Criterion Corner Review: Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' Is One of the Richest Films Ever Made

Criterion Corner Review: Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' Is One of the Richest Films Ever Made

Jun 12, 2012

#615 THE GOLD RUSH (dir. Charlie Chaplin) 1925 / 1942

“The Gold Rush is the picture that I want to be remembered by.” - Charlie Chaplin  

THE FILM: First of all, if I were Charlie Chaplin, this is the picture that I would want to be remembered by. But, as you may have deduced by now, I am not Charlie Chaplin (I’m not even Harold Lloyd), and so it would be specious of me to claim that Chaplin afforded such importance to this particular film only because it was promotionally convenient for him to do so. All the same, I tend to think that The Gold Rush was not merely the film that he wanted to be remembered by, but -- perhaps more pivotally -- the film that he suspected might best remember him. 

The year was 1942, and the most famous man of the early 20th century was deathly afraid of being forgotten. The popularization of talkies had convinced the ultimate icon of the silent cinema that he was something of a relic -- despite the fact that he was only one year removed from the  success of The Great Dictator, Chaplin apparently struggled with the insurmountable irrelevance of his art, the reluctant sound of Modern Times and the work that followed being concessions to a future that he refused to embrace. More to the point, Chaplin was afraid that his earlier films would literally cease to exist -- in an age before film preservation was an active concern, Chaplin had watched as the blood, sweat, and tears of his fellow filmmakers had disintegrated into the air like so much nitrate. Moreover, Chaplin was worried that people wouldn’t only forget his contributions to the silent cinema, but that people might forget the silent cinema altogether. 

Chaplin understood that creating a new silent film could be career suicide, so he did the next best thing, and parsed through the negatives of his established classics to find the movie that might best be retrofitted for the age of talkies, a film that offered the scopic pleasures of the silent cinema, yet could also be easily contorted into the shape of a more contemporary narrative. 

The Gold Rush was the obvious choice. Chaplin’s presciently hilarious 1925 masterpiece -- perhaps the funniest movie ever to be inspired by the Donner Party (although that one joke with the skeleton in Patch Adams was pretty good) -- is full of irresistible stand-alone gags, and yet they never interfere with the integrity of the film’s narrative, which concerns a bumbling little prospector heading west for his share of the American dream, and falling in love with a boomtown prostitute in the process. Indeed, without the presence of that little prospector, one has to imagine that Chaplin would never have selected The Gold Rush as the film he first wanted to re-release -- for Chaplin, asserting his immortality required resurrecting the Tramp.

The iconically mustached alter-ego had waddled off into the sunset at the end of Modern Times, and Chaplin had regretted it ever since (in 1959, he confessed to a reporter that “It was wrong to kill [The Tramp]. There was room for the Little Man in the atomic age”). So Chaplin dug him up and gussied him up for contemporary audiences, layering the picture with a synchronized score, editing the film into a more plot-driven experience, and narrating a voiceover commentary in place of the original version’s intertitles. It was the Star Wars: The Special Editions of the 1940s, especially so far as Chaplin’s widely disseminated new cut of The Gold Rush effectively buried the original version, and to an extent that was only truly possible before the emergence of home video. 

Chaplin’s revisions were drastic, if largely cosmetic. They did nothing to fundamentally change one of The Little Tramp’s greatest adventures, a defiantly optimistic slice of manifest destiny in which a little man with a big cane goes to Alaska for his claim of American gold. After a remarkable opening shot in which hundreds of prospectors are seen snaking their way over Yukon’s Chilkoot Pass, the brunt of The Gold Rush transpires on a small number of remarkably evocative (but unapologetically fake) Hollywood sets, most memorably a cozy log cabin on the edge of a cliff where The Little Tramp shacks up with a kind-hearted stranger with some hidden gold and a cutthroat fugitive named Black Larsen. Alone and together, the three men struggle to survive a brutal snowstorm, their dream of riches kept alive on a shoestring (served atop a healthy portion of boiled leather shoe). Eventually they part ways, The Little Tramp meets a “dancer” named Georgia at a local “bar,” and the American dream becomes a reality for those who are virtuous and pure of heart.

It can be difficult to see The Gold Rush as a film that’s so devoted to preserving the cinema of the past, especially because of how both versions clearly informed the cinema that followed. Often enough, the nods are rather direct -- Jean Vigo would quote the pillow-fight sequence in 1933’s Zéro de Conduite, Christopher Nolan would borrow the shifting gravity of Chaplin’s hanging house finale for Inception, and Jackie Chan would lift his entire career from The Little Tramp’s sly violence. In other cases, the ways in which The Gold Rush has proven to be a formative film are a bit more abstract, but no less far-reaching. For one thing, Chaplin manages to trace the prototypical romantic comedy between the film’s legendary physical gags, flattening the form that Shakespeare popularized into something cinematically inexhaustible -- squint your eyes, and The Little Tramp becomes the forefather of a manic Ben Stiller, bruising himself in an earnest attempt to get the girl.

Mistaken identities, animal humor, a wacky supporting cast, and a sudden last-minute revelation... it’s all there. Even before The Gold Rush’s 1925 debut, there had been oodles of silent features and two-reelers that had played on similar notions of dawdling romance, but it was Chaplin’s masterpiece that most indelibly illustrated how physical comedy could inform a love story, cementing how film might deal with the age-old notion that regular people can find happiness through extraordinary chance. 

Maybe Chaplin understood that The Gold Rush -- which had already anticipated the dreadful poverties of The Great Depression -- might be his most prescient film, regardless of economic circumstances. Indeed, either version of this film could just as easily be titled “Modern Times,” the timeless tussle of fantasy vs. reality informing  The Little Tramp’s most harried adventure at every turn. It’s an idea most memorably illustrated by the scene in which the Tramp’s pal is so overcome by hunger that he imagines the little fellow as a giant chicken, but that epic line of men with nothing more to their name than a pickaxe and a dream brutally sets the tone in the film’s opening shot. Of course, the fantasy being teased is one as uniquely American as the gold rush, itself, the idea that various parties with nothing in common but a shared ambition are never far from glory so long as they work together.

The film’s rousing finale hammers this point home: The cabin that the Tramp shared with his partner Big Jim teeters over a cliff, anchored only to the gold that brought the two men together in the first place. The prospectors’ mutual fight for survival is thrown (or hurled) into sudden relief, and their lives depend on bucking the driving impetus of capitalism and working together. (Spoiler alert?) Big Jim literally has to climb over the Tramp’s body to escape from the dangling cabin, and only once his eyes have glazed over with visions of gold does he reluctantly decide to return the favor and help a brother out.  It’s a direct rebuttal to the kill or be killed mentality at the heart of our national identity, an instinct at its most evident and dangerous during booms of discovery.

Or maybe Chaplin chose to revive The Gold Rush because, unlike his later films, the film was shot in a baldly stage-like fashion with three walls and a proscenium facing outward -- perhaps Chaplin feared that The Gold Rush, which by design would feel incomplete without an audience, was in risk of becoming a lonely film, like a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear it make a sound. But at what cost, glory? Did Chaplin’s changes actually improve one of his most beloved films, or did they damn its most perfect incarnation to obscurity? 

In a word: Yes. The 1942 version is a more streamlined experience, and Chaplin’s lilting, fable-like narration naturally clarifies the film’s structure and softens its potentially wild tone -- from the very first scene, Chaplin’s rhyming voice lets you know that everything is going to be okay, an effect which firmly roots the story in the past. While the commentary allows for some of the emotional beats to hit with a greater immediacy than they did in the mute version, the overall effect is distancing, even condescending -- The Belittled Tramp is simply not as much fun to watch.

Chaplin also took the re-release as an opportunity to truncate the film’s coda, sealing it shut as though he were afraid it might spoil. The original ending feels daring and unsure, a palpably real moment at the end of a fairytale. But now, with releases like this new Criterion edition, the discrepancies between the two versions are only important so far as they shed light on the man who made them. And fortunately for us, the choice is ours -- Chaplin ensured that he wouldn’t be forgotten so that we don’t have to, and the film that he wanted to be remembered by never feels like the one by which we must.

Oh, and The Gold Rush features the greatest scene in the history of movies. So there’s that.

THE TRANSFER: The original 1925 edition, which survives only because a private collector made his own 35mm copy, wears its tumultuous history on its sleeve. There are numerous instances of scratches and other inherited damage, but the picture has enjoyed a rather remarkable restoration, and despite the transfer being assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from three different sources, the consistent grain structure and overall stability of the image is top-notch. Surprisingly, the 1942 cut isn’t quite as impressive (though still eminently watchable), with a distracting flicker marring a similar presentation. All the same, Chaplin would be ecstatic to see The Gold Rush preserved so well.

THE EXTRAS: Criterion pulls out all the stops for their Chaplin releases, and The Gold Rush -- while not quite as loaded as it might be if this were the company’s first Chaplin release -- is no exception. First up is a 15-minute doc in which Kevin Brownlow and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance lead us through the film’s rocky history. Serge le Péron’s 30-minute doc Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush (2002) isn’t only a standard making-of retrospective, but also a moving portrait of how Chaplin’s work transcended national and cultural boundaries, as filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo, a filmmaker from Burkina Faso, discusses Chaplin’s effect on his own childhood.Criterion also includes a new 20-minute interview with a visual effects supervisor, who goes deep on how Chaplin accomplished some of the film’s more incredible special effects. Finally, there’s a 25-minute piece with composer Timothy Brock, who discusses Chaplin’s musical contributions to his films (“It’s too bad that Charlie became an actor, because the world lost a great composer.”

THE BEST BIT:  Jeffrey Vance’s commentary (which runs above the 1925 cut), is a rote and sterile thing, but what Vance sacrifices in electricity he more than compensates for with his abundance of knowledge, and his keen ability to pace the facts and observations at his disposal. Even if some of the information Vance recites is familiar to Chaplin acolytes, the commentary track is pleasant, comprehensive, and even romantic. And you learn about why Chaplin hated Christmas.

THE ARTWORK: Gorgeous. From the cover to the wonderful art that adorns the booklet inside, Criterion’s release of The Gold Rush gleefully captures the joyful spirit of The Little Tramp. It’s every bit as beautiful as Criterion’s releases for Modern Times and The Great Dictator, which is high praise, indeed. 

Click here for a peek inside.

THE ARBITRARY VERDICT (90 / 100) : Among the most spectacular silent films ever made, regardless of which edition you prefer. Modern Times may be Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, but it certainly isn’t his only one.

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