Chaplin Defends His Gold Claim
The trades ran a startling headline in April 1959. Charlie Chaplin, turned seventy that month, was reviving the Little Tramp for a new feature, his birthday present to the world. Chaplin described it as a ballet slapstick in color, complete with all the works. Cuckoo as the idea seems today, there was pathos in Charlie’s circumstance not unlike those he’d mined decades before when America loved his Tramp best of all clowns. Guess Switzerland was a lonely place, as even splendid exile was exile nonetheless. Chaplin enjoyed a world’s adulation and became fretful without it. Picking up Euro awards was scant compensation for losing a profitable US market. 1972 has been credited as the year he returned in triumph, but there were earlier (if tentative) bids, with 1959’s being perhaps Chaplin’s first serious effort at re-garnering American hugs he’d gone too long without. It was a busy time for he and his lawyers in any event. Opening salvo followed close behind April’s comeback bulletin. The Inwood Theatre in Forest Hills, Queens was just then running Modern Times to an often-full house. They frequently booked silents in accordance with long-standing art and oldies policy. A Washington based mouthful called International Art Production Management Company supplied the 16mm print. Court-sanctioned marshals raided the Inwood on April 14 during a Modern Times unspool with 450 patrons seated. There was nearly a fight in the booth as reels were yanked off projectors. Admissions got refunded while officers hauled off the alleged contraband. Hasty substitution found Chaplin shorts and a W.C. Fields group as following day attraction while suits filed by the Roy Export Company (Chaplin’s copyright watchdogs) and Lopert Films, Inc., a United Artists sub, clamed the Inwood horned in on a legit Modern Times engagement set for New York’s Plaza Theatre.
Gauntlets having been tossed, the Inwood now applied gas to flames and scheduled The Gold Rush for a May 8 opening. Chaplin was hot at their ticket window and receipts warranted taking a chance. The International Art Company was again source for their print. Modern Times had meanwhile opened at the Plaza to sock business ($20,000 the first week and nearly as much for a second). It looked like public opinion was softening toward lightning rod Charlie, his political and State Department woes retreating back in collective memory. Modern Times was Lopert-booked into the East Side’s Victoria Theatre in addition to its Plaza stand. We want to insure the longest possible run for the film, said a company spokesman. Chaplin shorts done eons previous for Mutual, Essanay, and even Keystone were competing in revival closets all over Greenwich Village. Interest in the comedian’s latest, A King In New York, was stoked for his backlog ruling art house screens, but Charlie said nix to a US release. He’d not make the two year completed feature available stateside, even as plans kept apace toward reviving his Tramp persona. International Art meanwhile sought to widen The Gold Rush to nationwide patronage, their Boxoffice trade ad renaming the Washington firm Film Masterpieces for purpose of scoring dates. They called theirs The Original Full-Length Comedy Masterpiece, and indeed it was nearly that, for this was Chaplin’s 1925 version and one quite different from his official 1942 re-cut that had been in near-exclusive circulation over the past seventeen years. International/ Film Masterpieces’ trade ad broke the first week of June, just as Lopert was planning their own engagements of The Gold Rush to follow up on successful Modern Times. Here was further occasion to clear mats for another courtroom drag-out.
June 3 saw Lopert’s announcement of an original, uncut "The Gold Rush" to be blanketed in theatres across the country over following weeks, adding that this was the only production print of "The Gold Rush" which Chaplin has authorized for exhibition in the United States. There were also negotiations with Roy Export for a package of shorts to be called Chaplin’s Parade. They’d be newly scored and include Shoulder Arms, A Dog’s Life, and The Pilgrim, the trio having been out of theatrical circulation since the silent era. Charlie was said to be preparing music and narration to juice these for a new audience. But what about the black eye he was getting for a bootlegged Gold Rush smelling up US theatres? Prints out of International/Film Masterpieces were available in 35mm, but paled beside Chaplin’s 1942 version, despite International’s being actually more complete than his own. Lopert knew they’d have to vanquish these in order to click with a sanctioned Gold Rush (which they’d scheduled to begin July 22 at more than a score of metropolitan area theatres), and toward that end sought an injunction to halt further outlaw runs of the 1925 classic. This was in mid-June as International/ Film Masterpieces had a print running at the Grande Theatre in upper Manhattan. Lopert alleged unfair competition and trade practice against International /Film Masterpieces, its head of operations Robert B. Fischer, and the Grande. A major chink in Lopert’s armor was the fact of Chaplin’s having failed to renew his 1925 silent version of The Gold Rush after its initial twenty-eight year term of copyright protection expired in 1953. He was out of the country by that time, and US Chaplin offices were more or less dormant. The 1942 reissue, with score and narration added then by the comedian, remained clearly his (CC had properly registered that version), but courts wouldn’t be persuaded that The Gold Rush in all its incarnations should be exclusive to Chaplin. A final order enjoined Film Masterpieces and others from exhibiting Modern Times and fourteen other Chaplin films controlled by the Roy Export Company (with specific exclusion of The Gold Rush). Turned out International/ Film Masterpieces was infringing beyond Modern Times to encompass City Lights, The Great Dictator, The Kid, and others from Chaplin’s library. Runs and playdates in New York, Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington were thus shut down and/or cancelled, giving Chaplin/Lopert at least the appearance of emerging from the fight victorious, despite their 1925 Gold Rush being adjudged in the public domain.
The Gold Rush of 1925 became the version a coming generation would know best. Any group or institution with a print could run it for free or profit. Paul Killiam found 35mm elements and made his scored rendition available. Collectors could acquire The Gold Rush from Blackhawk, Griggs-Moviedrome, or any dealer with a bathtub. Quality varied, but ones I saw looked OK. This was, after all, the only major Charlie Chaplin feature we could get on 8mm. My friend Brick Davis bought those nine little reels from Jack Hardy at the old Silent Cinema Service back in 1969 and we were thrilled to finally see the legendary film for which Chaplin most wanted to be remembered. Sellers used to compete by claiming their Gold Rush to be the most complete anywhere. One I recall touted the inclusion of a rare assayer’s office scene where Charlie redeems his gold. Collectors redeemed theirs for opportunity to possess a definitive Gold Rush (as I recall, Brick’s print cost about $40). Multiple vendors were panning for whatever dust lay visible as dupes were dredged from ones that had been duped before. When Chaplin reissued his backlog to theatres in 1972, we finally had opportunity to see The Gold Rush as he’d reassembled it in 1942. My disappointment over that was acute. It seemed he’d ruined a great show with intertitles shorn and narration spoiling the gags. I came out of Greensboro's Janus Theatre convinced that The Gold Rush was truest only in its 1925 incarnation.
Chaplin out of the public domain continued doing business. Theatres right through the sixties and some into the seventies booked various Cavalcades and Carnivals made up of shorts from the teens, while even Tillie’s Punctured Romance filled lower berths (as here) when showmen opted for old-time laffers. New 35mm prints of Tillie were tendered in 1959 by Continental Distributing as means of cashing in on Lopert’s profit-making runs, as certainly no one could claim exclusive rights in Mack Sennett’s 1914 antique. When home video later came to the fore, calls went out for a proper restoration of The Gold Rush. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill took on the project on behalf of Chaplin’s estate. Gill wrote a terrific article about complications of that for Griffithiana (#54 --- October 1995), a film journal near impossible to find in back issues (too bad … I’m missing some). One notable thing he mentioned was a 35mm print they’d found of The Gold Rush that originated with a man called Bob Fischer who operated from Texas, and was some kind of an associate of (Raymond) Rohauer’s. That last part intrigued me as I assume this is defendant Robert B. Fischer from the 1959 controversies. What I hadn’t realized before was Rohauer’s behind-the-scenes involvement with International/ Film Masterpieces. Turns out Rohauer acquired his source material for the 1925 Gold Rush when he, according to David Gill, bought up all the film Chaplin slated for destruction after he was prevented from returning to the states in 1952. Rohauer claimed to have assembled his Gold Rush from outtakes Chaplin discarded, adding that this was basis for prints he distributed into the sixties. As to present ownership status of The Gold Rush, there are clouds gathered as result of 1994’s passage of an expanded GATT treaty. Chaplin’s estate has used that to argue renewed exclusive rights in the film. Several proposed runs of the 1925 version have been blocked after letters from counsel representing the heirs. Trouble is it’s not worth anyone’s time and considerable expense to duke it out in court. Little has changed over these fifty years since Chaplin tried scuttling would-be exhibitors of The Gold Rush other than the fact of legal issues becoming, if anything, cloudier and more unresolved.
More on the 1942 reissue of The Gold Rush in Greenbriar's Archive here.