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. Chaplin's films, especially the early ones with the Little Tramp, have become classics, and it's good to see them finally getting their proper due from MK2 and Warner Brothers in special-edition, two-disc sets called "The Chaplin Collection."
"The Gold Rush" gets extra-special treatment because we not only get the original 1925, ninety-five minute silent movie, we also get Chaplin's 1942 reissue (or "revival" as it he called it) with added sound narration and music written by Chaplin himself and a shorter running time of sixty-eight minutes. Be aware, however, that the addition of sound doesn't necessarily make for an improved motion picture, and, in fact, I much prefer the silent version with its piano accompaniment to the sometimes distracting presence of Chaplin's voice-over and music. Admittedly, it's a very personal preference, so it's convenient to have both films available for comparison.
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 video quality differs slightly depending on which version, 1925 or 1942, you watch. Despite the earlier print being "fully restored by Photoplay Productions," I found the 1945 edition, digitally transferred from picture and audio elements found in the Chaplin family vault, cleaner and clearer. Both are quite good, considering their age, but the black-and-white contrasts in the 1945 presentation are more pronounced, and there are fewer light fluctuations or minor age marks. I found this a little disappointing, actually, in that as a movie I preferred the original silent version best. Oh, well, life is like that.
Here, I would have to choose the piano sound that accompanies the old silent version to the remastered sound of the 1945 rendition. You see, the 1925 film's new piano track comes off remarkably well, and the Dolby Surround reproducing the piano sounds natural and realistic across the front speakers. The sound on the 1945 revival, the narration and music added by Chaplin himself, is a tad muted and scratchy in mono, warmer and more comforting in Dolby Surround, sharper and clearer remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1. In the later mode, however, expect the sonics to be a tad bright and sometimes a little harsh; it's never unpleasant, but it isn't entirely lifelike, either. The 5.1 remix helps spread the original monaural sound across the front speakers, but barely. As I said, I preferred watching the 1925 version with its excellent piano accompaniment.
You can't say you don't get your money's worth here. After all, there are two complete films involved in the set. Disc one contains the 1942 revival in a 1.33:1 screen presentation, with the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, or Dolby mono soundtracks. There are twenty scene selections available; plus English and French spoken languages; and English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean subtitles.
Disc two offers the original 1925 silent film, with piano accompaniment in Dolby Surround. English, French, and Portuguese are available for the text of the special features, with English, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, and Korean subtitles. In addition to the movie, there are some key bonus items. The first is a most informative, five-minute introduction by David Robinson, Chaplin's biographer. Even more important is a twenty-seven minute documentary, "Chaplin Today," that describes the influences of Chaplin on modern filmmakers as well as relates background on the production of "The Gold Rush" itself, including vintage interviews with some of the cast. Then there's an extensive gallery of over 250 still photos, divided into various categories; numerous film posters for the movie; excerpts from ten other pictures in "The Chaplin Collection"; and four theatrical trailers for the film.
"The Gold Rush" is one of ten Chaplin movies that Paris-based MK2 and the Warner studios are releasing in special-edition DVD sets. Among the others in the first wave of entries are "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator," and "Limelight." Certainly, these are all important, classic films, and a person could easily make a case for any of them being better than the others. But for me, "The Gold Rush" remains quintessential Chaplin: sweet, semi tragic, comforting, and most of all funny. For the comedy fan or for the movie buff in search of the evolution of comedy, "The Gold Rush" is a must.