THE DVD SHELF: "The Sting," "The Artist" and Chaplin's "The Gold Rush"

By Steven Suskin
01 Jul 2012

Cover art for "The Gold Rush"
One might do well to not make the mistake of putting on "The Artist" immediately after watching Criterion's sterling new Blu-ray edition of Charles Chaplin's The Gold Rush [Criterion]. Which is what I did, and there is no comparison. Director Hazanavicius does not seem to be competing, certainly; he seems at times to be paying direct and loving homage to Chaplin in at least one extended sequence. But enough of "The Artist," when "The Gold Rush" is at hand. This might not be Chaplin's very greatest film, nor the very greatest film of the era, but it is certainly in contention on both counts.

I have discussed this film too many times in the past to reiterate why and how much I like it. What is to the point is how good it looks in the new Blu-ray edition. "The Gold Rush was well treated in its last release, but Blu-ray takes it to another level. This high-definition digital restoration is so clear that you can pick out the painted sky on the exteriors filmed in the studio. (Chaplin started filming up in Truckee, California, where he filmed the monumental opening shots of gold miners climbing the mountains. After which he realized that there was no way he could control the elements — Charlie was a director who liked control — and hightailed it back to Hollywood.)

We are given both the original 1925 silent along with the sound version Chaplin prepared in 1942. Criterion carefully describes the latter as Chaplin's authorized and favored version; one imagines that every element — even the placement of the films on the disc — was carefully dictated from on high.

Watching both versions again, together, I beg to differ. Sure, Charlie publicly proclaimed that 1942 displaced 1925; he produced and released it, and surely wasn't going to say it was inferior. But the 1925 version is "The Gold Rush" as Chaplin created it, in his prime; the later version is an older man — 52 at the time — trying to transform his classic for wartime audiences who would simply not pay to see a silent movie. The major new element was an extensive narration written and spoken by the director. The narration is amusing, needless to say, but I find it harmful. Here we have a gentle man with a British voice telling us what's funny, and what's supposed to be funny. Hey, it's perfect as is! The silent comedy and the titles let us discover what Chaplin's Lone Prospector is experiencing, at our own speed. With the narration, we inevitably wait to hear what Charlie has to say about it.



I also find the edits not especially helpful. The old version is rougher than the new; there are certain choices — edits, use of outtakes, the alteration of a tell-tale letter, and that narration — which change matters in a way that the middle-aged Chaplin apparently felt more proper. (This includes removal of the playfully romantic ending with Chaplin and Georgia Hale, who were clearly enjoying themselves.) The 1942 version is 16 minutes shorter than the original. While I respect the filmmaker's right to edit things out — including a subplot in which Jack, Georgia's boyfriend, taunts Charlie — I'd rather watch the film with those extra minutes, and without the narration. But the new Blu-ray allows you to chose for yourself.

The film profits from the standard Criterion treatment. The reconstructed 1925 version, restored in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna (and accompanied by the score Chaplin wrote for the 1942 version), looks wonderful. So does the 1942 version, naturally. Bonus features include new commentary by biographer Jeffrey Vance, plus three documentaries: "Presenting 'The Gold Rush,'" with Kevin Brownlow; "A Time of Innovations: Visual Effects in 'The Gold Rush'," with Craig Barron; and "Music by Charles Chaplin," from Timothy Brock (who adapted, expanded, and conducted the score for the 1925 version).

"The Gold Rush" joins "Modern Times" and "The Great Dictator" in the Criterion Blu-ray catalogue. Now we can only wait, hopefully, for "City Lights" and "The Kid."

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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