“The Gold Rush” is probably Chaplin’s most famous film. Having watched it a number of times over the years, I finally got around to seeing the 1942 “sound” version of this classic film. Chaplin, as you may know was the last holdout in the film industry when it came to switching over to sound films He bucked the trend in 1931 when he made the classic “City Lights” as a silent feature with only music on the soundtrack. By 1936, silent film was outdated however; Chaplin released “Modern Times” which would turn out to be his last silent film as well as the last screen appearance of “The Little Tramp.” In 1940, Chaplin spoke for the first time with the release of “The Great Dictator.” Two years later, he re-issued “The Gold Rush” removing the title cards and adding new narration he wrote and music. Chaplin also did some extensive editing on the 1942 version cutting more than 20 minutes from the original. Some of these cuts made significant changes in the characters intent and motivation, for example in the 1942 re-release Chaplin used an alternate version of the love note Georgia wrote. Originally, the note was given to Jack who gave it to the Tramp afterward as a cruel joke. In the 1942 re-cut version, the Tramp receives the love note as if it was originally intended for him. This change alters how Georgia’s is seen making her a more sympathetic character in love with the Tramp. The ending also changed. In the original version, there is a kiss between the now wealthy Tramp and Georgia. In the 1942 release, the kiss is no longer there. It also appears that Chaplin used some alternate takes in the later version. He was known to use two cameras shooting the same scene from two different angles. For me, Chaplin’s spoken narration, or as it is called in the opening credits “descriptive dialogue’ turned out to be a little too cute and redundant since much of what he narrates is the action we are watching on screen as opposed to the thoughts of the characters or actions that would advance the story.
The plot of the film is well known to film lovers and is filled with iconic images like the “dancing rolls”, boiling and eating one of his boots for dinner, and waking up one morning after a fierce snowstorm to find the cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff. These images are at times poignant, sweet and always laugh out loud funny. They are embedded in our cinematic file cabinet as deeply as Bogart and Bergman’s final goodbye in “Casablanca” or Rocky Balboa running up the steps as the soundtrack plays “Gonna Fly Now” in “Rocky.”
Chaplin’s inspiration for “The Gold Rush” was the infamous Donner Party incident of 1846-47 when California bound settlers stuck in the fierce snows of the Sierra-Nevada resorted to cannibalism. Scenes like the boot-eating dinner and Big Jim McKay’s (Mack Swain) hunger making him hallucinate so badly that he sees Charlie as a huge imaginary chicken can be seen clearly as influenced by the Donner incident. In fact, much of the comedy in the film stems from serious and grim situations.
At the time of its original release, Chaplin was at the pinnacle of his success and the most famous person in the world. It is hard to imagine today just how big Chaplin was in the world. How rare it was at the time for someone to be recognized and known in countries around the globe with vast cultural and social differences. The Tramp was known to all cultures, no matter what the language, in a world that in 1925 was a lot larger and far off than the one we are familiar with today where we are all linked by television, the internet and mass travel. At the height of this success, Chaplin’s career would soon be entering a new phase where his work would begin to show signs of social commentary in such films as “Modern Times”, “The Great Dictator” and “Monsieur Verdoux.” In “The Gold Rush”, Chaplin was still doing nothing but pure comedy. There were no comments on class distinction such as would appear in “City Lights”, or unions and protest marches that were the center of “Modern Times” or taking on the most hated world leaders as he did in “The Great Dictator.” That would all come later.
Georgia Hale who played the dance hall girl, Georgia was not Chaplin’s first choice for the role. In 1924 when filming began Lita Grey, who was 15 at the time, had the lead role. She previously had a small role in Chaplin’s film “The Kid’ when she was twelve. Her real name was Lillita MacMurray, renamed by Charlie and put under contract. Chaplin quickly got into a “close” relationship with Lita and while well into the filming, she found herself pregnant and Chaplin was forced to get married. Production on the film stopped and Chaplin searched for a new leading lady. Filming began again in December of 1924 with Georgia Hale, twenty-four, now in the role of the dance hall girl. Chaplin and Grey’s marriage was a miserable one and ended in divorce by 1927 mainly due to Chaplin’s philandering, which may have included his new leading lady. Chaplin and Hale had a long relationship for a few years. The marriage to Grey produced Charlie’s first two children, Sydney and Charlie Jr.
“The Gold Rush” opened to great success on August 16th 1925. In fact, the film grossed over four million dollars by 1926, an astronomical amount for that time. According to The New York Times review, dated the following day the film had a midnight showing at The Strand theater with a full orchestra at which Chaplin was present for the showing and spoke afterward. Times Critic Mordaunt Hall wrote, “It is the outstanding gem of all Chaplin pictures, as it has more thought and originality than even such masterpieces of mirth as “The Kid” and “Shoulders Arms.” In 1942, when Chaplin released his revised version New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers considered it “rather improved.” Interestingly, in his review Crowthers comments that the “descriptive dialogue” is narration written and spoke by Chaplin in which he replaces those persons who used to read title cards aloud.” Was Crowthers implying that some audience members read the title cards aloud during the showing, or did theaters have title card readers? I’m not sure however, it is comforting, in a strange way, to think that some audience members were just as rude back then as some are today.
In 2003, digitally restored and remastered versions of Chaplin’s films were released on DVD. This was especially good news for “The Gold Rush”, which has been in the public domain for years and has been subject to many inferior releases. This release contains both the original 1925 film and the re-issued 1942 “sound version.” From what I have read, it seems Chaplin preferred the 1942 version of the film and that that is the version he would like to consider official. Om the surface, this may seem strange however, remember the 1925 version is in the public domain while the 1942 version was copyrighted by Chaplin and still owned by his estate. It is possible that Chaplin favored the1942 version, or at least publicly favored the 1942 version due to the copyright situation. Chaplin was known to be frugal his whole life due to his poor childhood and seemed to never get over it.
In watching both versions, it seems that of the two the original remains superior mainly due to Chaplin’s bothersome narration in the 1942 re-issue. The art of silent film was that it lacked human voices and to the great silent clowns like Chaplin and Keaton it did not matter. Chaplin’s voice was rather high and high mannered, certainly not in synch with the Tramp character he so lovingly created. Left silent, the tramp is an iconic beauty in what is now lost art of cinema pantomime.