Blu-ray Review: The Gold Rush

In 1925, Charlie Chaplin created what many consider his masterpiece: The Gold Rush. In 1942, he altered it to an extent that would make George Lucas blush. And he insisted to his dying day that the new version was the better one.

This Tuesday, Criterion releases a superb Blu-ray of The Gold Rush that includes what goldrushare probably the best possible presentations of both versions. The menus and some of the extras describe the 1942 edition as “definitive,” but don’t you believe them. The original, 1925 version is as definitive as The Gold Rush gets, and is the genuine masterpiece. Fortunately, Criterion presents that in all its glory.

Like Buster Keaton’s The General, The Gold Rush puts an iconic comic hero into the center of an otherwise serious period epic adventure. On those rare occasions when the camera isn’t on Chaplin the actor, Chaplin the auteur reminds us of the grim, torturous, and deadly character of the Alaskan Gold Rush, still recent history in 1925. People collapse from exhaustion, are murdered in cold blood, and die in an avalanche. Starvation is a very real threat (although in Chaplin’s hands, a funny one). Dance hall girls celebrating New Year’s Eve look sad and homesick as they sing Auld Lang Syne.

While Keaton seamlessly integrated his comedy into the spectacle and action, Chaplin keeps them separate. His tramp seems superimposed onto the setting, and not a part of it. He’s not even dressed for an Alaskan winter, and realistically would soon freeze to death. For Chaplin, the period setting is a frame for holding comedy sequences, almost all of which take place in confined, indoor settings. Almost all of The Gold Rush, including most exteriors, were shot at the studio.

But what comedy sequences he created there! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Gold Rush, but the Thanksgiving dinner and the dance with the rolls still crack me up, as do a great many other, lesser-known scenes. My favorite? Probably when two intimidatingly large men fight over a rifle. They’re completely oblivious to Charlie’s presence, but no matter where in the room he goes, the rifle always points at him.

I also love the dancehall scenes. Here Chaplin creates a real sense of a frontier goldrush-georgiacommunity, and puts his tramp character into this milieu as an alien who can’t possibly assimilate. The scenes are funny, touching, and romantic. There’s a moment when the dancehall girl ingénue (Georgia Hale) surveys the crowd, hoping to meet someone worth knowing. Charlie stands nervously next to her, hopelessly in love. In her longing to find someone special, her eyes look right through him as if he wasn’t there. Your heart breaks as you laugh.

I don’t quite put The Gold Rush in the same stratified air as The General or Chaplin’s City Lights. But it’s close.

Chaplin didn’t trust his audience to accept a silent film in 1942 (only six years after the release of his last silent, Modern Times). So before he rereleased the picture, he removed all of the intertitles, and added a narration.

That might have worked had the narration been as terse as his intertitles, and if he had hired a great voice–say, Orson Welles–to read it. But instead he wrote a verbose narration, explaining much that doesn’t have to be said, and spoke it himself.

There are reasons why Chaplin had his greatest success in silent films and not radio. His voice gets annoying very quickly. He’s overly excitable, melodramatic, and clearly in love with his lukewarm ability to do character voices. When characters’ move their silent lips, Chaplin tells you what they’re saying, in amateurish voices, even when it’s painfully obvious and no intertitle was used in the original. He also adds quick identifying statements like “Big Jim said…” And when characters aren’t talking, he often tells us what they’re doing, even though we can see it clearly for ourselves.

It’s not all a loss. He succeeds in enhancing two brief moments with verbal jokes. Better yet, he shuts up during most of the major comic set pieces.

In addition to the narration, Chaplin added an excellent musical score and sound effects. He also trimmed a few scenes without doing serious damage.

First Impression

goldrush-boxTypical for Criterion, The Gold Rush comes in a clear case a bit larger than a typical Blu-ray case. Criterion includes a 24-page booklet containing the film’s credits, an essay on the film by Luc Sante, James Agee’s review of the 1942 version, a brief piece on the restoration, and credits for the disc.

How It Looks

Original 1925 version: Years after Chaplin altered the film in 1942, he failed to both renew his copyright on the original and to preserve the physical film. This resulted in a lot of very bad, almost unwatchable prints.

Over the course of many years, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill have  restored The Gold Rush to something approaching its original form. They consider the version on this disc to be a work in progress; they’re always hoping that new material will turn up.

Most of this transfer looks very good, although it doesn’t measure up to the exceptional Blu-ray transfers of The General or Metropolis (well, most of Metropolis). The images are clear and detailed, with only occasional film-based artifacts. In the above-mentioned dancehall scenes, you can really appreciate how well cameraman Rollie Totheroh’s lighting created atmosphere and subtly separated Chaplin for the crowed, emphasizing his alienation.

But then, every so often, it looked mediocre or worse. There’s only so much Brownlow and Gill could do with bad source material.

1942 version: The image quality here is far more consistent, which is hardly surprising since it was better cared for and didn’t need a restoration. It looks very good throughout.

How It Sounds

Original 1925 version: Chaplin’s family insists that the restoration only be shown with Timothy Brock’s adaptation of Chaplin’s 1942 score. Although I would have liked one or two alternative scores, I can’t complain. Shorn of the irritating narration, this easily becomes Chaplin’s best work as a composer. It supports the film and never overwhelms it. Chaplin understood that funny images don’t need funny music.

One odd touch: The score is almost completely devoid of musical sound effects. Even a gunshot doesn’t merit a bass drum or other instrument. Chaplin’s reason was obvious: He wrote this score for the 1942 version, which includes realistic sound effects. They were there, but not part of the musical score.

Brock recorded this score with a full orchestra, and it’s presented in lossless DTS Master Audio 5.1 surround. Needless to say, it sounds great.

1942 version: The original mono soundtrack is reproduced in uncompressed PCM. It sounds great, allowing you to fully appreciate what a bad speaking voice he had.

And the Extras

Hey, it’s Criterion!

  • Audio commentary for the 1925 version by Chaplin biographer and archivist Jeffrey Vance. This is an excellent commentary, and Vance makes a convincing argument that this is Chaplin’s best work–even if he didn’t quite convince me. He offers excellent insights into much of the film’s background, including its autobiographical elements.
  • Presenting The Gold Rush: 16 minutes. A quick overview of the film’s history, with emphasis on the restoration.
  • Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush: 27 minutes. A documentary on the making of the film. Made in 2002, this was also on the Warner Brothers DVD release, and is the only extra not new to this release.
  • A Time of Innovation: 19 minutes. Special effects wizard Craig Barron (Titanic, Raiders of the Lost Ark) discusses how cinematographer Rollie Totheroh achieved The Gold Rush’s effects entirely in the camera. Absolutely fascinating.
  • Music by Charles Chaplin: Composer/conductor Timothy Brock discusses Chaplin as a composer.
  • Four trailers