Criterion // 1942 // 72 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 2nd, 2012
An indelible work of heartwarming hilarity.
"With cheerful optimism, our little Columbus descended into the vast uncharted waste -- then stopped, stepped, slipped and slid.
The little prospector (Charlie Chaplin, City Lights) is wandering the snow-covered mountains of Alaska in search of gold. During his mission, he encounters a friendly fellow prospector (Mack Swain, Pay Day), a villainous thug (Tom Murray, The Pilgrim) and a beautiful woman (Georgia Hale, The Lightning Warrior) who captures his heart.
I realize that the plot description I've provided is rather brief, but then again A) so are Chaplin's movies and B) you're probably aware that the plots of many Chaplin comedies are simply basic frameworks for a host of inventive gags. The Gold Rush contains a particularly generous supply of now-iconic moments of Chaplin slapstick, and it's no surprise to learn that the film was the biggest hit of Chaplin's career (it remains the highest-grossing silent film of all time). While the film almost certainly isn't Chaplin's best from an artistic perspective, it's one that has remained immensely popular for nearly a century and which continues to resonate with viewers of all ages. Why? To put it simply-and I certainly can't say this about too many films in The Criterion Collection -- it's a hoot.
Chaplin delivers one killer gag after another over the course of The Gold Rush, moments that range from cheerfully goofy (a scene in which Chaplin struggles to exit a house because the wind keeps blowing him back inside) to delightfully absurd (a scene in which Chaplin's comrade imagines the little tramp -- er, prospecter -- as a giant chicken just waiting to be devoured) to the affectingly romantic (a lovely sequence in which Chaplin finds himself being invited to dance with a lady who is clearly a class or two above him). The film's greatest sequence is one that is bound to turn up in almost any Chaplin highlights montage/retrospective: a fleeting, lovely scene in which Chaplin stages a little dance using forks and dinner rolls. It's such a perfect encapsulation of the man's charm and distinctive talent, but given considerably greater resonance in context as a lonely man's wistful dream.
While The Gold Rush certainly doesn't pack the surprising emotional wallop of some of Chaplin's greatest works, it nonetheless contains a tender streak that does a nice job of giving the film a sense of weight in the midst of all the silliness. The moments of weary resignation in Chaplin's largely manic performance are quite effective; it's another film that gently suggests that the little tramp is actually a rather sad character at his core. The supporting cast is stellar throughout (particularly Mack Swain as Chaplin's pal, who engages in some terrific physical comedy during the film's literal cliffhanger of a climax), but as is usually the case, Chaplin is the dominating force. Most of the other players are required to content themselves to standing in awe of his comedy prowess, which seems like an entirely reasonable reaction.
All of the above is true regardless of which version of The Gold Rush we're talking about, but determining which one is truly the superior experience is tricky. The original silent film was released in 1925, but was more or less abandoned in 1942 when Chaplin decided to re-edit the movie with new narration and music. The 1942 cut of the film is decidedly leaner than the original (a scant 72 minutes as opposed to 88), and the trims are appreciated -- most of the material that is cut isn't particularly necessary and serves to slow down the pace. However, the narration is a little trickier. On some occasions, such as when Chaplin allows his words to transform into cheekily purple prose, it works quite well as droll counterpoint to the imagery. However, it's vastly less effective when Chaplin decides he needs to talk over certain slapstick sequences, as the actor/director transforms the narration into an audio commentary and simply describes what we're seeing onscreen. As such, there are certainly moments when you'll wish for the quieter -- and funnier -- purity of the original silent version. It's a tough call -- one that I still haven't made definitively for myself -- so I'm quite happy that Criterion has included both versions of the film on the fine Blu-ray release.
The Gold Rush (Blu-ray) has received a pair of impressive transfers for both versions of the film. The 1925 version is slightly more inconsistent than the 1942 version (since the 1925 version is a "best guess" reconstruction of sorts, Criterion insists that it's still to be regarded as a work in progress), but it also looks slightly better than the 1942 version. Still, both benefit from strong detail and depth throughout; there's very little damage to deal with considering the film's age. The LPMC 1.0 Mono tracks are satisfying in both cases. For the 1925 version, a re-recording of Chaplin's original score has been provided which (of course) compliments the film quite nicely and benefits from rich clarity. Naturally, the score originally penned for the 1942 film is left intact and sounds much older, but still benefits from impressive sharpness. The narration included on the latter release is also clean and clear throughout. Aside from the reconstruction of the original version of the film, extras include an audio commentary for the 1925 version featuring Jeffrey Vance, a quartet of excellent featurettes ("Presenting The Gold Rush," "A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in The Gold Rush," "Music by Charles Chaplin" and "Chaplin Today"), a handful of trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by Luc Sante and James Agee's 1942 review of the film.
The Gold Rush is a Chaplin film with an exceptionally high "laughs-per-reel" ratio and is absolutely worthy of being included in any movie lover's collection. Criterion has once again done a terrific job with their Blu-ray release. More, please!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 72 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 1925 Version