The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem

If people know anything about Charlie Chaplin, they know he made silent movies. And if they know anything about silent movies, they want said movies to be accompanied by live music. And yet the upcoming Chaplin series at the Pacific Film Archive, screening nearly all of his features and all of his later shorts, has only one program with live accompaniment. The series runs from November 17 through December 19.

But don’t blame the Archive. The fault lies with Sir Charlie himself, and with the heirs who honor the wishes of their father as an old man rather than the creativity of his youthful self.

Everything George Lucas ever did to a finished Star Wars movie pales compared to Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of The Gold Rush (1925). Wanting to re-release his masterpiece but fearful that audiences would no longer accept a silent movie, Chaplin removed all of The Gold Rush’s intertitles, trimmed several scenes, and added new, and seemingly endless, narration. You can’t improve any motion picture, let alone a sublime piece of visual comedy, by adding a fade in-to-fade out monologue written and spoken by the world’s greatest mime.

The original, 1925 Gold Rush still exists–it’s even an “extra– on the two-disc special edition DVD. But Chaplin went to his grave insisting that the 1942 Gold Rush was the definitive version. His family has respected his wishes rather than history, general consensus, and the wishes of his fans. So that’s the version the PFA will screen.

Chaplin never again did that much harm to one of his movies, but he didn’t leave them alone, either. In the remaining 35 years of his life, he scored all of the silents he personally owned. He also did some minor re-editing on several of them, but they’re pretty close to the original versions.

Once again, the Chaplin estate insists that only his new versions, with his soundtracks, get shown, robbing us of the live music experience and the chance to watch a great silent film reinterpreted with a new score. This isn’t as bad as the fate of The Gold Rush–the other movies are very much worth seeing in their sound versions–but it’s still a shame.

Not everything in the series suffers from Chaplin’s revisionist tendencies. His sound films–including the essentially silent City Lights and Modern Times–have not changed. And the Mutual Shorts shown free December 6 are outside of the Chaplin Estate’s control; Judith Rosenberg will accompany them on piano.

Some of the films in this series will also be shown at the Castro December 2 through 12.