Silent Movies For Modern Times | Texas Public Radio

Silent Movies For Modern Times

Nov 22, 2010

“The Jazz Singer” may have brought sound to the movies in 1927, but it didn’t exactly bring them to life.  Cumbersome sound equipment ensured that talking pictures were also largely static in their staging and imagery until the early 1930s, when Busby Berkeley’s musicals broke artistic boundaries with their proto-psychedelic arrangements of chorus girls. Consequently, many of the silent pictures of the mid to late 1920s are more memorable than early experiments with sound. Two new releases this month highlight some of the best that silent comedy has to offer.

MODERN TIMES

When sound came rushing in, Charlie Chaplin remained steadfastly a silent comic, producing his two greatest films, “City Lights” (1931), and nearly a decade after the introduction of sound, “Modern Times” (1936). By the mid-1930s, Chaplin had over two decades of experience on screen honing his Little Tramp persona. Perhaps because it was my first experience with Chaplin, but “Modern Times,” although the Tramp’s last appearance on screen, is my favorite Chaplin film. As a romantic comedy, it works well, but as a satire on “modern” life, it works superbly, and still does to this day. And it is deliriously funny.

The film’s opening shot, comparing factory workers with sheep being herded to an unknown (potentially fatal) fate, sets Chaplin’s agenda from the start, and within short order, working on the assembly line drives the Tramp so crazy he becomes one with the machine, trying to continue his duties even beyond the factory floor, adjusting stray bolts, screws, and buttons on buxom ladies’ blouses. Chaplin had visited Henry Ford’s plants prior to filming, and had seen the stress that factory workers were under. As is pointed out on a new Criterion Collection of “Modern Times,” Chaplin even modeled the factory boss on Ford, casting longtime associate Al Garcia because he looked a little like Ford.

Charlie Chaplin as a factory worker.
Credit Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Hints of Chaplin’s politics had been on display in his films before. He cared very deeply about social issues, as seen in “The Kid” and “The Immigrant.” The plight of the poor is personified in his Tramp character. In “Modern Times,” Chaplin criticizes the work-like-a-dog mentality of America. When a feeding machine is presented to the factory boss, its inventor promises to eliminate the lunch hour.  Police are depicted routinely manhandling protestors for workers’ rights. The Tramp finds that jail is the only place he can find peace and a decent meal. And throughout the film, the Tramp and his partner, the gamine (Paulette Goddard) struggle just to get a break, resorting to theft on occasion to eat.

Years later, despite Chaplin’s enormous popularity, he would be run out of America, accused of being a Communist, only returning in 1972 to accept an honorary Oscar.

“Modern Times” is also notable among Chaplin films because of its female lead. As the gamine, Paulette Goddard is Chaplin’s equal. Not in terms of comedy, to be sure, but Goddard is given a large amount of solo screen time, is the Tramp’s partner in crime (literally), and in a first for the Tramp, she’s by his side as the picture ends. It’s a fitting end to both the Tramp’s career, and the silent film era.

"MODERN TIMES" ON BLU-RAY AND DVD

Once again, the Criterion Collection has done a stellar job of presenting a classic film on home video.  Warner Bros. issued an excellent 2-disc DVD of “Modern Times” eight years ago; this release improves on it with special features devoted to the making of the film, including an eye-and-ear opening short documentary on the film’s sound and visual effects, which reveals how Chaplin accomplished that amazing roller-skating feat in the department store in “Modern Times” (hint: forced perspective).  Speaking of skating, this new release also includes the 1916 two-reel short, “The Rink,” where the Tramp skates circles around a jealous restaurant patron.

For music fans, there’s an in-depth interview with the late composer David Raksin, who helped arrange Chaplin’s musical compositions for “Modern Times.” Chaplin, a perfectionist and all-around prickly character, fired Raksin from the production after a week of work because he felt the young composer to be too much of an upstart. Raksin was rehired by Chaplin himself after explaining that his own musical suggestions were meant only to help Chaplin’s work be the best it could be.

Paulette Goddard, the gamine, laces up her skates.
Credit Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Other special features on the DVD set include an audio commentary by Chaplin historian David Robinson, two segments cut from the film, and a home movie shot by Alistair Cooke featuring Chaplin and Paulette Goddard relaxing on a weekend getaway to Catalina Island, off the California coast. The short film is fun and intimate, and features plenty of close-ups of the beautiful Goddard, with whom Chaplin was involved from 1932-1940.

The sound and picture on the Blu-ray of “Modern Times” are first-class.  Highly recommended for all ages.  (My kids, 3 and 5, both enjoyed the movie; “I like when he’s dancing funny,” said one. “Every time he screws the buttons it’s funny,” giggled another.)

"SHERLOCK JR." and "THREE AGES"

Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton’s vaudeville days prepared him well for the screen.  Although not as immediately endearing as Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, Keaton’s films have garnered much critical acclaim in recent years with some ranking his efforts above Chaplin.

Chaplin’s physicality is almost balletic, whereas Keaton’s antics are a little more rough-and-tumble, with the emphasis on tumble. Keaton suffered several injuries throughout his life, including a broken neck bone resulting from a stunt in the 1924 classic, “Sherlock Jr.”

Incredibly, “Sherlock Jr.” was Keaton’s lowest grossing film.  At just over forty minutes long, it’s hard to qualify it as a feature, but there are more jaw-dropping scenes in this picture than in many of the major blockbusters today.

In “Sherlock Jr.,” Keaton plays a movie projectionist who dreams of becoming a detective, and literally steps into the movie showing at his theater.  Inventive jump cuts, tricky pool shots, and a chase while riding the handlebars of a motorcycle are all part of this delightful film.  Watching the movie today, after 84 years of film history has passed, I developed an appreciation for the intense planning it must have taken to pull of the many visual gags in the film.

Kino International has paired “Sherlock Jr.” on Blu-ray and DVD with “Three Ages,” a spoof of D.W. Griffith’s work.  In this hour-long feature, Keaton plays a hapless fellow looking for love during three different eras of mankind: the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, and the Jazz Age.  It’s not as much of a rush as “Sherlock Jr.,” but there are some clever bits.

KEATON ON DISC

Credit Kino Lorber

Kino International mastered their Blu-ray disc of “Sherlock Jr.” and “Three Ages” from the best available 35mm elements, but there’s still notable wear to the prints visible onscreen.  I suspect that unlike Chaplin (whose Tramp character was licensed for all manner of merchandise, making Chaplin very wealthy), Keaton didn’t have the same funds for archival purposes. Digital artifacts are more visible, but they don’t distract from the overall enjoyment of the films.

Film historian David Kalat’s audio commentary on “Sherlock Jr.” is a delight. Some historians sound stiff and academic as they narrate a movie; Kalat sounds like he’s having a ball recounting the history behind Keaton’s first masterpiece. Equally as entertaining is the documentary short on the making of Sherlock Jr., hosted by film historian David Pearson. And as on the Chaplin disc from Criterion, there’s a nifty special feature showing then and now photos of the film’s locations.

To lend some historical perspective to “Three Ages,” Kino has included an excerpt of D.W. Griffith’s prehistoric romance, “Man’s Genesis.”  It’s pretty silly stuff in its own right, though not for the same reasons as Keaton’s film.

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