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Friday, June 30, 2006

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 Chaplin's narration or the removal of intertitles. They probably felt, like the film's star, that a little minor surgery would be needed to make an 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, these were templates Chaplin had to go by, and his attempts to augment sight gags with verbal humor in The Gold Rush may have been inspired by the likes of Pete Smith. We may deplore Chaplin’s judgment today, but 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 weekends to accommodate crowds). We can appreciate The Gold Rush today, not as a product of the silent era, but as a sampling of one silent comedian trying to adapt his work to fulfill 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 (note the 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 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 CC anticipated DVD audio commentaries we’d  be heir to, 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 saw in 1969, mounted on nine little reels, and dead-mute other than classical recordings 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. It is fortunate that we can now choose. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going by memory here but didn't he also change the plot shightly? In the original, the girl sends the obnoxious guy the letter, which is sent to Charlie as a joke and he thinks came from the girl. In the 1942 version, he makes it actually come from her which is totally unbelieveable. After all, he's a homeless tramp. Also, in the original version, she only agrees to marry him after she finds out he's rich. Those changes, possibly to appeal more to 1940s sensibilities is to me far worse then the terrible narration.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Poopee Snoopee Novelty Company"? This was the best Chaplin could find?

12:10 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I think the original version demonstrates that Georgia's fallen, or is falling, in love with Charlie - it's a pretty passionnate kiss that closes the film. In the '42 version, Chaplin removed the kissing scene, and merely whispers something to the photographer that implies they'll soon marry. The fade out comes as the two walk off hand-in-hand.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently hired Gold Rush and watched it. I was disapointed that it was the 1942 version that I got I would have rather seen the 1925 version. Personally I don't need someone to tell me the story, but others would and did.

I recently read a small article from an early 40's newspaper (I can't remember the details) but it was talking about silent movies and was bascially saying that they were only good for the dustheap and look how advanced they were in the early 40's.

Assuming that perhaps Chaplin thought that he didn't want his movies/art/masterpieces to be seen as only good enough for the dustheap he did what he did to ensure that The Gold Rush survived and was seen by a new audience and let us not forget that Chaplin was a businessman too.

Whichever way The Gold Rush is a masterpiece.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Dan Navarro said...

The 1925 version of The Gold Rush is, simply, the best movie ever made.
But the 1942 re-issue is vulgar and lifeless, and it isn't only Chaplin's intrusive narration that makes it so.

In the original version, Georgia sends a handwritten note to the ladies' man Jack. He reads it, laughs, and then -- seeking to humiliate Georgia -- he has a waiter deliver it to the Little Prospector. Cruel? You bet. But of such conflict comes good theater.

The 1942 "sound" version has Georgia writing the note directly to Chaplin, thus robbing the scene of its power.

And I will go to the mat to defend the original's ending, which includes the climactic kiss between Charlie and Georgia. In 1942, Chaplin chopped off that scene. Why? Maybe the old man had grown bitter over his divorces and simply wanted to chuck the whole "happy ending" thing.

But the 1925 original is, definitely, the better film.

7:12 PM  

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