The Gold Rush [Blu-Ray]
Director : Charles Chaplin
Screenplay : Charles Chaplin
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1925
Stars : Charles Chaplin (The Lone Prospector), Mack Swain (Big Jim McKay), Tom Murray (Black Larsen), Henry Bergman (Hank Curtis), Malcolm Waite (Jack Cameron), Georgia Hale (Georgia)
Among all of his films, The Gold Rush was Charles Chaplin’s personal favorite and the film by which he always wanted to be remembered. It was the fourth feature-length film he had written and directed, but the first since The Kid (1921) four years earlier to feature his most iconic and beloved creation, the Little Tramp character. Chaplin was at the height of his artistic prowess in the mid-1920s and probably the most recognizable figure in the world, having honed his craft in dozens of short films throughout the teens, in the process attaining a level of success and stature rivaled by few, if any.
At the time he under a great deal of pressure to deliver a hit for United Artists, the distribution company he had founded in 1918 with director D.W. Griffith and actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. His previous films for UA, A Woman of Paris (1923) and The Pilgrim (1923), were both atypical Chaplin films, the former being a drama in which he didn’t appear except in an unbilled cameo and the latter being a caustic satire in which he portrayed a convict masquerading as a pastor. Thus, The Gold Rush, which was billed as a “dramatic comedy,” was a much anticipated return to form, and at the time of its initial release in 1925, it was heralded as a major artistic and commercial success, earning enough revenue worldwide to make it the most successful box office hit of the silent era. It is, in many ways, the quintessential Chaplin film, embodying all of his strengths as a performer and filmmaker. Emotionally robust and genuinely hilarious in ways that transcend time and culture, it balances the witty and the sentimental and still finds plenty of room to inject the moments of underdog social commentary that were so crucial to Chaplin’s worldview.
The story takes place in northern Alaska during the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s. Chaplin was initially inspired by a stereogram he saw at Mary Pickford’s house in 1923 of an endless line of prospectors hiking up the Chilkoot Pass—an image that is simultaneously inspiring in its depiction of human determination and sad in the realization that only a handful of those prospectors will actually strike it rich and the rest will go home exhausted and empty-handed. Chaplin casts his Little Tramp character as a “lone prospector,” who we first see walking precariously along a mountain ridge, at one point followed by a bear he never sees. Dressed in his trademark too-small coat and derby and too big pants and shoes, Chaplin’s Tramp ends up in a remote cabin during a snowstorm with Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), an enormous, but gentle prospector who has recently discovered a huge vein of gold in his claim, and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted criminal.
The film’s second half takes place in a small mining town where the Tramp meets and falls in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale), a local beauty who already has a boyfriend and rather callously toys with the Tramp’s emotions before recognizing the error of her ways. Interestingly, this portion of the film emphasizes the Tramp’s loneliness and isolation even more so than when he is walking in the snowy wilderness by himself. One of the film’s most affecting shots shows him from behind as he walks into a crowded dance hall and everyone around him partners up as the music begins playing, leaving him standing alone, a solitary figure amidst the mirth. Chaplin, of course, spins numerous comic gems out of the situation, particularly when Georgia asks him to dance as a means of escaping the advances of another man and the Tramp tries desperately to impress her with his dancing while simultaneously keep his pants from falling down (which he does by ingeniously using his cane as a make-shift suspender and not so ingeniously by tying them his pants with a rope than happens to have a dog on the end). Later, Big Jim, having lost his memory after being clunked on the head by Black Larson, convinces the Tramp to return with him to the isolated cabin so he can find his gold claim. Another storm hits, blowing the cabin to the edge of a cliff, which culminates in one of Chaplin’s most visually audacious setpieces as the entire cabin tilts and leans, threatening to plunge off the edge.
Compared to Chaplin’s previous films, The Gold Rush was an epic narrative and massive filmmaking endeavor; not only was it the longest of Chaplin’s features at that point, but it involved a more complex storyline (that was, nevertheless, largely improvised during production) and a number of innovative special effects. Ever the perfectionist, Chaplin insisted on take after taken, eventually shooting some 231,000 feet of film over 170 days of shooting, most of which was done in the studio, although some shots were done in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The production was also beset with numerous scandals, including Chaplin’s affair with his original costar Lita Grey (who had also appeared in The Kid), who was only 15 at the time and became pregnant; Chaplin had to stop production for three months in order to whisk her away to Mexico and marry her under the ruse that he was going there to shoot footage for the film. It was also during production on The Gold Rush that film producer Thomas Ince mysteriously died aboard newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. Chaplin always maintained that he wasn’t on the yacht at the time, but numerous sources have placed him there, and the rumor goes that Hearst shot Ince, but was actually trying to murder Chaplin because Chaplin was involved with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies.
Scandals aside, The Gold Rush was a monumental production for its era, and boasts some of the most memorable setpieces in all of Chaplin’s cinema. The early sequences in the cabin are among the most famous, particularly the scene in which the tramp boils and eats his own shoe, twirling the laces on his fork like spaghetti and chewing on the nails like chicken bones. It’s a quintessentially Chaplinesque moment: funny, graceful, and poignant, particularly because it rests so squarely on desperation and hunger, feelings that Chaplin, the son of itinerate vaudeville performers, had never quite forgotten, even after he became one of the wealthiest men in the world. We remember this scene so well because it so perfectly embodies the essence—and brilliance—of Chaplin’s art: the manner in which he transforms suffering into comedy without trivializing the pain. Much of The Gold Rush hinges on hunger, desperation, and poverty, which Chaplin transforms by finding the universal strands of humor in them (such as when Big Jim begins to hallucinate that the tramp is a giant chicken—a visual gag that would become de rigeur in Looney Tunes shorts) and by finding ways for his characters to surmount the odds.
Another comic sequence that demonstrates the transformative power of Chaplin’s comedy is the much beloved dinner roll bit, where he sticks two forks into a pair of dinner rolls and does an impromptu dance on the table with them (it was so popular to German audiences that the bit was actually rewound and shown twice at the film’s Berlin premiere). The gag was nothing new at the time—Fatty Arbuckle had actually done a version of it on-screen in The Rough House in 1917 when he and Chaplin were both working at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio—but Chaplin turned it into something both funnier and more poignant by employing it in a fantasy sequence in which the Tramp imagines himself entertaining Georgia and her three friends in his cabin for New Year’s Eve. On one level we marvel at Chaplin’s physical dexterity with his make-shift puppetry, while on another level it represents the Tramp’s own dreams and desires of being loved and appreciated, which makes the subsequent scene in which he sits alone in his cabin while Georgia and her friends live it up at the dance hall without him all the more affecting. Say what you will about Chaplin’s sentimental streak, but he earns every bit of pathos he renders.
|The Gold Rush Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|The Gold Rush is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||June 12, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Those who know Chaplin’s work know that The Gold Rush is one of his most historically contentious films. The original silent version, produced in 1925, was effectively abandoned by Chaplin in 1942 when he recut the film and added a new synchronized score and narration for theatrical re-release. Chaplin made the 1942 version the “official” version of The Gold Rush and actively sought to destroy the remaining copies of the silent version (while this sounds horrendous to us now, it makes some sense given that silent film was considered anachronistic and of little use in the early 1940s). Thankfully, some copies of the 1925 version survived, and in 1993 film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gil reconstructed it using the 1942 version, a print from a private collector, and three fragments preserved by the Film and Television Archive. While this reconstructed version has been available on DVD for 10 years via Warners Bros./MK2’s “Chaplin Collection” release in 2002, it was given short shrift in its transfer, a problem that Criterion has handily corrected with this Blu-Ray. The silent version has been restored in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna and given a new 2K digital transfer,. The image quality is substantially improved in terms of sharpness, clarity, and richness of contrast, while also removing quite a bit of wear and damage. There is still some noticeable variance in quality from scene to scene given the manner in which the film was reconstructed from different elements, but overall this is as good as the original version of the film has looked since 1925. Criterion has also added a newly recorded adaptation of Chaplin’s 1942 score, which is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround that nicely recreates the sensation of being in a huge theater listening to a full orchestra. The 1942 version has also been given a first-rate new high-definition transfer, this one coming from a 35mm duplicate negative. That version’s monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative and digitally restored, also sounds very good, although not nearly as immerse as the 1925 version’s orchestral soundtrack. However, the added sound effects such as wind blowing have a nice sense of depth and richness for a mono mix.|
|As with their previous Chaplin releases, Criterion has gathered an impressive array of supplements to augment and contextualize the film. The audio commentary for the 1925 version of the film by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance is immensely informative and a great listen, even for seasoned Chaplin fans who feel like they know virtually everything there is to know about this great film. There are also three new featurettes produced for this release: “Presenting The Gold Rush,” in which Vance and filmmaker/historian Kevin Brownlow discuss the history of the film’s two versions and the reconstruction of the silent version in 1993; “A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in The Gold Rush,” in which visual effects specialist Craig Barron discusses the various special effects in the film and how they were accomplished (it also includes audio recordings of Chaplin cinematographer Roland Totheroh); and “Music by Charles Chaplin,” in which conductor and composer Timothy Brock (who has adapted many of Chaplin’s scores for live orchestration) discusses Chaplin’s musical compositions and their effect in his films, particularly City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and, of course, The Gold Rush. Also included on the disc is “Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush,” a 27-minute retrospective documentary that was produced in 2002 and originally appeared on Warner Bros./M2K’ two-disc DVD set from that year, and four trailers prepared for the film’s release in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Luc Sante and a reprint of James Agee’s review of the 1942 rerelease.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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