Big Picture Big Sound

Modern Times Blu-ray Review

By Chris Chiarella

The Movie

Modern Times is considered the great Charlie Chaplin's first talkie, as he even sings a memorable song with synched sound late in the film, and yet since it was shot silent (all of the audio was added later) it is also considered to be Hollywood's last great silent film. It also marks the last time he would don the iconic Tramp persona on camera: No matter how you look at it, Modern Times is a landmark film.

Like many folks, before I saw the movie for the first time, I was most familiar with the images of Chaplin battling big, cartoonish machinery, and so I thought the title was hinting at some satire on futuristic technology. But despite a couple of such gags, the movie is in fact about life during the era of the The Great Depression, finding ways to get by during a time of severe economic hardship and limited opportunities, making it eerily relevant today.

It begins with a nameless factory worker (Chaplin) snapping at his post one day, suffering a nervous breakdown and triggering a series of wild events. Unemployed, he is soon mistaken for a Communist leader and before he knows it he is in and out of jail and multiple jobs. Over the course of his misadventures, he meets up with a beautiful young girl from the streets (Paulette Goddard), forming a relationship that Luc Besson would be proud of.

Scene after scene, Chaplin proved that he was a master of physical comedy, displaying an in-character finesse and gleeful ignorance toward physical harm that we just don't see on screen anymore. As writer, director, star and even musical composer (including the song "Smile" which debuted here), he created one of his true masterpieces in Modern Times.

The Picture

The newly restored 4:3, black-and-white Modern Times delivers a crisp overall image with delicious blacks and modest film grain, enough to impart a filmic warmth without being in any way distracting. We can even spot the thin black wire used to cue certain props. The image is also remarkably consistent throughout, with no significant lapses in quality despite the film's age and history.


The Sound

Presented in the best possible audio quality; a cleaned-up 24-bit remaster from the original 35mm mono soundtrack print; the uncompressed linear PCM is a fine match for the movie. There is precious little synch sound, and the director finds some clever ways around it, and some scenes might only contain Chaplin's music, maybe a few sound effects. It's really quite a simple mono track, and the quality is limited primarily by the quality of the archival elements used.

The Extras

The disc's supplements are a combination of brand-new content created for this edition, some previously released, and some amazing vintage footage never before seen. There's a new commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, and "Modern Times: A Closer Look," author Jeffrey Vance's 17-minute visual discussion of the making of the movie, also from 2010. "A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte: Special Effects in Modern Times" brings together experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt to ruminate on the visual effects and sound effects (20 minutes). And in "Silent Traces: Modern Times" (15 minutes) author John Bengston explains how the locations shed light on the history of Hollywood.

In "David Raskin and the Score," the noted composer looks back (from1992) upon his work on the film, (16 minutes), in addition to nine minutes of the isolated orchestral soundtrack from the first factory sequence, in Dolby Digital mono over a static image. "Two Bits" reveals a pair of deleted scenes, "Crossing the Street" and "The Tramp's Song, Unedited," six minutes total. "All at Sea" is the late journalist Alistair Cooke's eighteen-minute silent film (with optional score) with Chaplin and then-wife Goddard on a weekend yacht voyage. There's also an interview with Cooke's daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge.

"The Rink" (1916) is the eighth of Chaplin's dozen Mutual Film Corporation shorts, notable for putting The Tramp on roller skates. "For the First Time" is a 1967 Cuban documentary about showing old movies to people who've never seen one before (nine minutes). "Chaplin Today: Modern Times" (27 minutes, from the 2003 DVD) shows a couple of present-day (give or take) filmmakers putting it all into perspective. Three international trailers show how the movie was marketed here and in Europe.

All of the video here is presented in high-definition, although the quality of the original material sometimes yields less-than-demo-quality-results.

Final Thoughts

Criterion has done it again with a fine looking/sounding classic rescued from old age and potential obscurity, ready to entertain a whole new audience. This Blu-ray of Modern Times is surely suitable for (and resonant in) these modern times.

Product Details

  • Actors: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Stanley Blystone, Al Ernest Garcia
  • Director: Charles Chaplin
  • Audio Format/Languages: Uncompressed Linear PCM Mono (English)
  • Subtitles: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rating: NR
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • Release Date: November 16, 2010
  • Run Time: 87 minutes total
  • List Price: $39.95
  • Extras:
    • Audio Commentary by David Robinson
    • "Modern Times: A Closer Look"
    • "A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte: Special Effects in Modern Times"
    • "Silent Traces: Modern Times"
    • "David Raskin and the Score" plus Isolated Score sample
    • "Two Bits" (Deleted Scenes):
      • "Crossing the Street"
      • "The Tramp's Song, Unedited"
    • "All at Sea" with interview of Susan Cooke Kittredge
    • "The Rink" (1916)
    • "For the First Time" documentary short
    • "Chaplin Today: Modern Times"

What did you think?

View all articles by Chris Chiarella
More in Blu-Ray and DVD
Big News
Newsletter Sign-up
Connect with Us