The Gold Rush Review
The California mountains, the late nineteenth century. A lone prospector (Chaplin) heads off to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. However, a blizzard traps him in a hut with Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has struck gold, and as they get colder and hungrier, desperate measures are resorted to...
Charles Chaplin thought that The Gold Rush was the best film he had made up to that point, but like many great comedies the material which inspired it was often far from funny. After The Kid, Chaplin completed his contract at First National with three short films, the last he made below feature-length: The Idle Class, Pay Day and The Pilgrim. His next feature film was made for United Artists, the independent company he had set up with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. A Woman of Paris was a drama rather than a comedy, starring Chaplin's regular leading lady and former lover Edna Purviance. He himself did not appear in the film except in a brief uncredited cameo as a railway porter. Reviews were positive, but the public had no interest in Chaplin other than as a comedian and the film flopped. Chaplin was hurt by the reaction and withdrew the film from circulation for many years. (Other than her uncredited appearances in Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, this was the last time that Chaplin and Purviance worked together. She died in 1958 at the age of sixty-two.)
Chaplin's return to comedy, and his appearance onscreen in the leading role of The Tramp, this time as a gold prospector, was inspired by stereoscopic pictures of the California Gold Rush of 1898. Also thrown into the mix was the Donner Party of 1846/7, in which a group of pioneers were trapped over winter in the snowbound Sierra Nevadas and resorted to eating rugs and their own boots to survive, and eventually the bodies of their dead companions. This was the inspiration for the famous scene where Charlie makes a meal out of his own boots.
Production began in December 1923, with Lita Grey (who, at age twelve, had played an angel in the dream sequence of The Kid as the female lead, Georgia, a dancehall girl the prospector falls in love with. Offscreen, Chaplin had begun a relationship with Grey who, as a twelve-year-old had played an angel in The Kid. Her pregnancy caused a rapid marriage in November 1924. Chaplin was thirty-five and Grey sixteen, meaning that the marriage took place in Mexico as Chaplin could have been charged with statutory rape in California. This also meant that her role was recast and her scenes reshot. Georgia Hale, the 1922 Miss Chicago, took over the part. Chaplin's marriage to Grey deteriorated during the filming (they were finally acrimoniously divorced in 1927), with his long absences making this film, and later The Circus, taking their toll. During production, Chaplin and Hale had an affair.
The filming was arduous, with Chaplin taking his cast and a full crew up the snowy mountains near Truckee, California. However, Chaplin ended up abandoning most of this footage except for the film's opening scenes and filmed the rest in the studio. With that and some lavish special effects, The Gold Rush ended up costing $1 million, a high budget for the time. Production was completed in May 1925 and the film premiered a month later to considerable success worldwide. It remains the highest-grossing silent comedy of all time.
Given its inspiration, it's not surprising that there is a blackish edge to the comedy. The scene with the boots has already been mentioned. Another is the one where another prospector tries to eat Charlie, imagining him as a giant chicken. (A double was originally inside the chicken suit but he couldn't replicate Chaplin's distinctive walk, so Chaplin donned the suit himself.) Given that Chaplin made sure to leaven the comedy with romance, it helps that Hale is an appealing leading lady, and her chemistry with Chaplin is plain to see – particularly in the original version of the film, of which more in a moment.
In 1942, Chaplin reissued The Gold Rush. As the silent era was long past by then, he added his own music score and removed the intertitles, using a voiceover narration instead. As well as this he re-edited the film, shortening it in the process, though some of that is due to the removal of the intertitles and the film being run at sound speed (24 frames per second) instead of the original slower silent speed. The final passionate kiss between Chaplin and Hale is replaced by a more chaste version. (Hale was later cast in City Lights to replace Virginia Cherrill as the Blind Girl, and did shoot some scenes, but Cherrill was rehired. Other than that, Hale and Chaplin did not work together again.) The original release predated the founding of the Oscars, but the reissue was nominated for Best Music Score and Best Sound Recording. Chaplin considered thie 1942 reissue cut of The Gold Rush definitive and withdrew the original silent version, which remained unseen until it was restored in 1993.
The Gold Rush is chronologically second in Artificial Eye's series of Chaplin reissues on Blu-ray and DVD. It was the former which was provided for review, as a checkdisc. Affiliate links refer below refer to this edition; those for the DVD can be found here. As mentioned above, the version of the film on this disc is the 1942 reissue, which runs 71:57.
Chaplin's films were first released on DVD in the UK by Warner Home Video in 2003, with transfers and extras licensed then as now from MK2. Artificial Eye's Blu-ray brings forward most of the extras from the 2003 release but not all of them. In this case we are missing a stills and poster gallery and some trailers, but there's also a rather larger omission. This is the original 1925 silent version of The Gold Rush, which runs 95:23 on the Warners DVD. Completists may wish to hang on to their earlier copies as space should have been made for it on this new Blu-ray.
The transfer is in the original ratio of 1.33:1. Greyscale in this black-and-white film looks fine, but the picture is certainly softer than it perhaps should be, though how much of this is due to the original materials is a good question. There's certainly an advance on the DVD, which is the least you can expect twelve years down the track. Screengrabs follow, first from the 2003 Warners DVD, then from this Blu-ray.
The soundtrack (music score, narration, occasional sound effects) is available as either DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0. The former is mixed louder than the latter, but otherwise there's little difference, with the sound coming most prominently from the centre speaker with the music spread out over the other speakers, and in the latter playing as centre-channel mono throughout. The 1942 reissue did of course play in mono on its original cinema release. The music score sounds fine, and Chaplin's voice likewise, given that this is a recording from 1942. There are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available.
The extras begin as usual with David Robinson's introduction (5:29) and "Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush" (26:55), which both cover much the same ground, dealing with the difficult production and Chaplin's personal circumstances offscreen. In "Chaplin Today" there are extracts from archive interviews with Lita Grey and Georgia Hale, we again have a guest director giving input: in this case, Idrissa Ouedraogo. Speaking in French (subtitled into English), he talks about what Chaplin's films meant to him growing up in Burkina Faso. We also see him arrange a showing of The Gold Rush in his home village to children, none of whom had seen the film or any other Chaplin film before.
Next up is a French trailer (2:30) which hails "Le retour de Charlot". "Chaplin ABC" (34:09) is an assembly from 2009, and therefore not on the previous DVD, arranging clips from Chaplin's films (shorts and features, silents and talkies) in a series of thematic sections, beginning with "A for Animals" and ending with "Z for Zany". Although talkie comedies are represented, the clips are mostly accompanied by music only, though there is a song over "J for Jail" and dialogue extracts from clips from Modern Times and The Great Dictator. "The Visitors" (13:00) features some ditinguished arrivals at Chaplin's studios, presented mute. Finally, there is the same collection of extracts from Chaplin's films (10:44) which appears on Artificial Eye's other Chaplin Blu-rays.