The Criterion Collection has a problem. It's the best kind of problem to have though. They have the rights to release the Charlie Chaplin films and they have at their disposal a plethora of excellent films - many of which have never had the proper DVD and Blu-ray treatment. The issue is what order to release the films. They started with Modern Times from 1936, essentially one of the best silent films ever, created at the end of the silent film era. The next release moved forward to the important anti-war message of The Great Dictator from 1940. His first talkie is one where he used the power of his voice to make a very important plea for world peace. I guessed that we'd see City Lights or The Kid or even The Circus next. But Criterion decided to tackle one of the more safe of his plots but controversial in its modern releases in The Gold Rush for its most current release this month.
I am not a Charlie Chaplin purist by any means. I came to his works in general about 10 years ago. In that time, I've gone back and watched most of the major films and many of the available shorts. I know what I know about the man from commentaries on many of these previous Criterion discs and essays in the booklets included and just what I see onscreen. I do know this about him - Charlie Chaplin was a perfectionist. He wanted to control as many aspects of his work as possible. To that extent he was the old-time version of today's directors like James Cameron and George Lucas going back to fix things in their movies many years later. The most popular example of that is his work on The Gold Rush. Originally released in 1925, The Gold Rush reflected the silent films style of the day with sparse inter-titles to pull along the film and most of the action told through pantomime. After the success of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, it was obvious that silent films wouldn't have the same life in rerelease to theaters as talkies. In 1942, Chaplin went back to the editing room and made what we would probably call today The Gold Rush: Special Edition. He cut out the inter-titles, added a score, and more importantly a narration.
For years, that 1942 edition was consider the definitive version of the film. Growing up in the VHS era, I only really knew that 1942 version. The Gold Rush of my era was the leaner, edited version with Chaplin's narration moving the film forward. But there were always the critics that wanted to stay true to the original vision of the film, despite the fact that Chaplin himself made the changes. Criterion had a hard decision ahead of themselves. In the end, they made the type of decision I've come to rely on from this company - they released both versions on the disc. The viewer gets to compare and decide. Essentially I am reviewing two films with this disc.
The film is generally considered to be one starring Chaplin as his character "The Little Tramp" despite being called "The Lone Prospector" through the film. It's the all-too-familiar, bow-legged walk and the cane and the bowler hat that give us the comfort of knowing we are with a familiar character. Later in the silent version, he's referred to as "blissfully ignorant" but I think that's too convenient of an explanation. I think there's much more of the eternal optimist in The Tramp. He has a way to shrugging off any bad predicament. At the end of the short "The Tramp", he has to leave the woman he has fallen in love with because he realizes she loves another man. As he walks off sadly into the sunset, we see that little giddy-up step and know that he will be fine and has moved on to his next adventure. The Prospector has that same kind of "everything will work out" attitude.
Chaplin's films even through The Great Dictator can feel like a few set pieces of comedy with plot interludes to connect them. The construction of these situations is were his genius lies. The film starts with some beautiful establishing shots of Alaska just before the turn of the century during the great influx of prospectors looking for gold. Chaplin throws together The Prospector with Big Jim (Mark Swain), who is a large man that plays off the smaller Prospector, as his friend. Then they are put together with a wanted criminal, Black Larsen (Tom Murray), in a cabin that they can't leave because of a blizzard.
This cabin is a precursor to the small hut in Modern Times that Chaplin uses for multiple humorous episodes. The cabin will twice be put to use - first as a place that the Prospector can't be thrown out of because of the howling winds and storm. When one door is closed, the other side opens. And the physical comedy is exquisite here. It will be used later in the 1925 version as the cabin is on the verge of falling off a cliff and every movement of the Prospector and Big Jim causes it to move and shimmy. This scene is cut from the 1942 version for plot reasons and that version suffers from not having this really creative use of the cabin. The cabin is the setting for some of the film's most iconic shots including the boiling of the shoe for dinner, the "dinner roll" dance, and Big Jim envisioning Chaplin as a chicken at the height of his hunger.
There's a "romance" for the Lone Prospector as he escapes to town. He falls immediately in love with Georgia (a warm name in a cold environment), who is in love with a big jerk named Hank. Georgia (Georgia Hale) uses Chaplin's infatuation to make Hank jealous. But Chaplin uses what could be a sad development to show a wonderful dance scene where he is trying to dance with Georgia while adjusting a rope he is using to hold up his pants that happens to be connected to a dog. He just takes these simple scenes and isn't happy just to up the ante with his pants falling down; there's another level the scene reaches with the dog included. Georgia doesn't treat the Lone Prospector like he's even a human but it's his positive outlook that keeps him moving forward and not feeling sorry for himself. And his luck does turn at the end. It's that belief that good things could happen to turn one's life around that drove the Gold Rush, and it was that same belief that was driving the new Hollywood industry at the time.
The films look great. I know that isn't anything new for Criterion Collection films. But even more so, the 1925 version has not been kept up very well because the 1942 version had become the definitive version. Both versions are as clean as I've seen a silent film. The people who restored the film deserve quite a bit of kudos. The slightly less clean version on the 1925 version appeals to me the way that an LP record appeals to me over a CD. The sound on both films is excellent and once again the 1925 version with its original music is a bit easier on the ear.
"Presenting The Gold Rush" and "Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush" are nice features that examine the reason for his updating of the 1942 version, and "Chaplin Today" examines the historical importance of the film and has some fun archival interviews including Georgia Hales. My favorite part of any Criterion disc is the commentary from a film scholar and this is no different. Jeffrey Vance is a good commentator who often comes across as a little pompous but knowledgable. The commentary is on the 1925 version but details what was cut and why. There are some shorts on the visual effects (way ahead of their time), the music, and the detailed essay booklet that I've come to expect with every release.
In retrospect, Criterion did pick the perfect movie for their third Chaplin release. This film shows a Chaplin that has come through all the years of shorts and learned how to create a humorous scene. And here he's learning how to string them together with tender transitions that build characters. This film combines beautiful outdoor shots from the Sierra Nevada mountains with highly controlled interiors like the cabin where he can show his talent as a performer and director. This film is a direct precursor to the types of scenes he would do in Modern Times.
The Tramp is perfect for a story of the Gold Rush - he's all about seeing the positive side of life. And Chaplin is an artist at the top of his game again here.