The Gold Rush: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

May 31, 2012 10 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Charlie Chaplin’s films have encompassed almost every virtue that countless other movies have tried to conquer. Though his most underlying theme is love (as are so many other movies), his themes range from human nature to a mood that reflected the nation (and world) as a whole. In Modern Times we saw him lash out against the new wave of the future and how controlled we are by technology and mass production (glad we’re not like that anymore)! But in The Gold Rush, we see a very different message, albeit told in a manner that only Chaplin can tell it. Consistently ranked as one of the better movies ever made, The Gold Rush tells the story of a lone prospector on his search for the great American dream: money. Again, however, this is just the story on the surface and there’s a few more layers to dig through to get the true meaning of the film. As with his other films, Chaplin returns as his loveable and familiar character of “The Tramp” and is instantly recognizable in his derby hat, suit, tie, baggy pants and cane (lest we forget the mustache). We know we’re in for something a bit different when Chaplin’s on screen.

Like many of Chaplin’s other movies, this doesn’t have a large cast, only six members make up the “speaking” roles (though the film was silent, it was re-issued in 1942 with Chaplin doing the narration). We meet The Lone Prospector (Chaplin) as he’s veered off from the thousands of others who are trying to strike it rich in the Alaskan Klondike. This was no mere exaggeration, as the true Gold Rush was said to be something similar to what was shown in the movie. He meets up with Black Larsen (Tom Murray) who, as it turns out, is a fugitive from the law. Another prospector ends up crashing their party by the name of “Big” Jim McKay (Mack Swain). The three are trapped in a shack, tired and hungry and are about to go crazy. If they don’t kill each other first! During the filming, Chaplin read the story of the Donner Party, a story of a group who traveled West in search of a better life, but were caught in the mountains and resorted to cannibalism for survival. This was just the inspiration that he needed to finish The Gold Rush. Though comic in nature, the men are tempted to eat one another as “Big” Jim sees the lone prospector as a giant chicken from time to time.

Lest we forget, Chaplin’s movies always have a muse, usually a good-looking one at that. In this case it’s Georgia (Georgia Hale). A dancer at a local nightclub, she’s tired of the life she leads and longs for more. Through sheer fate, she meets the lone prospector and he’s fallen instantly in love with her. Naturally, though, she has no idea and when she arrives late to his New Year’s celebration for her; she realizes his feelings. While The Gold Rush touches on many subjects, this is a more light-hearted look at what really happened. Just as his other movies have some rather classic scenes, this does too. The bear who follows him through the mountains (though he never is seen by Chaplin), the house teetering on the edge of the cliff and who can forget one of Chaplin’s most indellable images ever, when he created the roll dance (two forks in dinner rolls). Though Chaplin’s films aren’t that dated, this might be the most dated of his more popular ones. He doesn’t end up walking off into the sunset in the literal sense of the word, but let’s just say that the film ends with a big smile on everyone’s face. True to the end, this is yet another jewel in Chaplin’s crown.

Video: How does it look?

Fans of Chaplin and, more specifically, of The Gold Rush will know that there are two versions of the film: a 1925 and a 1942 version. Both versions are included here. There is a statement before the movie begins and I’ll quote “”The Gold Rush was released in 1925. Chaplin reissued it with synchronized music and narration in 1942. He removed all the titles, rearranged some sequences and discarded several scenes. The original 1925 version disappeared. But a 35mm copy had been made by a private collector. By using this together with the 1942 reissue, and three fragments preserved by the National Film and Television Archive, it has been possible to reconstruct the film almost exactly as Chaplin first released it. The picture quality varies considerably between the different sources. The subtitles have been remade with the original wording. This is an opportunity to see Chaplin’s masterpiece close to its original form, but it should still be regarded as ‘work in progress’.”

Having said that, Criterion pulled out all the stops when they did this transfer. It’s literally pieced together. The film is in black and white and the 1.33:1 AVC HD image looks much better than the standard DVD that I saw years ago. Black levels, though a bit inconsistent, seem bold and strong while contrast (also inconsistent) seems a lot more solid. By today’s standards, both versions won’t look that great but if you’ve seen previous versions of this film then you’ll know what a bang up job Criterion did. It constantly amazes me that how they find some of these films and the sheer amount of effort it takes to bring it into the comfort of our homes. Considering the age and what was involved, both versions look outstanding.

Audio: How does it sound?

You might think that because a movie is “silent” it won’t contain any sound. You’d be mistaken, of course. There are two audio tracks, the first being a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track which was restored and composer Timothy Brock conducted the music heard within. There’s also a LPCM 1.0 track that’s much more limited sonically, so purists will be happy but for those that wanted to hear this movie in all its glory, it’s here. Like the video, there’s really no comparison to modern films, but considering the age of the films and what they’ve been like in the past – it’s a monumental effort that’s worthy of a high score.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Warner put out some Chaplin about a decade ago and while nice, they were lacking the feautures found on this Blu-ray. Criterion did a fine job on Modern Times so it was with much anticipation that I dove into the supplements on this film. First off we find the aptly-titled “Four Trailers” which is, literally, four trailers of the film in Europe (England, France, Germany and the Netherlands). “Music by Charles Chaplin” is an interview with composer Timothy Brock as he discusses Chaplin’s scores that were composed for some of his films. This is a new interview, recorded in 2012. “A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in ‘The Gold Rush’” visual effects guru Craig Barron discusses some of the early visual effects and some scenes were filmed. We also get some archival footage with cinematographer Roland Rotheroh. This is also a new feature recorded in 2012. “Chaplin Today: ‘The Gold Rush’” is a 30 minute documentary focusing on the impact that Chaplin’s “Tramp” had on director Idrissa Ouedraogo. “Presenting ‘The Gold Rush” focuses on the re-release of the film in 1942. Filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill reconstructed the original and gives us a very unique perspective on the movie. Finally we get an all-new commentary track recorded exclusively for this disc. Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance gives a very in-depth telling of the film, its history and just about everything in between. Quite simply, a must listen. There’s also an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante and James Agree’s review of the 1942 version. Simply put, a must own.

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