Criterion Film Review: Modern Times (1936)

Prior to promoting his classic film, City Lights, during 1931 and 1932, Charles Chaplin arrived back in America with intentions of implanting important social and political themes into his next feature. He long contemplated the subject of this new picture and eventually chose to focus on the rise of the machine. Watching this film today, one can clearly see that Chaplin was against these large machines that were beginning to be used in factories, and he demonstrates his point by making his own Little Tramp one of the many men to be replaced by such machinery. Joining him, is actress Paulette Goddard playing a memorable companion to the Tramp, while also beginning both a professional and personal relationship with Chaplin that eventually ended in divorce after bad experiences together on the set of The Great Dictator (1940).

Modern Times is such a delight, especially when considered among the many unfunny comedies that Hollywood produces today. Not only are we entertained by the appearance, antics, and actions of Chaplin’s Tramp, we are also captivated by a heart-warming romance. This little film, running under an hour and a half, contains so many scenes that are incredibly easy to recall that it makes it near impossible to not love it. In the beginning, Chaplin performs a hilarious string of gags within a factory set made up of giant gears, levers, and assembly lines. As we make our way further into the story which he has written, we find ourselves immersed in something stunning. The genius of Chaplin shines through his masterful work here. His Tramp is funny, innocent, likable, and goofy, making for the ideal protagonist of such a simple plot. That is what made the star into a legend. In fact, so popular is the image of the Tramp, that many people believe that the mustache, bowler hat, and cane were all part of Chaplin’s regular everyday attire.

For those of us who have seen his masterpieces, laughed at his gags, and been moved by his stories, Chaplin is more than the little man with the funny walk. He is the father of cinematic comedy and the face of all silent films. And yet there is a question that I have attempted to answer on a number of occasions: Is Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton the greater silent comedian? Before watching Modern Times, I probably would have told you that Keaton was my favorite. After watching Modern Times, I can say that I have no earthly idea. The pleasant smile of Chaplin is certainly more inviting when compared to the stone-cold, determined countenance of Keaton, yet Buster’s films are every bit as funny and we do actually end up caring about him. This question may have to be solved at a later date, but rather, the purpose of this review was to ensure any skeptical reader that Charlie Chaplin should not be written off by modern audiences just because he made silent films. Most all his movies are as good as this one, and a few might actually be better. I would encourage anyone reading this to at least give him a try. Watch Modern Times and see if it is not as good as I have said it is.

Rating: 5/5

Criterion Review:

The Criterion Collection gathers great films, whether foreign silent gems or forgotten modern masterpieces, and restores them to high quality sound and visuals. They distribute them on DVDs, which most always have an awesome cover design, and include behind the scenes featurettes, interviews, commentary, and booklets containing essays by film critics and historians. These can be hard to find and especially for a good price, but I luckily found my copy of Modern Times during a sale at a Barnes and Nobles. After watching the film and all the bonus features (and reading the essays), I can honestly say that the purchase would have been worth it at the regular price. The restored print is incredible, in fact, I giggled with delight at the sight of the first shot. The few words that are said (or sung) are clear, and the additional footage is fascinating. Also, there is a short film starring Chaplin which showcases his rollerskating abilities, a silent movie documenting a journalist’s yacht vacation with Chaplin, and many other various joys. For anyone who loves Modern Times, Charles Chaplin, or just film itself, this particular two-disc collection is a must.