Criterion's Blu-ray release of Charlie Chaplin's “The Gold Rush” includes both the original 1925 silent film, and the 1942 re-release with full score (by Chaplin) and added narration (by Chaplin). Below you will find a slightly edited version of John Puccio's review posted for the 2003 DVD release by Warner Brothers. Christopher Long adds some commentary, and also reviews the Video, Audio, and Extras section for the 2012 Criterion Blu-ray.
THE FILM ACCORDING TO JOHN:
I can't think of another fictional screen character more recognizable worldwide than Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. The baggy pants, top coat, vest, oversized shoes, derby hat, cane, distinctive walk, and abbreviated mustache made the diminutive fellow an icon, an instantly identifiable symbol of the small man standing up against all odds.
By 1924 Chaplin had become the biggest movie star in the world, and "The Gold Rush" was to be his most ambitious project yet. It would be his "epic" as he called it, grander in length, in scale, in cast, in every way than anything he had ever done before. And it paid off as audiences loved it. In some theaters, certain scenes were stopped, rewound, and played over again to the delight of insistent viewers. Today, the film seems a bit dated, to be sure, and it is not without its faults, but it continues to stand as one of Chaplin's best works and one of the screen's best comedies of all time.
Produced, written, and directed by as well as starring Chaplin, his inspirations were the Klondike gold strikes of the late nineteenth century and the Donner Party a half century earlier. The anticipation of finding easy money in the Yukon and Alaska sent thousands of men scurrying north, while the unrelated Donner Party of Western settlers met with tragic results and reports of cannibalism. Chaplin would sew elements of these two situations together into the fabric of tragicomedy. It's what he did best: combining pathos and humor, and his Little Tramp was the perfect vehicle for the job.
The story involves a lone prospector, the Tramp, wandering aimlessly in the snow-covered wilderness until he reaches a cabin owned by a wanted desperado, Black Larsen (a name unaccountably changed to Larson in the credits of the 1942 version), played by Tom Murray. By coincidence, no sooner does the Tramp arrive than another lone prospector, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), shows up looking for food and shelter, but there's not much to be found in Larsen's place. The three draw lots to see who should venture out into the storm to find help, and Larsen loses. On their own, the Tramp and Big Jim find themselves getting cabin fever before finally finding their way out to safety.
The rest of the plot involves Big Jim's discovery of a gold mine, Big Jim and the Tramp's eventual partnership, and the Tramp's helpless falling in love with a beautiful dance-hall girl, Georgia. The girl is played by Georgia Hale in a role that was initially to have been Lita Grey's, but Ms. Grey found herself pregnant by the director early in the production and had to bow out.
In other words, there isn't a lot of plot. The film is mainly an excuse to see Chaplin in a series of meticulously worked out set pieces, elaborate gags that on occasion run on a little too long but still bring a smile to one's face. Look for standout bits like the Tramp eating the wick of a lantern; the famous scene of his eating his shoes (licorice, incidentally), wrapping the shoestrings around his fork like spaghetti; his walking against the wind (Marcel Marceau, eat your heart out) and being blown about; his waltz with Georgia in a saloon while dragging a dog behind him; his catching his foot on fire; his celebrated dancing rolls, of course; and the amazing teetering cabin. Then, too, look for the New Year's Eve dinner that's a genuine heartbreaker. Chaplin could pull an audience any way he chose.
Expect no great innovations in cinematography or editing from Chaplin. He pretty much points his camera at a scene in medium shots and lets the action unfold. The occasional use of long shots, close-ups, or superimpositions punctuate a few occurrences but not many. Oddly, it doesn't seem to matter as the action moves at a brisk pace and the sparse and judicious editing works to the film's advantage. MTV, take note. Most of the film was shot in a studio and on a back lot after plans to film in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Truckee, California, were scrapped because of inclement weather. A couple of shots remain, like the opening sight of several thousand prospectors trekking up a pass, but rest of the outdoor scenes were done on an enormous set in Hollywood.
Perhaps today there are viewers who will take exception to the simplicity of Chaplin's ideas or resist Chaplin's obvious tugs of pathos. Certainly, the film is more sentimental than we are used to in this, a more cynical age. A few of the jokes are milked too long for their payoff; and the film's ending is both corny and unnecessarily involved. But the very thought of the little guy fighting the big guys (big companies, big government, big people) and winning remains as refreshing and accessible for people in the twenty-first century as for audiences over seven decades ago.
In his later life Chaplin would always say "The Gold Rush" was the film by which he most wanted to be remembered. The movie was funny in 1925 when it first became a smash hit; it was funny in 1942 when Chaplin revived it and added sound; and it remains exquisitely charming today.
THE FILM ACCORDING TO CHRIS:
It's hard to believe that until the 1990s, most viewers only knew Chaplin's “The Gold Rush” through the 1942 re-release. Chaplin, finally acknowledging that the market for silent films was dead, decided sound-addicted audiences would love to see “The Gold Rush” with music and narration added, and he was right as usual; the 1925 release was a mega-hit, and the 1942 version a solid success that even netted Oscar nominations for music and sound editing.
Though most hardcore cinephiles will opt for the original cut of any film, Chaplin considered his 1942 cut the definitive version, so much so that he abandoned the 1925 film and was perfectly willing to see all copies destroyed. The original version was only reconstructed in 1993 by filmmakers/scholars David Gill and Kevin Brownlow who had to cobble together multiple source prints, each containing bits of what they needed for the whole project, and relied on archival documentation to painstakingly re-assemble a version as close as possible to the initial theatrical release, which is about 16 minutes longer and includes more development with the Georgia Hale character. Perhaps most noteworthy, the 1925 film ends with a kiss between Chaplin and Hale, but the 1942 version ends simply with them walking off screen.
I have seen the 1925 cut a few times, but only just watched the 1942 version for the first time. Initially, I found it difficult to get used to the prissy narration, particularly with Chaplin voicing every role, but soon enough Chaplin's voice comes to feel like a musical element unto itself, a fine accompaniment to the 40+ piece orchestra Chaplin composed the score for. I still prefer the 1925 film, but might feel differently had I encountered them in the opposite order. If there's no other reason to prefer the original, it gives us more of Georgia Hale who, it must be said, is not the least bit unpleasant to watch.
Both films are released in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios.
As mentioned above, the 1925 version was reconstructed in 1993 thanks to the efforts of David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, working with the encouragement of the Chaplin family, who guards the rights closely. This reconstruction was released on Region 1 DVD in 2003 from Warner Bros./MK2 to mixed reviews regarding the quality of the transfer; the jittery registration was most problematic. Therefore the digital transfer and restoration of this 1925 reconstruction has to be considered the biggest selling point of this Blu-ray.
I'll quote from Criterion's insert booklet: “The digital restoration of this reconstruction was jointly undertaken in 2011 by Cineteca di Bologna and Criterion. A new digital transfer was created in 6K>2K resolution from Brownlow and Gill's 35 mm reconstruction duplicate negative on an ARRISCAN film scanner at L'Immagine Ritrovata at Cineteca di Bologna. The data was then digitally restored by Criterion, which spent over five hundred hours cleaning up thousands of instances of dirt, scratches, jitter, and flicker...”
The restored 1925 1080p transfer is far from perfect. It couldn't be, since this reconstruction was pieced together from multiple sources in various states of preservation, but the B&W contrast is surprisingly strong throughout, and there are definitely fewer blotches and scratches than were apparent on the 2003 DVD transfer. Image detail is a bit soft in some scenes, and generally softer overall (and the image a bit lighter/whiter) than the 1942 version, but I think this high-def restoration of the silent film makes the Blu-ray an essential purchase all by itself. This version of the 1925 film runs 89 minutes while the 1925 version included on the 2003 DVD from WB/MK2 runs 95 minutes. I haven't looked into an explanation for the discrepancy.
The 1080p transfer of the 1942 version appears at first glance to use the same source as the 2003 DVD from WB/MK2 (From the insert booklet: “This new high-definition digital transfer... was created... from a 35 mm duplicate negative under the supervision of MK2.”) and shows the expected improvements in B&W contrast and image detail. Though it generally looks sharper than the 1925 high-def transfer, the 1925 1080p shows the far greater improvement over its 2003 SD predecessor. Damage is surprisingly minimal for the 1942 version which did benefit from loving treatment by Chaplin on its 1942 re-release.
The 1942 sound version is presented with a linear PCM Mono soundtrack that has a surprising and pleasant dynamic quality to it. Chaplin's voice-over is crisp and the orchestral score is rich and resonant. The 1925 version has a score by Timothy Brock which is based on the 1942 score by Chaplin, but which obviously has to be extended for the longer running time. Criterion has chosen to go all-out with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for Brock's score and it sounds quite lush and evocative.
The 1925 version has intertitles, the 1942 version does not (as was Chaplin's intention). English subtitles support Chaplin's very English voice-over.
The 1925 version is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, newly recorded for the Criterion Collection. I have not had the opportunity to listen to it yet.
“Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush” is a carry-over from the 2003 WB/MK2 release (2002, 27 min.) Directed by Serge Le Peron, this short feature discusses the universal appeal of the Tramp, Chaplin's influence on filmmakers today, and provides other background info on the film's production.
Other features are new for this Criterion release. “Presenting the Gold Rush” (16 min.) features Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance talking about the differences between the two version of the film, with Brownlow going into some detail about his work on the reconstruction with David Gill (who passed away in 1997). Lots of good nitty-gritty info here, but I wish this feature had been considerably longer; there's so much to say about the reconstruction.
“A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in the Gold Rush” (19 min.) allows visual effects expert Craig Barron to talk about some of the advanced techniques used on “The Gold Rush,” some of which might be a surprise to viewers who mistake the film's “simplicity” for a lack of technical sophistication. Cinematographer Roland Totheroh's considerable contributions are spotlighted.
“Music by Charles Chaplin” (25 min.) gives classical music composer and conductor Timothy Brock the opportunity to discuss Chaplin's musical accomplishments as well as his own work in reconstructing Chaplin's compositions and conducting them for live orchestras.
The disc also includes four Trailers (9 min. total) intended for the re-release in four separate markets: England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The 24-page insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Luc Sante and a reprint of the James Agee review of the 1942 re-release, originally published in the April 6, 1942 issue of “Time” magazine.
Criterion's restoration of the 1925 reconstruction of “The Gold Rush” makes this a must-own all by itself. Also getting a 1080p transfer of the 1942 release, a new commentary track for the 1925, and several other nice extras is just icing on the cake. This is definitely one of the Blu-ray highlights of the year.