About two years ago I started watching Charlie Chaplin films for the first time. I watched City Lights, The Great Dictator, The Kid, The Gold Rush and, of course, Modern Times. I didn’t instantly take to his style of comedy or commentary, not the same as I instantly fell in love with Buster Keaton’s work in The General, but as I watched each film my appreciation began to grow.
With only a few films under my belt when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, I would probably still place myself more in Keaton’s camp than Chaplin’s. But with the thought of Criterion potentially adding the rest of Chaplin’s classic features to their collection, and if the Blu-ray releases are as spectacular as their treatment of Modern Times, that won’t stop me from wanting more, more, more.
Modern Times is the first Chaplin feature Criterion has added to their collection, and with Janus Film road-showing several new 35mm prints of Chaplin’s classics from A Dog’s Life to A King in New York I’d say it’s only a matter of time before we see many more. However, Modern Times is probably the very best place to start and I assume it will be flying off the shelves, especially once word gets out as to how great it is.
First off, the transfer is superb. What I’ve really started to notice about Criterion’s Blu-ray editions of black-and-white features is the balanced texture. Grain is often, if not always, present and it’s rare for one scene to appear overloaded with grain while another is wiped clean unless it can’t be avoided, such as an instance where the film stock may not be up to par with the rest of the print. In the case of Modern Times the grain levels are even throughout and will satisfy audiences looking for grain and won’t bother those that would prefer the grain be scrubbed out. Additionally, the 1.0 monaural audio track is crisp, clean and perfect if you ask me and gone into in-depth with the film’s music arranger David Raksin in a separate featurette.
On top of the film, the supplemental features are extensive, but not to the point of exhaustion.
Beginning with the brand new audio commentary recorded by Chaplin biographer David Robinson you can either start with this commentary and get a jump on the additional features, or listen to it last for a recap of most of the other features on the disc plus a helping of much more information. Robinson’s commentary is a mixture of textbook and seemingly off-the-cuff comments and while he primarily sticks to the facts of the matter, it never comes across as overly professorial.
Next there’s a batch of four featurettes, three that run around 16 minutes and a fourth clocking in at 21 minutes. One is the interview with Raksin I already mentioned that also includes a nine-minute selection from the film’s original orchestral track. Raksin has plenty of good stories to tell ranging from the demands of Chaplin to just how much work on the film’s music he’s responsible for. “Modern Times: A Closer Look” is a solid visual essay of the film’s production and “Silent Traces: Modern Times” reminded me a lot of the location featurettes I discussed on Kino’s recent location featurettes on their Sherlock Jr. / Three Ages Blu-ray pointing out the locations where the film was shot.
However, the best of the four is undoubtedly “A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte” in which Craig Barron (Oscar-winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button visual effects supervisor) and Ben Burtt (sound designer on the Star Wars franchise) discuss the film’s visual and sound effects. The segment breaking down Chaplin’s roller-skating sequence in this featurette is brilliant.
Chaplin’s skating skills are also on display in the 25-minute short “The Rink” and there’s also a silent 8mm home video featuring Chaplin, Modern Times co-star Paulette Godard and journalist Alistair Cooke from 1933 in which the trio decide to make the most of a yachting trip. The 18 minute silent can also be watched with an optional score by composer Donald Sosin. A supplemental interview with Cooke’s daugter, Susan Cooke Kittedge, is also available.
Rounding out the bunch is a ten-minute short titled For the First Time in which Cuban documentarian Octavio Cortazar shows Modern Times to a group of moviegoers for the first time, some of which that have actually never seen a movie. The set is then completed with two deleted scenes, three trailers and a 40-page illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz “Exit the Tramp”, which you can read here, and Lisa Stein’s essay “Chaplin Sees the World”.
Modern Times is Chaplin’s last outing as the Little Tramp and is often referred to on this disc as “the last great silent film to come out of Hollywood,” and that is a theme that seems to run through the entire disc. I can’t argue with the statement seeing how I don’t have a massive amount of knowledge regarding silent films. But considering Modern Times was released in 1936, several years after talking pictures had become the norm, I think it’s pretty safe to say it’s a claim worth agreeing with and Criterion’s presentation is one to add to the shelves.