Charles Chaplin: The Gold Rush

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

The Gold Rush
d. Charles Chaplin (1925 & 1942)
Spine: #615
Blu-ray Release Date: June 12, 2012

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

When Charlie Chaplin finished up his contract with the Mutual Film Corporation in 1917 (the films he made with Mutual are available from Flicker Alley in an edition highlighted here last week), Chaplin signed on with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit and promised to create eight films for $1 million. Though he had a degree of independence at First National — they allowed him to produce without a fixed schedule — after making a couple of films Chaplin yearned for even more independence. In 1919, then, Chaplin, along with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks, created the revolutionary studio United Artists. First National would not let Chaplin buy out his contract with them, so he finished it out, releasing his final First National film, The Pilgrim, in early 1923. Because I’m hopeful the films he made for First National will receive their own home video release in the United States (right now you can watch all eight on Criterion’s Hulu channel), I’m going to skip over featuring anything from this period and move right into when he was finally able to make his first film at his own company, United Artists, in 1923.

At United Artists, Chaplin made eight features. To date, The Criterion Collection has released six of them. Again, we’re going to skip a bit and hopefully return to his first feature there, A Woman in Paris, when (or if) it gets its own Blu-ray release here in the United States. Instead, we’re moving right on to his second, the 1925 masterpiece, The Gold Rush, one of my favorite films of all time.

The Gold Rush

I mentioned last week that while at Mutual Chaplin’s portrayal of the Tramp started to evolve from strict slapstick into a character with subtle pathos. And while there is no shortage of slapstick in The Gold Rush, and that slapstick is hilarious, it’s the heart that really wins the day. Indeed, my young children laugh and remember well the scene in which Chaplin is dressed up like a chicken, running from his delusional, starving friend, but they are just as engaged when Chaplin waits, lonely, for a date that fails to arrive.

The Gold Rush 2

But back to the beginning. In The Gold Rush Chaplin plays a version of The Tramp called The Lone Prospector. He’s completely out of place when he arrives in the Klondike to seek his fortune: he’s not dressed well, he’s scrawny, and he’s deferential to all of the bigger, brusker men who are happy to have a target for their brutish energy. These brutes are not the worst of it, though. There’s the weather, a fugitive named Black Larsen, a kindly protector named Big Jim, and starvation and threats of cannibalism, all in the first act. It’s a life of deprivation and ambivalent cruelty, which we will see The Tramp character play out in various venues in his films.

The Tramp usually confronts such circumstances with generous kindness.

The Gold Rush 1

But in these circumstances he also exudes a shy loneliness and infectious hope for companionship. One of the reasons The Gold Rush is such a powerful film is because his character continues to take his knocks while remaining hopeful, even when those he cares most about use his hope to concoct their own cruel amusement.

The Gold Rush PosterMuch of this plays out in the film’s second act. Chaplin has found his way from death’s door to a quaint boom townwhere he is still one of the most down-and-out. One night he walks into a dance hall and sees Georgia (played by Georgia Hale), a beautiful woman looking his direction. Unsure of himself and yet ecstatic at this surprising development, the Tramp smiles and holds out his hands to meet her just as she skirts by him to the object of her affection, the charming but mean-spirited Jack Cameron (played by Malcolm Waite).

Such moments of embarrassment come frequently as the Tramp navigates a society that uses him for its own fun. And while Georgia sees something endearing in “the Little Tramp,” she also has fun watching him scurry to court her favor. It becomes quite cruel when she and her friends say they’ll come celebrate with him on New Year’s Eve but then fail to show up at all, leaving him to fall asleep and dream up his charming dance with the bread rolls.

The film moves on, and the Tramp’s troubles are far from over, especially when he makes his way with Big Jim back to the wilderness and its false haven.

The Gold Rush 3

The Gold Rush is a glorious achievement and this edition (more on the supplements below) is a beautiful package that does it justice. Such caring and lavish treatment is not exclusive to this title, though; next week we will talk about my personal favorite Chaplin film, 1931’s City Lights.


Supplements:

  • The first notable detail about this edition is that it contains two versions of the film, the original silent film Chaplin released in 1925 as well as the revised edition he released in 1942. Both versions have their claim to being the definitive edition: the silent because, hey, it came first, and the revised because it contains Chaplin’s narration, his further editing, and his Oscar-nominated score. It’s worth having, watching, and loving each, though the purist in me prefers the 1925 silent version.
  • The 1925 version includes an audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin’s biographer who also participated in the Flicker Alley releases we’ve already highlighted here. His track is wonderful: he goes into the production, along with problems that arose, as well as the lives of the wonderful cast — even the dog!
  • The disc also includes Presenting The Gold Rush, a 15:53-long demonstration of the film’s restoration (part of which you can see above). This feature also includes Vance, but also Kevin Brownlow (who also worked on a restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which I’d love to see on home video).
  • We get Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush, a 26:57-long documentary from 2002 that looks at The Tramp’s universality as well as some more production details from The Gold Rush.
  • Some of my favorite supplements are the one that go into the special effects (two of my favorites are found on the Modern Times disc, which talks about the roller skating scene, and on the Safety Last! disc, which talks about the climbing scene). Here we get A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in The Gold Rush, which takes 19:12 to talk about some of the special effects (and the cameras used to make them). Besides simply talking about the effects, special effects expert Craig Barron (who, it’s nice to see, admits he doesn’t always know just how Chaplin pulled some of this stuff off) also talks about how they work in the film, making it better than it might otherwise be.
  • Last, besides four international trailers for the 1942 version, is an interview with conductor and composer Timothy Brock, which talks about Chaplin’s work composing the scores for his films. One of my wife’s favorite songs is “Smile,” which comes from the instrumental theme Chaplin composed for Modern Times.
  • With the disc, we get a booklet featuring Luc Sante’s essay on the two versions of the film as well as James Agee’s review from the film’s 1942 re-release. Agee’s work on Chaplin is quite fascinating, and I’d never read this particular piece before.

2 thoughts on “Charles Chaplin: The Gold Rush

  1. Excellent! I look forward to next week’s! A lot of Chaplin films were incessantly played through the mornings and afternoons during the mid-to-late 80s on BBC2 – you never see any now!

  2. It is too bad, Lee. I grew up, like many, knowing who Chaplin was mostly through cultural references (like Warner Bros. cartoons, etc.) and was wonderstruck when I first watched his features. I love having these in my home now for my boys. They love it! I just have a feeling that after raising them on Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, and Tati, they’re not going to be fooled by all the junky “comedy” that’s out there! I could be an idealistic father . . .

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