The Gold Rush and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Friday night, I finally saw Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush properly—a good print with live musical accompaniment. And by the San Francisco Symphony, no less. Definitely the best way to see this wonderful comedy (although in the pantheon of great silent comic features, I still prefer City Lights, The General, and Kid Brother).

Like The General, this is an epic adventure built around a comic hero. Chaplin’s unnamed “lone prospector,” traveling through the frozen Yukon of the Alaskan gold rush, is marooned in a cabin with two much larger men, nearly starves to death, nearly eaten, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he’s alive. The story involves murder, death by avalanche, and men collapsing from exhaustion in the snow.

It also contains some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe and the dance with the rolls. But my favorite is the scene where his cabin mates wrestle over possession of a rifle that always manages to point to Chaplin.

This was only my third time seeing a silent with a full, live orchestra, and the last one was maybe 30 years ago (Napoleon). It’s a great experience. The full sound and excitement is way beyond what you can get with an organ or a recording. The score, which included several familiar tunes, added to the dramatic aspects of the story and punctuated the comedy without ever annoying the audience.

Carl Davis and Timothy Brock adapted this score from the one Chaplin himself wrote for the shorter, inferior 1942 version, making it fit the original, 1925 cut. Chaplin was not, let’s face it, a great composer. The more of his sound films you hear, the more you realize his limitations. But remove his horrible narration, and his Gold Rush score is one of his best.

The print was as good as one can expect, considering the The Gold Rush’s history. Chaplin lost interest in the original version after his 1942 edition, and didn’t bother to preserve it. He also didn’t bother to renew the copyright, letting it drop into public domain. This resulted in a lot of available, but horrible, prints. (The only other time I saw The Gold Rush with live accompaniment, at the Stanford some years ago, the print was almost unwatchable.) David Gill and Kevin Brownlow have done a remarkable job restoring the original cut from available sources, but it’ not perfect, by any means. “Much still needs to be done before it can be called a full restoration,” say Gill and Brownlow.

The evening’s entertainment included a lecture by Silent Film Festival co-founder Stephen Salmons, and antics by a very good Chaplin impersonator moving through the crowd.

Not that everything was perfect. Davies Symphony Hall is not a great movie theater. I had a front-row seat, which as a rule doesn’t bother me. But here, the pull-down screen was too high up for comfort. What was worse, the heads of the conductor and a cellist blocked part of the screen from my vantage point. And light leakage compromised the projected image.

Still, compared to the inferior versions of The Gold Rush I’ve seen again and again, this was something very special.

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