Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was, and still is, beloved by many around the world. His universal appeal goes beyond the humorous situations and slapstick antics that occur. The character inspires through his frequent exhibition of heart and spirit. He’s obviously down on his luck, regularly seen in shabby clothes and lacking a family or home, yet rather than be mean and resentful about his position in life, each day offers an opportunity to be better off than yesterday. With this attitude, it’s understandable why the character, identified in the credits as The Lone Prospector, headed off with thousands of others at the close of the 19th century to the Yukon Territory with dreams up striking it rich during The Gold Rush.
First released in 1925, The Gold Rush finds the Tramp pitted against nature, both the elements of the Yukon and a selfish few that populate it. During a storm, he finds shelter in the cabin of Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted fugitive. Larsen threatens to kick him out into but another prospector, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), arrives at the cabin and tells Larsen they are both staying. Larsen heads out for food and discovers Jim’s claim and takes it over. The Tramp and Jim are so hungry their desperation leads to an iconic scene where they boil and eat one of the Tramp’s shoes.
When they part company after the storm has died, Jim returns to his claim. Black hits him so hard in the head he awakes with amnesia. The Tramp heads to town and is befriended by fellow prospector Hank Curtis (Henry Bergman), who allows him to stay in his cabin while he checks on his claim. He mistakenly assumes Georgia (Georgia Hale), a dance hall girl, is romantically interested when she dances with him to make Jack (Malcolm Waite) jealous. Later, he invites her and her friends over for New Year’s Eve, which they accept with no intention of attending. While he waits, he falls asleep and dreams he is the most charming of hosts, entertaining them with another iconic scene as he uses a pair of rolls to dance for them.
Jim makes his way to town and recognizes the Tramp, who is his only hope in finding the claim. But will they be able to triumph where many have failed before? The resolution is not surprising for those who have seen Chaplin’s other films as the filmmaker has a similar attitude as his character. He also signals early on through Larsen’s character that good is to be rewarded and evil punished.
As the disc’s menu reveals, after The Great Dictator was released, Chaplin was concerned about growing disinterest in silent cinema so he reedited The Gold Rush, composed a new score, added effects, and recorded a narration in his own voice. Chaplin considered this the definitive version of the film, but I disagree. The 1942 version had cut 16 minutes out with the biggest change being the relationship between the Tramp and Georgia. The letter she wrote is changed and the original receiver is removed, making her interested in The Tramp much earlier in the story. The ending was also cut short, losing their kiss and just showing them walk off together. The climactic cabin scene is shorter. Most troubling is Chaplin’s unnecessary narration where he describes characters’ thoughts and actions throughout in an exaggerated manner. Chaplin wanted copies of the original film destroyed. Thankfully, that was not accomplished and the ’25 version was restored in 1993.
Both films were given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. Criterion identifies then as “a new high-definition digital restoration of the 1942 sound version” and “a new 2K digital transfer of the reconstructed original 1925 silent film, restored in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. The image quality of both is not without its issues. The ’25 version was created from a private collector’s 35mm copy, portions from the ’42 version, and three fragments taken from the National Film and Television Archive. More print damage can be seen in the ’25 version, but it’s evident in both. Frames are missing from both versions and title cards were removed from the ’42 version. The colors are more accurate in the ’42 version.
The 1925 version offers DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The surrounds are filled by the newly recorded adaptation of Chaplin’s score by composer Timothy Brock. It exhibits a good dynamic range and the individual instruments can be heard with great clarity. The 1942 version has an LPCM 1.0 track. Chaplin’s narration is clear and is mixed well with the other elements. The music has a smaller dynamic range.
The 1925 version is accompanied by a newly recorded and informative commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. “Presenting The Gold Rush” (HD, 16 min) features Vance and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, who was involved in the reconstructing the 1925 version, talking about the film. The 2002 documentary “Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush” (1080i, 27 min) offers a making of the film through production stills and interviews with actress Georgia Hale and an archival interview with Mary Pickford, Chaplin’s former studio partner. Notable is the footage of Fatty Arbuckle doing his own roll dance in The Rough House (1917). Visual effects expert Craig Barron discuss the creation of a few scenes in “A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in The Gold Rush” (HD, 19 min). The film’s cinematographer Roland Totheroh is heard through an archival interview. Timothy Brock discusses “Music by Charles Chaplin” (HD, 25 min), highlighting Chaplin’s skills as a composer and his own work on restoring Chaplin’s scores. There are also four trailers (1080i, 10 min) for English, French, German, and Dutch markets. The liner notes offer the essay “As Good As Gold” by critic Luc Sante and James Agee’s review of the 1942 re-release.
Chaplin fans can strike it rich with Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Gold Rush. The restorations are impressive and the extras offer great information to expand one’s knowledge about the film and its director. Well worth owning.