Charles Chaplin is one of cinema’s great humanists and perhaps none of his features is more empathetic (and none more relevant to today’s economic crisis) than Modern Times. Released almost a decade after the Jazz Singer had ushered in the ‘Talking Motion Picture,' the film is still largely silent, that is if you don’t count music and sound effects. When his Tramp character speaks on screen for the first time ever in the film’s penultimate scene, it is to sing a song of gibberish made-up sounds and syllables, a comment on Chaplin’s belief that words only got in way of being truly funny (his art was first and foremost about pantomime, and it is no coincidence that he retired the Little Tramp character with this film).
The film’s vignettes make well-drawn, still relevant observations on the role of work in everyday life without being didactic. And while the film may be light on guffaws, it has more than its share of exquisitely choreographed set-pieces that are still a marvel to behold almost 80 years later. Chaplin never had a more well-matched female lead than Paulette Goddard. Unlike the many films which end with Charlie walking away alone, here the Factory Worker and the Gamine walk together arm in arm into an uncertain but hopeful future. It’s damn near a happy ending.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition may lack that ‘wow’ factor so many people look for in the new format, but it is truly a marvel given the age of the materials involved. The film’s look is clean, with even grain throughout and rich contrast. Extras are considerable -- a terrific commentary track by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, two new visual essays, detailed looks at the film’s soundtrack as well as its visual and sound effects, and the classic Chaplin two-reeler The Rink, where he first showed off the roller skating skills he puts to such good use in Modern Times.