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Greater awareness of our movie heritage means that our silent film comedians are no longer lumped together in a unit, as was the case when easy access to their work was restricted to 'golden age' compilation features. Much of the filmography of the wealthy Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd has been properly preserved. In Buster Keaton's case, his major features were fortunate enough to be rescued from decades of neglect. Now considered the comic intellectual of the silent cinema, Buster Keaton at one time came in a weak third in the popular regard.
Charles Chaplin was and remains the most popular of all, an icon of history and a brand name recognized in every corner of the globe. Chaplin developed a personal cinematic technique to display his comedic and dramatic talents and to showcase his star personality. Keaton's humor often required mechanical props like trick houses, trains and boats, but Chaplin's genius was largely self-contained. No ballet dancer was as graceful, no clown as funny, no tragedian as heartbreaking. A complex man, Chaplin indulged appetites beyond today's petty scandals. A penchant for under-aged women caused him his share of legal troubles, and was eventually used during the Cold War witch hunts to see him banished from America. Back in the 1920s and '30s Chaplin's popularity and talent made him too big to fail. Whereas Roscoe Arbuckle became a scapegoat for the perceived sins of the entire film community, Chaplin survived various scandals and retained his popularity.
Some of Chaplin's greatest movies were produced while fighting off lawsuits and weathering smear campaigns designed to tarnish his image. His favorite and arguably most popular film is 1925's The Gold Rush, an ambitious epic that finds laughs in the frozen North. Inspired by a few photos of the fanatic quest for riches in the harsh environment of the Yukon, Chaplin fashioned a comedy that mixed belly laughs and sentiment in equal parts.
The show begins almost as a documentary, with a faithful restaging of the inspirational photo of miners climbing a snowy hill called Chilkoot Pass. But then we're introduced to Charlie, The Lone Prospector (Chaplin). The unlikely man of the wild is oblivious to a bear as he ambles along a narrow mountain path. Trapped in a cliff-side cabin during a roaring blizzard, Charlie meets two equally cold and famished Klondike hopefuls. The enormous Big Jim (Mack Swain) goes batty with hunger and imagines that Charlie is a tasty chicken. Villainous Black Larsen (Tom Murray) says he's going for help, but instead kills two lawmen and hastens to steal gold from Big Jim's secret mine. Now confirmed friends, Charlie and Big Jim part ways. Charlie hobbles into a wild frontier town and immediately falls in love with the beautiful dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). She doesn't even notice his shy, awkward advances. Georgia's boorish boyfriend Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite) gives Charlie a hard time. Misinterpreting Georgia's amusement, Charlie plans a big New Year's party and decorates his humble cabin. When Georgia and her girlfriends don't come, he falls asleep and imagines himself entertaining his guests, gloriously happy.
Events transpire to give Charlie a second chance with Georgia, just as his partner Big Jim returns. He lost his memory in a death struggle with Black Larsen, but if Charlie can help him find his way back to that cabin on the cliff, Jim will be able to relocate his mine. They'll both be rich!
Chaplin's earlier feature The Kid introduced a major theme of bittersweet pathos, and is as much of a tearjerker as it is a comedy. The Gold Rush also finds unexpected depth by grounding its comedy in a storyline that, in its broad strokes, almost matches the social determinism of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. The Klondike gold rush sees Chaplin facing terrible hardship including starvation. Desperate men kill over dreams of fabulous wealth. Cannibalism seems a real possibility. The only society in view is cruel and pitiless. Romance enters only when the lovely Georgia proves not to be a hardened prostitute but another lost soul just waiting for the right man to redeem her.
The Lone Prospector wants to succeed but is also a seeker of true love; he's an innocent in the woods. He's of course Charlie's Little Tramp character, to the extent of wearing his standard costume while all about him are dressed in heavy furs. Having left behind his former streak of mean-spirited mischievousness, the Tramp is now and Everyman character, personifying the struggle of the gentle human spirit. Director Chaplin's artful pictorial compositions add layers of meaning to the character's persona. Standing semi-silhouetted in the foreground while the miners and showgirls carouse and dance in the bright saloon beyond, Chaplin's tramp is the essence of the outsider looking in, the little man excluded from the party.
The physical comedy is as inspired as ever -- viewers still marvel at the feast of the boot (it steams!) and Chaplin's whimsical "Oceana Roll" dance performed with forks and dinner rolls. The major gags are closely aligned with character elements. During his one opportunity to dance with Georgia, the Lone Prospector inadvertently ties his pants with a dog's leash. We laugh even as we feel the misery of Charlie's humiliation.
The big physical gags at the cliff-side cabin almost take Chaplin into Buster Keaton territory. The Tramp's struggle with Big Jim and Black Larsen is aggravated by the wind that howls through the cabin's doors, threatening to blow anybody standing in the wrong spot out of the cabin and over the cliff. Chaplin found that the comedic perfection he sought was too difficult to achieve when filming out in the real elements. Only a few shots were used from his expensive filming expedition to the snow. Production stills exist of the director trying to work in his standard thin Tramp costume while all about him are shivering in heavy coats. Warm-for-cold sets back in Hollywood, along with expert camera effects and miniature work, were the fallback plan.
Even the scenes of emotional pathos in Chaplin's own later classics aren't quite as pure as the simple New Year's dream in The Gold Rush. The ultimate 'lonely guy' moment sees the pitiful prospector's romantic hopes dashed, leaving him to imagine a personal heaven where his sweetness is recognized and he too can be the life of the party. Chaplin was a real fantasist in his personal love life. His depiction of romantic innocence is one of the highlights of the silent cinema.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The Gold Rush may be the release that finally does justice to Charles Chaplin's personal favorite among his movies. At least one earlier American DVD was converted from a European PAL format master, and played at a rate 4% faster than it should. In 1942 the director decided to re-work the film for a modernized reissue, adding a full music score and sound effects. He removed all of the silent inter-titles, replacing them with a personally recorded new narration. Chaplin's trims jettisoned at least one important plot point, and his abrupt new ending removed the original kiss at the fade-out. Deciding that the final from for The Gold Rush would be this re-edited and shortened version, Chaplin conformed his original negative to it. The optical soundtrack was added without reducing the image, resulting in cropping on the top, bottom and left of the film frame, unbalancing compositions. No 35mm printing elements for the 1925 silent original were retained.
This Criterion release contains both the 1942 version approved by the Chaplin Estate and also a fine reconstruction of the superior 1925 original. The restoration story is covered in a featurette called Presenting The Gold Rush with Jeffrey Vance and Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow tells us that when he was commissioned to piece together the lost '25 version, months passed before he found anything at all to work with.
Jeffrey Vance provides a feature commentary. Other featurettes address the film's creative visual effects and Chaplin's music score. From 2002 is a "Chaplin Today" documentary on The Gold Rush featuring the participation of African director Idrissa Ouedraogo. The insert booklet contains an essay by Luc Sante, along with James Agee's original review of the 1942 release. The Time magazine critic found the '42 version to be charming, even with the director's irritating storybook narration. When Chaplin ran into his political troubles, Agee was one of the few voices to come to his defense.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gold Rush Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.