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The good side of modern times

Charles Chaplin distrusted machines, new technology and mass production, precisely the things that have mended his best-loved films for everyone to watch in their living rooms.

Chaplin, who satirized the dehumanizing industrial age with Modern Times in 1936, has gotten a computer-enhanced makeover, with his feature-length films and some of his shorts digitally restored to remove flecks, specks and scratches, and to rebalance the black-and-white tones.

Four Chaplin flicks arrived on DVD last week: The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator and Limelight.

Coming early next year are City Lights, The Kid, Monsieur Verdoux, The Circus, A Woman of Paris and A King in New York, plus shorts including Shoulder Arms, A Dog's Life and Pay Day.

Some restored Chaplin movies are playing theaters in Europe. A spotlessly rejuvenated version of Modern Times closed this year's Cannes Film Festival; a seat was left empty and illuminated by a spotlight in honor of Chaplin, who died in 1977.

What would Chaplin think of the digital gizmos that revitalized his films?

"He hated machines; he was suspicious of machines. All you have to do is look at Modern Times to see that. But I think the result on these restorations is so spectacular, he would have loved it," said his daughter, actor Geraldine Chaplin. "You can't really say you've seen Chaplin unless you've seen these restored versions. These are the way they're supposed to be seen."

Earlier Chaplin DVD releases were blemished by spotty image quality. Two years ago, Chaplin's heirs struck a deal with French film outfit MK2 to remaster the movies, and Warner Bros. was signed to distribute the DVDs.

Warner and MK2 enlisted film critic Richard Schickel to write and direct a Chaplin documentary. Schickel's Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin debuted at Cannes and is playing other festivals before hitting DVD with the next wave of Chaplin movies.

Schickel said he hopes the documentary introduces new viewers to Chaplin, whose Little Tramp character remains an Everyman to whom today's audiences can relate.

"He's a universal figure. All the Tramp's needs and wants are the needs and wants everybody has," Schickel said. "He wants to make a living, find a girl, he wants to have a certain amount of respect in the community. The things that drive the Tramp are the things that drive all of us."

Born dirt poor in London, Chaplin was one of Hollywood's richest filmmakers in the silent era, co-founding the United Artists studio and becoming one of the earliest performers to blend pathos and drama with sidesplitting slapstick.

"There's still no one like him, no one with that magic, that subtlety, that innovation," said Johnny Depp, who in Benny & Joon recreated Chaplin's sight gag from The Gold Rush, skewering two rolls with forks and dancing them around like feet. "What he was able to do with no dialogue, no text, no words, just the body, just body language, just the eyes, just emotion. Pure emotion."

The two-disc sets released Tuesday offer a wealth of extras. The Great Dictator has behind-the-scenes footage shot in color by Chaplin's brother, Sydney, plus a documentary juxtaposing the lives of Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, who were born four days apart in 1889.

The Gold Rush includes the shortened 1942 version with narration by Chaplin and a reconstruction of the original 1925 silent version.

Limelight has Chaplin family home movies and the 1952 film's complete score, which, because of a loophole in Academy Awards rules, earned Chaplin an Oscar for best score 20 years after it was made.

The Modern Times bonus material includes an extended version of the nonsense song Chaplin sings and a Liberace performance of Smile, the pop standard that evolved from the theme music Chaplin wrote for the film. The DVD set also slyly includes a 1931 U.S. government film touting the depersonalized assembly lines Chaplin parodied.

"He remains so absolutely modern," said Geraldine Chaplin, who played her father's mother in the 1992 film biography Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr.

"Modern Times, this film made in 1936, talks about riots, unemployment, drugs, strikes, antistrikes, poverty, the tyranny of the machine, the inhumanity of the workplace. It could have been made today. And you identify with this little guy who's kind of the unconquerable spirit of mankind."

In his last silent film, Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin turns against progress and the machine age. Now, thanks to new machines, original films The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator, Modern Times and Limelight were released on DVD Tuesday with a restored look.