Chaplin’s Modern Times: “A story of industry, of individual enterprise, of humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.”

November 26, 2010

The Criterion Collection has just released a new re-mastered edition of Charlie Chaplin‘s 1936 film Modern Times, a movie that’s often described as Chaplin’s last stand against the talkies. It’s also often (and I think wrongly) described as the last film in which Chaplin’s iconic “Little Tramp” appears. (He shows up as the Jewish barber who’s a doppleganger for the strongman Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator.)

In some modern circles, it is fashionable to rank Charlie Chaplin as the lesser comedic genius of the silent era; sophisticates prefer Buster Keaton and there are whispers that Chaplin may even have borrowed the Tramp character from his onetime roommate Stan Laurel. Chaplin’s personality has seeped into the debate — Keaton was a mensch, Chaplin was apparently devious and temperamental, a money-grubber more concerned with commercial success than making art.


I know that it is contrarian of me to prefer Chaplin to Keaton, and that my mind might be changed if I were to seriously apply myself to Keaton’s oeuvre. But I haven’t studied the films, I’ve only watched them and while Keaton is wonderful, a mule-faced athlete with a cool modernist aspect, I have to admit I find Chaplin’s old-fashioned vaudeville charming. I get why people think Keaton the superior filmmaker, and possibly the greater artist but my heart belongs to Charlie.

Modern Times (1936) is perhaps the highlight of Chaplin’s late career (though I also am quite fond of The Great Dictator (1940) and think Monsieur Verdoux (1947) is seriously underrated). It’s generally considered one of his best features, maybe not quite as good as City Lights or The Gold Rush, but a cut above Dictator and other second-tier work. I’ve got no real interest in establishing a hierarchy of these films, but I think it is instructive to note that none of Chaplin’s features were simple popular entertainments, but were informed by an acute sense of social justice.

Modern Times stars Chaplin as the still-silent Tramp; he also directed, produced and wrote the film’s muscial score. Filmed between 1932 and 1936, it was released nine years after the advent of “talkies,” yet it has no synchronized voice dialogue (though there are sounds emanating from the machines and at one point Chaplin’s voice can be heard singing a nonsense song.

Set during the Great Depression, the film concerns itself with the ongoing, worldwide problems of unemployment, poverty and hunger. The Tramp can be read as a symbol of the common man facing dehumanization at the hands of technology, specifically the “Fordism” of automation.

Much of the film consists of alternating scenes depicting the Tramp as a human fodder for various institutions, He is a worker in an assembly-line factory presided over by a “Big Brother”-style presence (this 13 years before the publication of Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four); a shipyard worker; a night watchman in a department store; a singing waiter and, ultimately, a prisoner.

From the film’s opening shot of a giant clock with the second hand sweeping toward the top of the hour the film’s thesis is clear: People live under a tyranny of the clock, and the increasing regimentation of the Industrial Age had subverted their very humanity.

With Modern Times, Chaplin fashioned a prescient critique of the modern workplace as an unhealthy and dangerous place that unreasonably stressed workers (and their supervisors) physically and psychologically.

The Criterion Collection edition includes these extras:
• New, restored 2K-resolution digital transfer, created in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
• New audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson
•Two new visual essays, by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance
•New program on the film’s visual and sound effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
•Interview from 1992 with Modern Times music arranger David Raksin, plus a selection from the film’s original orchestral track
•Two segments cut from the film
• All at Sea (1933), a home movie by Alistair Cooke featuring Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard, with a new score by Donald Sosin and a new interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge
The Rink
(1916), a Chaplin two-reeler
For the First Time (
1967), a short Cuban documentary about first-time moviegoers seeing Modern Times
Chaplin Today: “Modern Times”
(2003), a program with filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
•Three theatrical trailers
•A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz and a piece by film scholar Lisa Stein that includes excerpts from Chaplin’s writing about his 1930s world tour

Charlie chaplin modern times 01
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