving, people were unemployed, people were afraid of the growing communist demonstrations, people getting drunk, people getting high on cocaine and people doing all they can to survive. All of this is featured in Chaplin’s “Modern Times”.

And although this film was released in theaters over 75-years ago, despite the social disorders and challenges that people had faced, people needed laughter in their lives and I have no doubt that Chaplin’s comedy was instrumental in doing just that. As his comedy had done during World War I, he would continue to entertain the masses during the Great Depression and like his character the Tramp telling his partner a Gamin during those tough times… “Smile”.

In February 1936, New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent wrote, “So it goes, and mighty pleasantly, too, with Charlie keeping faith with his old public by bringing back the tricks he used so well when the cinema was very young, and by extending his following among the moderns by employing devices new to the clown dynasty. If you need more encouragement than this, be informed then that Miss Goddard is a winsome waif and a fitting recipient of the great Chariot’s championship, and that there are in the cast several players who have adorned the Chaplin films since first the little fellow kicked up his heels and scampered into our hearts. This morning there is good news: Chaplin is back again.”

I absolutely agree with Nugent’s assessment of the film. Chaplin gives an absolutely awesome performance and also Paulette Goddard. I found her performance to be innocent, bubbly, outgoing and there was such amazing chemistry between Chaplin and Goddard (it helps that the two were a real-life couple), that the caring between the two characters shows on screen. And everyone, including the supporting characters play an interesting role, no matter how long or short the part, Chaplin uses these characters in his film with such efficacy.

Watching “Modern Times”, I just really enjoyed the thought of Chaplin bringing his character of the Tramp and finding that partnership with another character, their relationship and together, facing the unknown. This showed a maturity of Chaplin and of course, his love for Paulette Godard at the time. If anything, this film is quite a masterpiece for Charlie Chaplin the filmmaker, the writer, the composer, the editor and it was sort of an unknown territory as many of his other contemporaries from the silent era, were not able to transcend into the talkies era. The fact is that people were done with silent films but yet, nine years after the advent of the talkie era, Chaplin was not done with it yet.

So, “Modern Times” was the melding of the silent and talkies and in many ways a fitting goodbye to the silent era starring Charlie Chaplin. While the humans do not talk, technology does. We also get to hear the musical genius of Charles Chaplin and of course the theme of “Smile” which many people are familiar with, playing throughout the film and most importantly hearing Charlie Chaplin deliver one of the most famous scenes in a film with his gibberish song dubbed by fans as “The Nonsense Song” to the tune of “Titana”.

But possibly the most significant part about this film is how his trip overseas and meeting with Winston Churchill, Ghandi and many other key figures had exposed and inspired him to other perspectives about the world and the suffering of people in the early ’30s during that depression era.  The experience that Chaplin had of seeing the world in his own eyes and seeing the suffering back home, you can tell that there was an urgency to create this film and knowing that as many people are struggling and facing incredible challenges, that he can do what he does best and that is to make the audience laugh and smile.

I do have to note that there was also controversy that had developed with the release of this film back in 1936 as their was similarities between “Modern Times” and the 1931 French Film “À nous la liberté” by René Clair (this film is also available on DVD from The Criterion Collection), most notable in the assembly line sequence and the German film company sued Chaplin (in which the two did settle out of court).  Filmmaker Rene Clair was an admirer of Chaplin and was embarrassed that the film company sued Chaplin.

But there is also some controversy that revolves around “Modern Times” and it’s still a heated debate among the hardcore Chaplin fans and it is that this version featured on this new Blu-ray and DVD release is the film that has been in circulation after 1954.   In 1954, for the re-release of “Modern Times”, Charlie Chaplin cut parts of his famous “nonsense song” segment to the dismay of his hardcore fans. (note: The cut was only less than a minute long)

In 2000, to ease those fans who have wanted the original version of the film on video, David Shepard (known for his work in bringing silent films and restoring them for distribution) and Image Entertainment was able to get permission from the Chaplin Estate to use the uncut version of “Modern Times” for the 2000 DVD release (which has been long out of print). Many fans consider the uncut version as the true version of the film and the cut that Charlie Chaplin made in 1954 as unnecessary and wrong.

There is no clear reason why it was edited but some have suggested that Chaplin felt audiences in the 50’s who were not so into classic films may get bored and so he tweaked not just this film but other films and since then, these revised films have become the versions that the Chaplin Estate is distributing and the last cut that Charlie Chaplin had wanted.

Unfortunately, the hardcore fans have been vocal that for “Modern Times”, Chaplin was wrong for altering that sequence.  And unfortunately, some of these fans will not support any revised version of the film that Chaplin had made for appeasing audiences of the 50’s.  That the original cut was perfect as is and he shouldn’t have edited it.

With that being said, having seen the DVD release and having seen this Blu-ray release, the first thing that comes to my mind is that this HD release of “Modern Times” is the definitive version of the film to watch. The clarity and detail is so impressive. Personally, I really can’t see myself going back to watch the DVD release of this film. This is the best I have seen of Chaplin on video and the digital restoration of this film is fantastic.

As for that cut scene, I am speaking for myself and I feel that those lost 30 seconds was not that big of a deal. I personally didn’t miss it at all.  For me, it was a non-issue but I do know that for others who are passionate about the film, a film without those 30+ seconds makes an incomplete film.  I disagree. But when it comes to silent films, debates will always come into play from film speed, to music selection and in this case, whether 30+ seconds was integral to the film. It is important to note that the full “Nonsense Song” (including the cut scene) is included on the special features.

With that being said, for fans who still own and cherish the 2000 DVD release, that’s great.  But if you are one of those fans who are on the fence,  if you have a Blu-ray player and an HDTV, personally, I can tell you that once you watch this film on Blu-ray, I have no doubt that some of you will be impressed by the video quality of the film and the overall release. If you are a new fan, you are going to be pleased of how much Blu-ray can really enhance one’s viewing pleasure for silent films.  In this case, I felt there was a significant difference between this Blu-ray release and the picture quality compared to the earlier DVD releases.  I personally can’t go back to watching “Modern Times” on DVD as this version is just the definitive version to watch.

Once again the Criterion Collection has done silent film fans a great service by releasing the “Three Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg” and now with the release of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” in 2010.  Chaplin fans, prepare yourself for this HD treatment of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece “Modern Times” because it is the definitive version of the film to own! This Blu-ray release looks magnificent, sounds great and you get a number of informative and enjoyable special features to make this release a must-own, must-buy Blu-ray!

“Modern Times” is highly recommended!

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