Al Jolson helped break the sound barrier in film when he sang in 'The Jazz Singer' (1927), and Hollywood quickly embraced the new technique. Well, not all of Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin was concerned the Little Tramp's worldwide appeal would be lost if the character was given a voice, and being both his own producer and distributor, he was able to do as he saw fit.
Chaplin's masterpiece 'City Lights' was his first post-sound feature and he conceded to the technology through the use of sound effects and a score, but dialogue was still presented on title cards. He toured the world to promote the film, and away from the Hollywood backlot, he saw the effects the Great Depression and industrialization were having on people. This inspired him to make 'Modern Times.' The film marks the last appearance of the Little Tramp, identified as "a factory worker" in the credits. Some characters are heard speaking through devices like intercoms and radios, and the Little Tramp is finally given a voice, which he uses to sing a nonsense song with words that sound like they're French and Italian.
Described on a title card as "A story of industry, of individual enterprise — humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness,' Chaplin quickly makes known his point of view on the subject as the film opens with a shot of sheep filing past dissolving into a shot of men heading to work. A domineering boss observes his workers on video screens throughout the factory in a manner George Orwell would later use in his novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four." The boss constantly orders an increase in production, and in one of the film's more memorable sequences, allows a salesman to test a feeding machine in an attempt to avoid lunch breaks. Although there are plenty of gags, the effects of the repetitive work are physical as well as mental.
Unemployment and poverty are a great problem in society, somewhat resembling today's economic issues. Though he does his best to survive, the Tramp constantly finds himself powerless with his fate dictated by others. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time at a Communist march lands him in jail, but he doesn't mind, considering he gets shelter and three square meals a day. He later gets another factory job, but the union forces him to go out on strike. He crosses paths with a gamine (Paulette Goddard), a young orphan girl who steals food to survive. They quickly form a bond, but with their ages unknown, it's not entirely clear if the relationship is paternal or romantic. Working together, they find hope, which is shown to be as nourishing for the soul as food and shelter.
Chaplin's 'Modern Times' is a humorous and touching film that nearly a century later still has something to say about society. It offers entertainment to those who ask for only that, but it also offers conversation starters about how we live and work together without being preachy or dictating a point of view. While the limited depth of the characters and the simplicity of the story could be seen as flaws, they are more a function of the era and shouldn't be held against the work.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Modern Times' (#543 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is 40-page booklet containing Saul Austerlitz's essay "Exit the Tramp" and Lisa Stein's essay "Chaplin Sees the World".
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. The liner notes reveal the "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," giving Roland Totheroh's cinematography a needed upgrade from Warner Brothers' recent release on DVD.
The source was clean and the picture looked consistent, both thanks in part to Assimilate's Scratch software, Pixel Farm's PFClean system, and MTI's DRS system. The blacks were rich and never crushed. They contrasted well with the brighter objects. The image offers great detail as textures are apparent in a range of items from the prisoners' denim outfits to the buildings.
There were some expected wear marks, and grain is mostly evident on the title cards. The dissolves lose some clarity during a few frames of the transition. No digital artifacts were seen.
The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm soundtrack print making for a clean-sounding print. The occasional dialogue is always clear and understandable, particularly Chaplin's singing, which doesn't come through a device like the other occurrences. The music, both popular songs and the score Chaplin composed, demonstrate the breadth of the dynamic range. All the elements are balanced well together, although there's a limited amount of bass for the LFE.
'Modern Times' is one of Chaplin's classics. The story continues to transcend the time in which it was made. The Criterion Collection has given the film a great upgrade with the modern tools at its disposal. They have matched it a very good collection of features that inform viewers about the film and its maker.