By Brad Cook | November 16, 2010

“Modern Times” is notable as not only The Little Tramp’s final film but also as the product of a Hollywood that will never exist again. While it might be easy to dismiss films of that era as simplistic in their production values, “Modern Times” is actually much more complex than it appears, despite the fact that just one person wrote, directed, and produced it and served as its star. Today, someone of Chaplin’s stature would need a small army to mount such an effort.

That point is driven home in a bonus feature with famed sound designer Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, who dissect some of the film’s most famous audio and visual effects. Unlike today, with our copious amounts of behind-the-scenes photos and video, back then most filmmakers carefully guarded their tricks, and Chaplin was no exception. A 1992 interview with film composer David Raksin supplements their insights; you can also listen to the original nine-minute orchestral piece from the first factory sequence, sans sound effects.

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, visual essays by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance reveal the locations used for the movie (and how they’ve changed since) and the making of the film, respectively. Chaplin biographer David Robinson provides a new commentary track that offers up the “film class on a disc” vibe so common to Criterion’s releases — I find such tracks a welcome change from most commentaries, which tend to feature people rambling about whatever strikes their fancy.

Two deleted scenes and three theatrical trailers round out disc one. Over on disc two, the 24-minute Chaplin film “The Rink” (1916) highlights his rollerskating skills, which are also on display during a well-known scene in “Modern Times.” We’re also treated to an 18-minute silent film shot by Alistair Cooke in 1933, as he accompanied Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on the film star’s yacht. You can watch it with or without a new piano score recorded by composer David Donald Sosin; a new interview with Susan Cooke Kittredge, Alistair’s daughter, closes out that slice of history.

If you’re curious how Chaplin played in other countries, the eight-minute documentary “For the First Time” offers an extreme example: a 1967 showing of “Modern Times” in a rural village in Cuba, where most of the people had never seen a movie. It’s an amazing piece of footage, considering the fact that we live in a world where we take it for granted that we can watch movies on pocket-size devices.

The final bonus feature in this set, the 26-minute “Chaplin Today: ‘Modern Times,'” offers the thoughts of filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne during a discussion of the movie’s place in history. It’s a nice bookend to the pieces on disc one.

Finally, we have a booklet with a pair of essays and plenty of photos from the movie. By the time you’re done with this release, you’ll feel like a “Modern Times” expert, which is the goal of Criterion’s exhaustive releases.

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  1. futurestar says:

    you are correct in that once Chaplin started speaking there was no ever going back to being the little tramp. this was the beginning of a new hollywood and a transitional film. I watched his Modern Times last week and felt overall it is better but we are talking razor thin lines here:
    A- vs. A+. criterion hits another home run. the amount of material is awesome. the commentary is essential to fully understand the back story behind studio politics. essential viewing for everyone. great review.

  2. Brad Cook says:

    Whoops, so sorry, Donald.

  3. Mark Bell says:

    Thank you for dropping by, Donald, and we apologize for the mistake. We’ve edited the review to reflect your proper name.

  4. Donald Sosin says:

    Thanks for the review. It’s Donald, not David, however.

    Donald Sosin

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