|Modern Times was superstar Charlie Chaplin's final silent movie, and the last proper silent movie of the original era as he stubbornly refused to move with the new technology. Well, sort of - he supervised the soundtrack and wrote the film's music soundtrack, including a song for his famous character The Little Tramp to sing, revealing his voice at last after over twenty years of keeping quiet, speaking only through intertitles. But having travelled the globe and witnessed first hand the dreadful effects of The Great Depression, he was not about to offer his adoring public any old pablum, he had something to say and he was going to say it.
The word that often came up in regard to Charlie Chaplin's work here from his critics was naive, probably because with Modern Times he laced the comedy of his earlier films with a more upfront political consciousness that his previous hit, City Lights, had ignored in favour of sentimental romance. He soon became known as a sort of millionaire Communist, a strange combination which he would reject, but there was no mistaking his leanings here when they depicted the working man as lost in an unfriendly world of the bosses' determination to sustain high productivity with the staff merely another cog in their factories: his character is not billed as the Tramp, but as a Factory Worker.
Rather than an individual, a member of humanity, whenever Chaplin's Little Tramp character gets a job in this it crushes him underfoot, or at least tries to, with the result that he is all too often thrown in jail. That's not something he minds especially, for he does appreciate the regular meals and a roof over his head, yet the film acknowledges that's no way to live when the alternatives should be so much brighter, and in his silent work going back to the start, even in his lowliest jobs he always managed to get the better of a bad situation. All of which makes Modern Times sound like some dry and solemn tract, when Chaplin was savvy enough to keep the tone light, as if there were always going to be better days around the corner, and packed the plotline with his signature gags, leaving the film resembling a collection of themed shorts.
The sentimentality was there, of course, but the seriousness of the intent was buoyed by the sense of humour. Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's latest girlfriend and soon to be his next wife, played the Gamin, a teenage urchin seeking to look after her family now her mother was dead and her father unable to work, which she does by stealing any food she can. This was quite a departure from the usual Chaplin leading lady who tended to be demure, not so proactive and placed on a pedestal: here Goddard was forthright, no victim, and prepared to grab life by the scruff of the neck because it was the only way she can survive, a distaff version of The Tramp. Oddly, the conservatively right wing actress not only married the famously left wing Chaplin, but the similar in politics Burgess Meredith straight after, too.
Although when you saw her legendary beauty, you might understand the attraction, especially that dazzling smile. She added sparkle to Modern Times that made it all right to laugh at the terrible tragedy of the Depression which America was suffering through, that optimism shone through every frame which said, explicitly, you may be having tough day, month or year, but you have your humanity and that includes the potential to enjoy the good things when you can. With that attitude the accusations of Chaplin's ingenuousness held water when you took into account his already comfortable lifestyle, but he was never to leave behind his memories of an upbringing in dire poverty, so was never anything less than sincere. Others observed that he had lifted much of Modern Times from René Clair's À Nous la Liberté - Fritz Lang's Metropolis too - but his jokes were his own and the setpieces which made clear his themes of man versus machine, emblematic of his attitude to the repression of the industrialisation of the world economy, were among his funniest. This made you laugh more than many a lesson in social commentary.
The Criterion Collection have released Modern Times on Blu-ray with a selection of special features.
Restored 2K-resolution digital transfer, created in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary from 2010 by Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson
Two visual essays, by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance
Program from 2010 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 - a sequence where Chaplin tries to cross the road, but is hampered both by the traffic and the assistance of an angry policeman (always the Man giving Charlie grief in his movies), then the song The Tramp sings in full, as Chaplin cut the end off it when it was re-released. Now you can hear it intact.
All at Sea (1933), a home movie by broadcaster Alistair Cooke featuring Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard, with a score by Donald Sosin and an interview with Cooke's daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge - you can see Chaplin was unable to appear before a camera without acting up with some comic bits of business, such as being hit in the face with Cooke's pipe repeatedly or using a mop for visual impressions of famous female stars.
The Rink (1916), a Chaplin two-reeler - watch the rollerskating in this, it’s where Chaplin for the idea for the more daring sequence in Modern Times. Otherwise, typical fare, but it is funny.
For the First Time (1967), a short Cuban documentary about first-time moviegoers seeing Modern Times - fascinating insight into a society for whom film had never made an impact, as late as the nineteen-sixties. It's great to see them laughing at the eating machine scene.
Chaplin Today: Modern Times (2003), a programme with filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne - as you may anticipate, The Dardennes have a genuine rapport with Chaplin's social aspects.
Three theatrical trailers
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz and, for the Blu-ray edition, a piece by film scholar Lisa Stein that includes excerpts from Chaplin's writing about his 1930s world tour