Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Gold Rush (1925)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

Only Charlie Chaplin could add the criminal depths to which people will sink in search of gold to the cannibalistic lengths they will go in search of food and come up with a comedy like The Gold Rush. As he said in "My Autobiography", "...we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature - or go insane."

In his autobiography, Chaplin reported that his first moment of inspiration for the film occurred while he was looking at a stereoscopic view of a long line of prospectors climbing up the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska's Klondike. From this single image, his imagination took flight. "Immediately, ideas and comedy business began to develop," he said. Subsequent reading about the Donner party's experience with cannibalism led him to one of the funniest episodes in The Gold Rush, involving The Little Fellow's own cooked boot and a hallucinatory chicken.

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale, Henry Bergman
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Sound; Best Score-Max Terr, 1943.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 15 chapters; rated NR; 72 min.; $29.99; street date 5/16/00.
Supplements: 1942 Re-Release Narrated by Chaplin with Intertitle Cards Deleted; An Interview with Lita Grey Chaplin; Production Photographs; Production Summary; Original Scenario by Charlie Chaplin called The Lucky Strike - A Play in Two Scenes that Chaplin wrote in preparation for The Gold Rush.
Purchase: DVD | Charlie Chaplin Boxed Set | Chaplin: His Life and Art - David Robinson

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C-/C-

When I decided to review all of the movies in the American Film Institute's famed "Top 100", I figured this would be a pretty simple task. After all, of those 100 films, we already offered reviews of about half of them, and since more than 30 percent of the rest aren't yet available on DVD, this meant I wouldn't exactly have to kill myself to finish off the series. Had I needed to write up 30 or more DVDs, that would make the prospect unrealistic, but I thought the final 18 or so necessary would not be a problem.

One part of this task did daunt me, however: the fact that three remaining discs were for movies made by Charlie Chaplin. Despite his legendary reputation as a comic great, "the Little Tramp" never did much for me. Okay, I admit that I don't think I'd ever watched an entire Chaplin film before now, but I'd seen enough of his shtick to feel that I wouldn't change my mind about his work.

Apparently I was wrong. Granted, I still have two movies to go - 1931's Modern Times and 1936's City Lights - but my early impressions of Chaplin are positive, at least as viewed through the earliest of the three AFI-recognized films, 1925's The Gold Rush.

The film's plot is intensely simple. Chaplin plays "The Lone Prospector", a little dude who ventures to the Klondike in search of gold. In the film's first act, he fails at this while he meets a couple of characters: nasty-tempered Black Larson (Tom Murray) and large but gentler Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). TLP and McKay have some run-ins with Blacky, but they come through okay, despite the near-starvation they experience while stranded in the wilds and a tussle that eventually leaves Big Jim with amnesia.

That latter aspect's a shame, since BJ apparently has found a mountain of gold. Nonetheless, the next act takes penniless TLP and places him in the semi-big city. At a dance hall, he encounters lovely young Georgia (Georgia Hale) and promptly falls for her. She uses him to get back at her suitor Jack (Malcolm Waite) and eventually accepts a New Year's Eve dinner invitation as a gag.

Of course, TLP doesn't know that the whole thing's a mean joke to be played on him, so he scrounges up whatever meager resources he can find to create a feast. Unfortunately, things don't work out so well at the time, though the entire package eventually wraps up happily.

Okay, maybe the plot's more complicated than I thought, but despite the three paragraphs I used to relate it, I probably could have summed it up this way: guy searches for gold and fails, tries to woo girl and fails, but ultimately wins. There's not much that's terribly striking in the story.

TGR succeeds comes due to its execution. Despite my reservations, I' m starting to think that Chaplin deserves his reputation as an excellent physical comic. Normally I can't stand that form of humor, but I found many parts of TGR to be amusing, largely because of his performance. For example, I thought that Johnny Depp's recreation of this film's "roll dance" scene in the excruciatingly-cloying Benny and Joon was nauseating, but the original sequence is fairly charming.

Actually, that last word is probably the best term to describe Chaplin's work in TGR. He creates a warm and endearing persona that makes the material succeed. I can't say I found his antics laugh-out-loud funny - though they amused me - but the film had a pretty strong impact upon me just because I cared about TLP, especially in the scenes related to Georgia. Chaplin plays them with such disarming honesty that they come across as genuine and touching. All of this makes the film's inevitable happy ending all the more lovely.

Will I enjoy the other two Chaplin films this much? Probably not. I'll have elevated expectations for them, and that will likely mean that I'll find them less charming. Only time will tell, of course, but I must admit that I was quite pleasantly surprised by my reaction to The Gold Rush. Between my general dislike of Chaplin and my disaffection for silent films, I expected this to be an unpleasant experience. However, TGR provided a warm, witty and touching movie that I genuinely enjoyed.

The DVD:

The Gold Rush appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture clearly displayed a lot of problems, I found it to appear surprisingly good for its age.

Before I discuss the specific quality of the picture, I must note that the version of TGR I viewed was not the 1925 original. That edition was silent and ran for 82 minutes. However, in 1942, Chaplin revisited the film and - shades of George Lucas! - altered it to create an updated version. The 1942 cut added nearly continuous music - which likely approximated the live accompaniment that would have come with the 1925 showings - plus a few sound effects and Chaplin's verbal narration.

The 1942 rendition ran only 72 minutes. Since I've never seen the 1925 original, I can't say what exactly has been cut other than the fact title and dialogue cards are gone; the 1942 film features much less on-screen text. Unfortunately, this means we seem to lose a lot of dialogue. Throughout the film, Chaplin usually either reads the lines for the actors or at least paraphrases what they said. However, quite often I saw actors' mouths move but no speech occurred.

I have little idea how serious Chaplin fans feel about this revision to the film. Is it reviled or accepted? I couldn't say. The fact that Chaplin himself endorsed and affected the alterations might make a difference, but that doesn't seem to assuage Star Wars fans who still bemoan the changes Lucas made for the special editions of those films. I skimmed over some reviews at Amazon, and it looks like the general consensus about the "special edition" cut of TGR is negative.

Personally, I thought the 1942 version worked well, though I can't compare it to the original. Actually, the 1925 cut can be found on DVD from an outfit called "Digital Disc Entertainment", but from the little I've heard about it, the presentation is simply atrocious. I'd be curious to see it but fear the worst.

This release of The Gold Rush from Image Entertainment won't qualify as "the best", but it certainly avoids "the worst." Sharpness usually looked pretty accurate and cleanly defined. At times, some softness and fuzziness could appear, especially since a few scenes featured artificial elements like snow. However, most of the movie appeared clear and acceptably crisp. Moiré effects and jagged edges provided no significant concerns.

Black levels could tend to be a little gray and I thought the contrast seemed slightly weak, but for the most part the dark tones looked appropriately deep. Shadow detail came across as reasonably clean and distinct; I never had significant problems discerning the action in low-light situations.

As one would expect from a 75-year-old film, print flaws are the major problem with TGR. Quite a lot of grain appeared throughout the movie, and a myriad of other defects reared their ugly heads. I saw white speckles, black grit, scratches, blotches, and thin vertical lines. The absence of the title cards seemed very clear from the sloppy edits; the frames around the portions that used to contain text now jump noticeably. I also witnessed an odd series of white flashes that appeared throughout the film. These tended to occur every three seconds or so. They weren't radically problematic, but the brightness just slightly when they occurred, and they could be somewhat distracting. Again, considering the extremely advanced age of this film, the image looked quite good, but it still had quite a few flaws.

On a similar note, the movie's monaural audio also seemed acceptable but moderately problematic. Chaplin's narration appeared somewhat thin and tinny, but it always sounded clear and relatively natural as well; his speech remained easily intelligible throughout the film. The music seemed similarly crude but was acceptably bright and distinct.

Few effects appeared during the film. In fact, all I recalled were some gunshots and also the creaking of the house on the edge; otherwise the soundtrack limited itself to music and narration. The effects we hear seemed pretty strong; they were clean and fairly well defined. No parts of the mix displayed noticeable distortion; the track sounded free from edginess or shrillness. It did, however, display a lot of background noise; this flaw was its main problem. I heard consistent popping and clicking during the movie, and it could get pretty loud at times. Without this distraction, the track would have earned at least a "B-", but the excessive noisiness of the audio dropped my grade to a "C-".

Although I wouldn't call it a deluxe package, The Gold Rush tosses in a few nice supplements. Despite the fact many of these are text materials, all of them have been filmed and run as video programs. "The Lucky Strike: A Play In Two Scenes" shows a few pages of a script that Chaplin composed as preparation for TGR; the material went unproduced, apparently, but it 's a fun venture to inspect.

"Production Stills" offers two and a half minutes of shots from the set. These were quite interesting, especially since so little material would survive from such an old project. We see a lot of "behind the scenes" action through these pictures and they're a valuable resource. "Production Summary" provides a few typed sheets that note the financial details of film. These will probably interest only die-hard fans; I didn't see much in them that intrigued me.

Easily the most compelling of these extras is an "Interview with Lita Grey Chaplin". She was his second wife and she offers a lot of juicy information during this 14 and a half-minute segment. These clips seem to come from a 1994 laserdisc release of TGR and likely were conducted not too long before Lita's death in 1995. You have to wade through a little dross to get there, since she spends a lot of time on her personal details, many of which aren't especially compelling. However, her reports of life with Charlie are frank and blunt; she doesn't appear afraid to say what she thinks, and the interview is very interesting viewing as a result.

I must admit I expected to dislike The Gold Rush. Instead, I found it offered a pretty witty and entertaining little film. I don't know if I agree that it deserves its vaunted status as a classic, but it made for a fun experience nonetheless. The DVD presents flawed but relatively solid picture and sound and also incorporates a few choice extras. Fans of classic comedy will want to take a look at The Gold Rush.

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