Viewing something as old and beloved as 'The Gold Rush,' I figured this would be a great reviewing opportunity to introduce my nearly-five-year-old daughter to the "Little Tramp" (Chaplin's character within the movie). Nothing compares to seeing and hearing your own child understand and laugh at the comedic timing of an 87-year-old masterpiece, enjoying an innocent style of classic filmmaking and storytelling for the first time. Despite the grandeur and complexity of the modern movies that she loves, she enjoyed this long-gone style just as much – if not more – than those titles found in the Hickman family library. The reason for this is simple – Chaplin's films brilliantly speak to every audience, no matter the age.
Two cuts of 'The Gold Rush' are placed on this Criterion Collection Blu-ray: the original 1925 silent cut with a newly re-composed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio version of the score, and Chaplin's 1942 re-cut featuring his own narration in place of the original title cards. The '42 version is nothing like the "extended editions" that we get on Blu-ray today; Chaplin basically re-edited his own movie, omitted scenes and added a set audio track with a voice-over narration. Most extended editions aren't approved by the director, but the '42 version of 'The Gold Rush' is what Chaplin wished he could have made the first time around had technology permitted. Chaplin himself regarded the '42 cut as his definitive version, so much so that he later asked the studio to dispose of all cuts of '25 version since his new cut was more along the lines of what he wanted.
'The Gold Rush' follows the Little Tramp into the Klondike smack-dab in the middle of The Gold Rush. While everyone around him seems to be either mining for gold or profiting off those who mine for gold, the Little Tramp appears to be aimlessly wandering around. He literally goes wherever the wind takes him. In the opening sequence, we see a real-life recreation of the iconic Chilkroot Pass. Instead of following the chain of gold miners into the wild, the Little Tramp wanders along the rocky passes on his own, completely oblivious to the dangers that surround him – be it bears, outlaws, cliffs, or deadly blizzards.
The snow-ball gets rolling for the little guy when he gets caught in the middle of a blustery storm. When the Tramp finally comes across a small cabin, he invites himself in for refuge. Little does he know that the grizzly man inside is a wanted killer. Nearby, a large fellow strikes gold with a nugget the size of a softball, but has to immediately evacuate when his camp is blasted to pieces by the wind. And where does he happen to find refuge from the blowing snow? You guessed it, the same cabin that the Little Tramp has found himself in. Here we have a murderer, a large man and a little guy trapped in a cabin without food or any means of getting food. As hunger sets in, imagine the zany activity that can arise from this scenario.
As you would expect, the Little Tramp gets on his way shortly thereafter and finds his way to a little town. He immediately falls for a flirty girl in the local dance hall and the remainder of the film blends those two established stories. Several of iconic Chaplin moments are featured in 'The Gold Rush,' my two favorites being "the human chicken" and the dancing dinner rolls – but don't mistakenly believe that those are the only ones. Nearly every scene features something that can be deemed "iconic."
When Chaplin ordered that the '25 cut be destroyed, the studio didn't quite heed his command. Instead, the prints were sold off to private buyers. In 1993, Chaplin's surviving family commissioned a few Chaplin scholars to reconstruct the 1925 cut as close to the original as possible. A classical composer was also hired and designated with the daunting task of restoring Chaplin's original score; all he had to go off was a giant box mixed with sheet music and notes scribbled on menus and napkins. There's no way of having the '25 cut exactly as it was back then, but this is the closest that we will ever get.
In my humble opinion, the 1942 version is the way to go. When Chaplin made this cut of the film, the original negatives were so badly damaged that he had to cut this movie using takes different from the '25 cut since they were still in very good condition. Watching the two cuts back to back, you'll see that they are very similar, but not at all identical. Two scenes were drastically altered in the editing process, one of them being the ending. Personally, I believe that the '42 version flows better and ends on a more fitting note for The Little Tramp. Chaplin's voice-over is hilarious. The voices that he gives the characters feature the rhythm and tone of the Marx Brothers, which is perfectly fitting for the instances where he speaks for them.
'The Gold Rush' is a brilliant Criterion disc; easily my favorite of them all. It's extremely well-rounded, featuring an amazing film and a disc that's more than fitting for it – but we'll get into that in the technical sections.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed both the 1925 and 1942 cuts of 'The Gold Rush' on a single region A BD-50 in one of their standard clear keepcases. This marks title 615 of the collection. Included is a larger-than-normal booklet featuring an essay by Luc Sante and a review of the '42 version by old-time critic James Agee. Not a single thing plays before the main menu, but the menu itself has a fun little secret. If you start the film and go back to the main menu mid-movie, the menu background image changes. So far as I can tell, there are only two different images that can appear.
Although both cuts of 'The Gold Rush' tell the same story and feature the same 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, because they were made from different prints and even different takes, they are quite different. First, let's talk about the 1925 cut.
As you would expect, the '25 version is damaged much more than that of '42. If it was bad enough that Chaplin himself didn't want to use the footage for the '42 cut, imagine how bad it must look now. This version was pieced together by many different prints based on condition, so the quality frequently varies. The only consistency is the damage. Despite the best efforts of the hard-working folks at Criterion, scratches and debris are abundant – which is another reason why I love the '42 version.
Chaplin cut together unused footage for the '42 cut, so it's 17 years younger than that of the original cut. Naturally, this footage is going to appear better-preserved than that of the '25 version and Criterion has done a marvelous job cleaning it up. While some faint trails of vertical scratching can still be seen, the dirt and debris has been entirely removed. It's staggering to see how clean this transfer is considering its age, and even more so when you see the condition of the '25 footage.
Some noise reduction has been applied, but it's never distracting. A few specific scenes show off the use of edge enhancement, but it's obvious that this was done to keep the actors' faces from blending in with the background. Digital noise, bands, artifacts and aliasing are completely absent. There are occasional moments of overexposure, but that just adds an authentic flare of classic film.
Each version of the movie features an audio track unique from the other. The 1925 version is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix featuring a newly recorded adaptation of Chaplin's original score. Being new, this track is marvelous. Composer and conductor of classical music Timothy Brock was hired to re-compose the original score. The end goal was to tour the '25 cut of the film with a live orchestra playing this new adaptation. Watching the film with such a powerful and dynamically mixed live score makes this viewing experience feel like you're truly watching it with an orchestra in the room. The mix is absolutely brilliant.
What makes Chaplin's score so amazing is that it doesn't just consist of melodies and themes. When it was written, the music was, in essence, the dialog, effects and score all in one. Certain parts were written to happen at exact brief moments – and the timing of this score isn't lacking at all. When Chaplin's cane disappears into the snow, we must hear a certain effect. When someone draws a knife, we must hear another - all done through perfectly timed music.
The 1942 version of the film carries a mono Linear PCM track with the audio as it originally appeared with this talkie cut. Knowing Chaplin mostly for his silent work, it's awesome to hear his voice. He not only narrates the story, but lends the characters their voices from time to time, like the narrator of an audiobook. The new lossless track for the silent version is expected to be clean and clear, but I never believed that the mono '42 cut would also be nearly perfect. I didn't notice a single hiss, crack or thump; although I did, on one occasion, notice that the music chops out for a split second. This minor flaw occurs at the 20:37 mark and is most likely the result of a damages old track.
These first four features are new to the Criterion Collection edition of 'The Gold Rush,' each recorded in 2012.
The next two features were previously featured on DVD versions of 'The Gold Rush.'
This is it – not only the first Chaplin film to join my Blu-ray collection, but the one that's inspired a pathetic obsession to want to collect all of them on Blu-ray immediately. (Hurry up, Barnes & Noble! I need you half-off Criterion sale now!) 'The Gold Rush' features the simplest of plots, the most basic characters, and the most practical effects, yet it still entertains to this day. Thank heaven for the Criterion Collection giving these films new life on beautifully remastered Blu-rays with fantastic, educational special features. If I could only have one Criterion title in my collection, it would be 'The Gold Rush.'