Background

The Gold Rush is a 1925 silent film from director Charles Chaplin. The film would later be re-released by Chaplin in 1942 with several changes, including new music and narration. It was released by Criterion as spine #615 on June 12, 2012. At the time of its release, The Gold Rush was the third Chaplin film in the collection, and to date it is one of five Chaplin releases in The Criterion Collection.

The Story

The film is set in Alaska during the height of the Gold Rush. Chaplin plays the Lone Prospector, a man in search of riches. As he travels through the mountains, he loses his way and crosses paths with Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), another prospector, and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), an outlaw. The three men hole up in a cabin and struggle to find food and survive as they become snowbound. Eventually, the Lone Prospector and Big Jim are able to leave the cabin. Big Jim returns to the location of his prior gold discovery and the Lone Prospector is able to make it back to the safety of civilization in a nearby town. Once in town, he meets a lovely woman, Georgia (Georgia Hale), and tries to win her heart. As he attempts to court Georgia, Big Jim returns seeking help to recover his lost fortune.

The Magic of Chaplin

The Gold Rush features some of Chaplin’s most memorable comedic set pieces; the eating of a boiled leather shoe, Big Jim’s starving hallucination of the Lone Prospector as a chicken, the cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff, and my two favorite of the lot: a comedic bear chase and a dance performance of dinner roll feet.

In one of the opening scenes of the film, the Lone Prospector is whimsically strolling along a narrow mountain cliff. As he passes a cave carved into the cliff, a bear appears behind him and follows him along the narrow edge. Before he realizes what is behind him, the bear disappears into another cave just as he turns his head. Later on, in the cabin with Big Jim, the bear makes another appearance. As the Lone Prospector and Big Jim are struggling over a shotgun, the bear appears in the side door of the cabin. The bear stands on its hind legs while the Lone Prospector and Big Jim clumsily try to escape. The men run out the door and circle around as the bear follows, before the Lone Prospector is able to grab the gun and shoot the bear, giving them the meal that would end their hunger. In pieces of this scene, the bear is a real bear that was present on set, and that footage is cut with other scenes with an actor in a bear costume. The comedy here is largely due to the interchanging of these scenes. The bear goes from a realistic looking animal to a costumed actor walking on hind legs, and it is hilarious.

The dance performance of the dinner rolls isn’t comedy meant for uproarious laughter, but comedy that generates the slightest of smirks and a feeling of wonderment. It is New Year’s Eve and the Lone Prospector has a party set at his cabin, awaiting the arrival of Georgia and her companions. As he is waiting he imagines himself being asked to give a speech at the party. Instead of a speech, he grabs two forks and sticks them into two dinner rolls, creating legs and feet. He then performs an elegant dance number with the improvised appendages. It is a wonderfully charming and endearing performance, as Chaplin displays vivid emotions with both his facial expressions and the dinner roll dance moves. The magic conveyed in moving pictures here is the same as displayed in the department store skating scene in Modern Times, the final scene of City Lights, and the speech in The Great Dictator. It’s the magic of a Chaplin film.

Gold Rush

The Two Versions

The Criterion release features both the restored 1925 version and the 1942 version, which was self-described by Chaplin as the definitive version. The 1925 version was restored in 1993 by filmmakers David Gill and Kevin Brownlow. The restoration is nothing short of miraculous, as some of the original footage had been destroyed by Chaplin. Gill and Brownlow had to use several different resources in order to construct a version as close as possible to what would have been seen in 1925. The 1942 version features narration by Chaplin that eases the transition from the silent era to the time of talkies. It also includes a newly composed score and is 16 minutes shorter. Both versions are presented beautifully with quality transfers. The 1942 version is cleaner and crisper, which is to be expected given the troubles in restoring the 1925 version. However, for being resurrected from the dead, the 2K digital transfer of the 1925 version presented is admirable.

Supplements

Also featured is a varied selection of supplements. An audio commentary for the 1925 version by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance is the prized gem, as Vance expounds on all aspects of the film and Chaplin. There is a short documentary featuring filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo, and three programs included highlight the film’s history and process of restoration, the visual effects, and Chaplin’s talent as a composer. Of these three programs, the visual effects piece is the most fascinating. The piece expertly pulls the curtain back and dissects how the visual effects shots in the film are executed, and how Chaplin would utilize similar techniques in future films. In addition to the on-disc supplements, the booklet features a well written essay by critic Luc Sante, James Agee’s review of the 1942 version, as well as a very amusing photo of Chaplin on set donning a chicken suit minus the chicken head.

Overall

The Gold Rush fits the Criterion mold snugly. The release is packed with extras, all of which provide interesting and illuminating information. The film features several of Chaplin’s iconic scenes, and the chance to see the 1925 version in close to original form and listen to Vance’s commentary is worth the price of admission alone. Whether this film will be your first entry into Chaplin’s work, or just the next step through his library, it is surely worthy of your time.

Criterion Grade: A

Film Grade: A