Chaplin's Gold Rush Revival Of 1942
There were Chaplin films that generated controversy when they were new. Monsieur Verdoux was pilloried by critics and ignored by the public in 1947, only to be embraced by audiences when revived briefly in 1964. All the Chaplin features would be re-issued successfully in the wake of his Academy Award presentation in 1972, and they’ve remained in popular circulation since. The one most likely to stir debate today is The Gold Rush, and that’s been a fairly recent phenomenon. It's the sole Chaplin feature that exists in two distinctly different versions (several of his silents were amended for re-issues, such as The Kid and The Circus, but only the recut versions are generally available now). The Gold Rush was released in 1925 to a triumphant boxoffice ($2.2 million in domestic rentals toward a worldwide $4.380), and was regarded as Chaplin’s masterpiece, an opinion with which he concurred. After the triumph of The Great Dictator ($5.0 million worldwide), the comedian mounted his first revival of a silent Chaplin film since the beginning of the talkie era. Others had circulated some of the short comedies with new soundtracks, but this would be a major feature re-issue under Chaplin’s own imprinteur, and since he owned the negative outright, he was free to make whatever adjustments to The Gold Rush he saw fit …
In a 1942 world of brash comedy and rat-a-tat verbal sparring (thanks as much to radio as movies), Charlie Chaplin had to be apprehensive over the welcome, or lack of one, he might receive for a seventeen-year old silent movie. There were but a few of these back in circulation over the last ten years. Three had been Rudolph Valentino starrers (The Sheik, Son Of The Sheik, and The Eagle) and one had brought back William S. Hart for a final prologue bow before the camera (Tumbleweeds). Most were handled by independent distributors as novelty shows --- curios for the amusement of women who’d once swooned over Rudy and kids who wondered what all the excitement had been about. Otherwise, silent films were buried deep, and none of the majors had any interest in them beyond scattered art house showings and an occasional print donated to the Museum Of Modern Art. Perhaps it was this uncertainty that inspired Chaplin to modernize The Gold Rush thusly --- Told To The Strains Of Music That Will Tug At Your Heart, Told Through Words That Will Convulse You With Laughter. Charlie’s own pocketbook was convulsed to the tune of $154,000 for the modernization, which included a new score composed by him, and spoken narration he elected to deliver in his own voice. United Artists would distribute on 60-40 terms for all exhibitors, "just like any other UA picture." The preview at Westwood’s Village Theatre was rapturous --- its close proximity to UCLA would bring an appreciative college-age audience. Chaplin himself appeared for the opening, along with an array of major industry names (here he is greeting Mickey Rooney) --- even Mary Pickford showed up with husband Buddy Rogers to launch the new Gold Rush. She, like Chaplin, still maintained an ownership interest in United Artists.
Critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. James Agee placed it among the year's best films. No one seems to have kicked about that narration or the removal of intertitles. They probably felt, like Chaplin, that a little minor surgery would be needed to make this old film palatable for modern viewers. The idea of narration was not new. Paramount had released some short subjects made up of silent highlights which included an explanatory track, and Metro dished up old footage now and again for their comedic one-reelers. For better or worse, such were templates Chaplin had to go by, and his attempts to augment sight gags with verbal humor in The Gold Rush may well have been inspired by the likes of Pete Smith (perish any thought of that --- I find those things almost unbearable to watch). We may deplore Chaplin’s judgment today, but our hindsight pales before Charlie’s foresight, as his trip down memory lane took a lot of movie-goers with it (New York’s Globe Theatre played all-night on Saturdays to accommodate crowds). We can appreciate The Gold Rush today, not as a product of the silent era, but as a sampling of one great silent comedian trying to adapt his work to fulfill the expectations of a forties audience, and, as it turned out, succeeding very nicely. UA demonstrated its confidence with an all-out campaign. No silent movie revival had gotten this kind of push before. Note the powerhouse panel of 1942 comics paying laughing tribute to the master for a trade ad (and how about that Abbott and Costello telegram endorsement!). The Gold Rush re-issue ended up with $614,000 worldwide, an exceptional number for any oldie, let alone one without dialogue.
So just what’s it like to watch (and hear) Charlie Chaplin in the 1942 Gold Rush today? Nine out of ten fans would give its narrator the hook. Perhaps C.C. anticipated all those DVD audio commentaries we’d someday be assaulted by, and decided to get in his licks sixty-five years early. If you like sitting beside someone at the movies who will explain what you’re watching, while you’re watching it, then this is the Gold Rush for you. Otherwise, I’d recommend the original 1925 silent version, recently reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow and available on a Warners double-disc (with the 1942 edition). Your preference will probably depend on which you saw first. For me, it was an 8mm print of the original I got back in 1969, mounted on nine little reels, and dead mute other than classical recordings I played along with it. I am, therefore, an adherent of the 1925 version. On the other hand, there are Chaplin fans who will go to the mat for his re-issue, having seen it at an impressionable age and falling in love with it thus. It’s fortunate we can choose. The ideal would be to somehow marry the picture quality from 1942 --- with silent titles from 1925 --- to the Chaplin music from 1942, but without the Chaplin voice of 1942, and then stand back and shout, It’s Alive … Alive! Until that happy (but unlikely) day, we must make our election based on what’s available, and thankfully, both versions are.