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The Gold Rush: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale,
Tom Murray, Henry Bergman

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Of the thousands of film comedies released since Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush premiered in 1925, most exhibit all the currency and staying power of time remaining on a parking meter. The Gold Rush, though, is something else. Chaplin said that it was the movie he most wanted to be remembered for, and damn if he didn't get his wish.

Images from The Gold Rush reliably spring to mind when we think of the Little Tramp. It brought this iconographic character — that Nike swoosh symbol of the downtrodden small man triumphing, however haphazardly, over hardship in a world determined to see him only as a shabby outsider — out of the urban boweries and into a Great White North adventure of grand scope and mammoth production scale. Trapped in a remote Yukon cabin during a blizzard, he dines on a boiled leather shoe, applying to the dubious meal all the refined elegance of fileted pheasant at the Russian Tea Room. The Tramp's rickety cabin, blown to a cliff edge, teeters above a mountain chasm with every move he makes. And here's where you'll find one of movie-making's sublime sequences — the Tramp's "Oceana Roll" dance with forks and buns, a brilliant bit of pantomime that Chaplin imbues with poignancy by placing it at the climax of a fantasy dinner party the Tramp hopes to throw for a woman who, though he doesn't know it, laughs at him when his back is turned. (The "dance of the rolls" was so successful that at The Gold Rush's Berlin premiere the theater owner appeased his clamoring audience by stopping the film, rewinding the reel, and showing it a second time before continuing.)

Now, whether or not it's his best masterpiece (how many filmmakers, then or now, force us to rank their multiple masterpieces instead of just their films?) is a topic film buffs argue about with a passion rivaling that of Talmudic scholars. His second feature-length film with the Tramp character, The Gold Rush doesn't display the polish and emotional candlepower of City Lights (1931) or the social-commentary experimentation of Modern Times ('36). It did, though, elevate Chaplin to new heights as a director-writer-actor, and it's so light on its feet that today it feels closer to his classic two-reelers than to the more self-aware (and self-absorbed) features that came later.

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Well before he began shooting The Gold Rush, Chaplin was the most famous man in the world. He'd been in show business for more than twenty years, since the English music hall helped the boy escape brutal poverty. In 1914, after two tours of the United States as a $75-a-week player in Fred Karno's vaudeville troupe, Chaplin joined Mack Sennett's Keystone studio, doubling his wages and exposing him to what "the pictures" had to offer during the knockabout slapstick days of the Keystone Kops and Fatty Arbuckle. He developed the Tramp during his first year under Sennett, and within four years the character had appeared in dozens of one- and two-reel short comedies directed by Chaplin. The best of these early shorts, such as Easy Street, The Immigrant, and others made for the Essanay, Mutual, and First National studios, remain some of the most age-proof pleasures ever committed to celluloid (not to mention little shiny discs).

In 1918, at age 29, Chaplin was Hollywood's first million-dollars-a-year celebrity. His personal and professional cache allowed him to build his own studio with full creative control of his work. (Chaplin Studios, at La Brea Avenue and Sunset Blvd., is now Jim Henson Studios. Atop its entrance stands Kermit the Frog sporting the Tramp's bowler, outfit, and cane.)

More than any of his contemporaries during the twenties — even the great Buster Keaton — it was Chaplin who lifted screen comedy and made it a form of art. In 1921, his first Tramp feature, The Kid, gave him room enough to expand his ongoing fusing of comedy and pathos, an approach that he developed with such cut-glass distinctiveness that the word "Chaplinesque" was already in circulation by the end of the decade. His next feature comedy didn't arrive for four more years. When he began developing the material that would become The Gold Rush, he was determined to make this new picture his most ambitious project so far.

It's difficult to overstate either Chaplin's protean genius or his popularity during World War I and the years up through The Gold Rush. Critic Andrew Sarris noted that with The Gold Rush in 1925 "Chaplin arrived at his highest plateau of public acceptance, and perhaps the final moment of unclouded adulation." That was the year Chaplin became the first actor to appear on the cover of Time magazine. The sheer size and weight of his cultural and commercial pre-eminence worldwide is like nothing we know even in our post-Madonna, Star Wars-bludgeoned era. Like Superman, Sherlock Holmes, and Mickey Mouse, the Tramp was (and still is) a universal icon that communicates across boundaries of language and culture. He's an enduring figure that even today is instantly recognized by just his silhouette.

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In his book The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr observes that The Gold Rush is one of only two silent-era comedies earning the right to be called an epic. (The other was Keaton's The General.) Early production shooting occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Truckee, California. When harsh winter weather proved to be both historically accurate and technically problematic, Chaplin completed the shooting in Los Angeles, where a full-scale mining town sunken in tons of "snow" was recreated, to the entertainment of gathering onlookers.

Chaplin used the setting's grim natural environment as both scenery and story. As he said in My Autobiography, "...we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature — or go insane." So even for a Chaplin comedy The Gold Rush is a dark piece of work. During the 1898 Klondike gold rush, any man trudging up the Chilkoot Pass was more likely to end up dying of starvation or exposure than striking it rich. Chaplin made that reality the floorboards of this tragicomedy. In the first minutes, as hundreds of would-be prospectors hike up the mountain slope like a line of ants, a climber collapses face-first into a snowdrift, ignored by the others and presumably never to rise again. A moment later the Tramp (here called "The Lone Prospector") stumbles across a snow-covered grave. Seven decades before Fargo, a wanted killer, Black Larsen (Tom Murray), commits a double homicide in the trackless white wastes. Nature ("a law unto itself") claims a man in an avalanche.

Much of The Gold Rush's comedy emerges from this friction between humor and circumstances of deadly seriousness. Inspired by an account of the infamous Donner Party tragedy, Chaplin delivers funny scenes spun from the wheel of privation and cannibalism. That's Chaplin himself, not a stand-in, wearing the hallucinatory chicken suit chased by hunger-crazed and axe-wielding Big Jim, played by chronically splenetic Keystone veteran Mack Swain.

Of course there's a love interest, a beautiful and brassy dance hall gal named Georgia, although she doesn't enter until a third of the movie is done. She's played by Georgia Hale, who Chaplin hired after six months of shooting when his original choice for leading lady, sixteen-year-old — or fifteen, depending on who you believe — Lita Grey had to be replaced on account of director-induced pregnancy. (Grey hurriedly became the second and most notorious of the four Mrs. Chaplins.)

The film's middle section leaves the epic scale behind a while. Instead, it irises in on the lovestruck Tramp's wistful romance with Georgia. These emotionally intimate scenes — especially the dinner party sequence that caps with the dance of the rolls — are devoted to one of the Tramp's inviolable characteristics, his tender sweetness. When viewing Chaplin through the eclipse goggles of unchecked cynicism, it's easy to dismiss this trait as just superannuated sentimentality. Yes, Chaplin did frequently deploy a gooeyness that you have to sop up with a sponge. But in The Gold Rush the tendency is restrained. And anyway, to sniff at him for balancing baggy trousers with expressions of love or heartbreak is like dissing Shakespeare for trucking out the iambic pentameter. At our distance generations later, we have no first-hand experience with the fact that his introducing poignancy to movie comedy was a great leap forward for the medium and for audiences alike. Nonetheless, anyone who remains untouched by the Tramp-Georgia scenes probably likes lima beans.

Let's remember too that in The Gold Rush alone the no-surrender Little Tramp is brave (contending with a bear, a killer, and the elements, he tackles a frozen wilderness on his own) and gallant (after a dance with his beloved, he defends Georgia by facing down her hulking, abusive suitor). He's willing to play dirty when provoked (as when Black Larsen gets blown out his own back door). He never does anything in timid half-measures (for the would-be candlelight dinner party, he sets the most elegant table for hundreds of miles). Plus he's determined (promising Georgia that he'll "make good," he returns to the icy wasteland for Big Jim's mountain of gold), resourceful (the shoe-stewing scene; working door to door shoveling snow to afford the dinner and gifts for Georgia and her friends), and loyal (returning to the States a millionaire, he affirms his love for Georgia, a steerage passenger on his ship). And through it all he is, as always, a courtly perfect gentleman who never gives up his hold on his scruffy dignity.

It's easy to focus only on the big scenes and narrative-turning events in The Gold Rush. A craftsman of lapidarian precision, Chaplin was also a maestro of the small touch. For a performer trained since boyhood on the music hall techniques of big expressions and broad gesticulations, Chaplin had mastered the knack of playing for the camera's intimate closeness rather than for the rowdy drunks in the back row. On film he never mugs or pulls goony faces. Pay attention to the throwaway facial movements and subtle body language — the way the Tramp offers Big Jim a share of the "wishbone" shoe nail, or how he gives the bottom of his ill-fitting waistcoat a perfect tiny maitre d' tug as he sets the dinner table. He integrates his face and body so eloquently with the forks-and-buns "legs" during the Oceana Roll dance that the bit, which had been around since at least Fatty Arbuckle did it in 1917's "The Rough House," achieves a beautiful lyricism while still being very funny. Compare the subtlety of his mannerisms to the more traditional, broad work of the actors around him, and it becomes clear just how extraordinary and controlled Chaplin was.

Like any enthusiast, it's tricky for a Chaplin fan (such as yours truly) to not over-gush about the object of one's admiration and affection. For the better part of a century now, he has been dipped in gold so often that his finer details, including his imperfections, are getting lost under the layers. Still, anyone who asks why The Gold Rush deserves the attention and dedication showcased in Warner's The Chaplin Collection might as well ask why we continue to crack open new editions of, say, Mark Twain, or why we don our headphones for a new CD of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The Gold Rush, like the rest of Chaplin's best films, goes up on your list of things that speak to you, pull you in, and remind you that what's "old" can also be newer and fresher than whatever nitwit comedy — with its deserved memory time equivalent to a dime in a parking meter — is currently playing at the nearest Regal.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

Nowhere was Chaplin's retooling more evident than in The Gold Rush.

Chaplin fans have a lot to be thankful for here, because this DVD presents exquisite reproductions of both the original 1925 silent version of The Gold Rush (for years available in public domain prints of often questionable quality and authenticity) and the 1942 sound re-release that includes significant re-editing plus Chaplin's own orchestral score and narration. With both versions on hand, this set is as good as striking gold.

Disc One: The 1942 re-release version of The Gold Rush

Disc One presents The Gold Rush the way Chaplin recrafted it for sound-era audiences. For better or worse, this version is the Chaplin estate's officially preferred cut, a status cemented by its placement as the sole item occupying Disc One. The original 1925 version occupies Disc Two, and we'll get to it momentarily.

Chaplin spent $125,000 refurbishing The Gold Rush for a major worldwide theatrical re-release in 1942. He cut more than 20 minutes from the original silent version, removed the title cards, re-edited several scenes, and then added his own sound narration and a new original musical score. He had always been fastidious toward the care his prints and negatives received, and for this print he had plenty of material to draw from since his films were so popular worldwide that he routinely made four separate negatives. He edited out entire sequences and shortened others, added outtake footage that had been originally cut from the silent version, and often substituted alternate takes shot from other cameras. In the re-release credits, the spelling of Black Larsen's name is inexplicably changed to "Larson." (The history of Chaplin revivals and reissues is so byzantine that the topic receives its own lengthy entry in The Chaplin Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell, and his entry on The Gold Rush offers a detailed breakdown of the differences between the 1925 and 1942 versions.)

The '42 re-release is a tighter film, to be sure, and a few sequences are improved by Chaplin's return to them. Two re-edited scenes in particular, though, cause Chaplin purists to chew their own shoes:

James Agee in Time hailed the '42 edition as "a sight for sore eyes, for old-style Chaplin fans and novitiates alike." However, today, more than sixty years later, it validates Chaplin's own contention that talkies were "spoiling the oldest art in the world — the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence." While it's too much to claim that The Gold Rush was "spoiled" by Chaplin's addition of an audio track with narration, it's easy to make the case that the original silent version has aged better.

His 1942 orchestral score fits the imagery with its composer's fanatical attention to detail. But like a double-breasted suit that had once been the height of fashion for your grandfather, the score's style now locks this version solidly into the 1940s. Although it's listenable, with some catchy melodies, its dated orchestration and motifs too often reach for the overwrought or the "precious."

More irksome is Chaplin's own voice-over, which replaced the original title cards with scene-by-scene storybook narration. Full of rolled r's and theatrical bombast, his rather prissy vocal flourishes are arch and mannered to the high-twee hilt. Worse, when the narration isn't voicing the thoughts of "the little fellow" and other characters, it merely describes the obvious. "With cheerful optimism our little Columbus descended into the vast uncharted waste — then stopped, stepped, slipped, and slid," we hear while we watch the Tramp doing exactly that. It's too much of a muchness, robbing the movie of its subtleties. It reminds us of why for the great silent artisans the human voice was not just unnecessary, it was also a hindrance.

Having suffered the vicissitudes of time in ways that the silent version will always be immune to, the 1942 version of The Gold Rush helps us understand what Chaplin meant by "the great beauty of silence."

How's the picture and sound quality of the 1942 version?

Clocking in at 1:08:51, this version plays at a natural-looking speed (always an issue with the silent films). Chaplin built this version from the best source material available to him. So while both versions of The Gold Rush on this DVD look gorgeous, it's not surprising that this is the superior of the two in terms of overall picture quality.

Digital transfer and restoration techniques have progressed enormously in the last few years, resulting in what's safe to say is the finest visual treatment The Gold Rush has ever received for home video. This is a beautiful print. It's sharp and crisp and very clean. The snowy whites are bright and not some muted gray, and the black levels are deep and rich. One can argue that this restoration may be too contrast-enhanced, with gradation and definition somewhat compromised as a result. (Certainly the 1925 version on Disc Two displays less contrast but better grayscale.) Signs of wear are negligible. It's a lovely restoration that — along with the 1925 restoration discussed below — will probably be the benchmark for any subsequent editions of the film (which, frankly, aren't likely anytime soon).

The audio comes in three options remastered in Dolby Digital — English DD 2.0 monaural, English DD 5.1, and French DD 2.0 monaural. All are strong and clear, remarkably free of hiss or wear. The 5.1 option places most of the sound in the center speaker, with the fronts and surrounds adding continual, but not at all immersive, support. The center sound is a tad bright and thin, which is not the case under the 2.0 option, which spreads everything across the front for a richer, fuller sound.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Disc Two: The original 1925 version and special features

Although it's listed third on Disc Two's "special features" menu, the original silent version of The Gold Rush is the centerpiece of this DVD edition. Indeed, for Chaplin aficionados it's likely the principle reason to pick up this set. For the first time on DVD, this is the complete restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, with musical accompaniment on the piano by Neil Brand.

How's the picture and sound quality of the 1925 version?

The 1925 version of The Gold Rush sure has taken a thrashing over the years. It has appeared on home video in several editions — a few have been good (any edition under the guidance of preservationist David Shepard is a safe bet), though most have ranged from tolerable to abominable.

As with the 1942 version, this is a lovely restoration. A correct film speed restores its intended style and pace for a timing of 1:35:18. Definition and clarity are quite good, though the print is less contrasty and sharp-edged than the '42 version, and the source material isn't quite up to the caliber of the later release. This clean, bright print shows only minimal signs of flecking, a few minor scratches, and some flicker. Nothing unexpected. It really is a beauty.

Neil Brand's piano score is right on the money. It's pleasant and unobtrusive, always mindful of mood, setting, and pacing. It uses melodies from the film's original compilation score by Karli D. Elinor. Expect to hear quotations from "A Wand'ring Minstrel I," "A Bicycle Built for Two," "Loch Lomond," "Pomp and Circumstance," "In the Hall of the Mountain King," and other familiar bits. It sounds natural and full in DD 2.0 monaural.

Special features:

Introduction (5:29) — Chaplin biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) gives a spirited preamble to The Gold Rush. His summary of the year-and-a-half production process, the Lita Grey-Georgia Hale switch, and other details is supported by clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and stills.

Chaplin Today - The Gold Rush (26:53) — The timeless universality of the Little Tramp is demonstrated in this documentary produced by MK2TV. Director Serge le Péron introduces us to filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo, who directs films in and about his native country of Burkina Faso in Western Africa, north of Ghana. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its people and culture could hardly be further from those Chaplin knew. Yet seeing a room full of Burkina Faso children leaning forward in their seats and laughing at the Tramp's antics and predicaments really brings home the fact that Chaplin's films are not merely things of the past. Also here are an audio clip of Mary Pickford on the visit to her and Douglas Fairbanks' home where Chaplin found his inspiration for The Gold Rush, outtake footage extending the "chicken" scene, info about the 1925 premiere, and 1980 interview clips with Lita Grey Chaplin and Georgia Hale.

Trailers (8:46) — This is a compilation of four trailers from around the world. Each is associated with the sound re-release version. The languages on display in the voice-overs are American-accented English, French, and German, followed by a Dutch trailer with no voice-over. A title card at the end of the French trailer mentions Chaplin's 1972 special Oscar, so it obviously post-dates that event. And the German trailer proves that there's a language with all the delicacy of a rotary saw. The audio for all four is DD 2.0 monaural.

Photo Gallery — This collection of 250 production and behind-the-scenes stills is divided into seven click-to video compilations. In a few cases, the parade of stills is (annoyingly) interrupted by snippets with audio from the sound version:

Film posters — Here's a click-through collection of 24 posters for The Gold Rush from various countries and decades.

Scenes from films in The Chaplin Collection — Finally, this "coming attractions" ensemble presents scenes from ten titles slated for the series (The Chaplin Revue is absent):

—Mark Bourne

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