Charlie Chaplin’s iconic comedy of the Alaskan Gold Rush has charmed audiences for decades but most people have seen the 1942 recut. How does it measure up to the 1925 original? We’re going to examine the film’s continuing appeal and the differences between the two releases.
Gold in them thar reels!
It’s safe to say that The Gold Rush is one of the most famous silent films ever made and some of its comedic moments are now considered icons of film humor. Because of this, we will be doing things a bit differently.
It’s reasonable to assume that most readers have at least a passing knowledge of this film. If nothing else, the dance of the dinner rolls is considered iconic Chaplin. So, I will very briefly sum up the plot and then move into a discussion of the film’s popularity and the two rival cuts: the 1925 original and the 1942 Chaplin-helmed re-release. (Obviously, spoilers will be abundant.)
I won’t be delving too deeply into Chaplin’s personal life for this review as it has been covered lavishly elsewhere and because the subject grows tedious.
Before we start a deep dive into the film, let’s review the story briefly:
The Little Tramp (Chaplin) is on a quest to strike it rich but a blizzard is coming in and he ends up taking refuge in the cabin of Black Larsen (Tom Murray). Meanwhile, Big Jim (Mack Swain) has struck it rich but the blizzard also blows him into Larsen’s digs. What neither the Tramp nor Big Jim know is that Larsen is a ruthless fugitive from the law.
Larsen goes to get supplies but ends up shooting a couple of policemen and jumping Big Jim’s claim. The Tramp and Big Jim are slowly starving and living off of boiled shoes and candles. Eventually, they manage to shoot a bear and the storm breaks. Big Jim returns to his claim and the Tramp goes to town. Larsen smashes Jim on the head with a shovel and makes off with a sled full of gold but a cliff crumbles under his feet and he falls to his death. Poor Big Jim wanders off with amnesia.
The Tramp meets Georgia (Georgia Hale), a dance hall girl. She is in a love-hate flirtation thing with Jack (Malcolm Waite), the local lothario. The Tramp loves Georgia from afar and her flippant promise to have New Year’s Eve dinner with him sends him to the moon. He dreams of impressing her with his dinner roll skills. However, she stands him up and breaks his heart.
Big Jim has forgotten where his mountain of gold is. He knows that it is near Larsen’s cabin and tracks down the Tramp with an offer: guide him to the cabin and he will split the fortune. But nothing ever comes easy for these two…
Why we remember it
All of Chaplin’s silent features have a following but The Gold Rush seems to be particularly beloved. Why is it often listed as Chaplin’s best or at least one of his top three? We’re going to look at a few of the elements that set this film apart from the rest.
When classic comedies take place during serious and tragic events (wartime, the Depression, in an orphanage, etc.) the writers generally opt to tone down the danger. Oh, the characters may have bombs lobbed at them or scamper away from bullets or comically have to eat gross food but things are usually kept pretty light. You never really believe they are in mortal peril. In fact, audiences are sometimes angered when reality intrudes into their little oasis of laughter. (Consider the classic TV show MASH and the reaction it got when it killed off a major character. You can’t have a plane shot down during a war! Not one containing a lead character, anyway.)
The Gold Rush could have lightened up the harsh conditions of its setting but it does not go that route. Chaplin had been inspired by the horrors of the Donner Party and while he exaggerates for comedic effect, he doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of frozen wilderness.
While eating shoes and candles is played for laughs, these actions are based on the very real, very desperate measures that starving people took to survive. (Up until fairly recently, real wax candles were a luxury and poorer folk used beef or mutton tallow instead. These ain’t no Cherry Pumpkin Cake Batter Vanilla Bean Snickerdoodle scented candles, is my point.) And the rumored cannibalism of the Donner party is uproariously spoofed. The scene in which Big Jim imagines the Tramp as a delectable chicken has inspired many homages and imitators but it has never been equaled. (Considering his tragic childhood, it seems that Chaplin had personal experience with freezing and starvation.)
This willingness to go to very dark places makes the comedy all the funnier. One moment, Chaplin has us gasping in horror as Larson murders two peace officers. The next, he has us in stitches as the Little Tramp grandly serves a boiled shoe. We often think of Chaplin’s films as pathos-comedy-pathos-comedy affairs but The Gold Rush shows a much more complicated set of emotions.
Chaplin’s movies were never cheap to make. He spared no expense on obtaining the finest talent and he was compulsive about retaking everything again and again and again. However, he was not a spendthrift in the von Stroheim or Griffith mode. Chaplin did not recreate Babylon or splash out money on buying monogrammed silk underpants for all his extras. His films cost a lot because they were carefully constructed but he was pragmatic enough to realize when to cut his losses and take a cheaper route.
Chaplin and his cast and crew meant to film outside but it soon became clear that the icy cold Truckee, California location would be too arduous. A few real snow scenes made it into the picture but most of the trekking scenes were shot on sets in Chaplin’s studio.
Special effect shots made the scenery look expansive and far more dangerous than it really was. Larson’s death scene, when a piece of a snowy cliff breaks off with him on it, is particularly well executed. Two shots were combined to make it look like the man was going over. There is a slight jitter but it generally looks excellent. Easily as good as some of the computer-generated effects foisted off on us today.
There is still some debate as to how the tilted cabin was achieved but it is clear that Chaplin and Swain really are being tossed about in the thing. Such reactions cannot be faked. There are dummies used in a few sequences but these are forgivable safety compromises.
In general, Chaplin intelligently combines special effects with comedy. His style is not flashy but it’s convincing and it gets the job done.
Scope and Scale
While The Gold Rush has been described as one of the few comedy epics of the silent era, its scale is a clever illusion. With the exception of the stunning opening scenes most of The Gold Rush takes place in a tiny cabin and in a small mining town, both of which were studio sets. As stated before, the scenes of the characters trekking across frozen cliffs are the result of special effects executed extremely well.
For an epic, the film has relatively few epic scenes but it never seems puny. The big stuff is carefully interspersed and makes everything else seem larger scale as a result. (For an example of this in the talkies, check out Zulu, which managed to look gigantic while staying small and costing only a modest sum.)
With some fake snow, good acting and clever camera work, Chaplin makes us feel like we have walked across Alaska with him. That’s no small feat.
Underdog makes good
Chaplin’s films do not have a single set ending. Sometimes the Little Tramp won love and acceptance but sometimes he was left out in the cold and other times his fate was ambiguous. The Gold Rush is one of those happier tales. Chaplin’s character starts out starving, wandering through a winter wasteland with a blizzard building up around him. His situation steadily improves (with a few hitches along the way) and he eventually wins fame, wealth and romance.
While the ending of The Gold Rush lacks the delicious ambiguity of City Lights, it’s very satisfying and was probably welcomed by audiences of 1925, who had not had a new feature starring Chaplin since The Kid in 1921. (Chaplin had released short films and had directed longtime co-star Edna Purviance in A Woman of Paris in the interim.)
Before the happy ending, though, our hero must endure one of the most difficult emotional tests. Starving and freezing to death are the least of his problems. Chaplin taps into the universal fear of rejection and ridicule to create the main conflict for the latter half of the film. While his spirits stay comparatively buoyant in spite of eating shoe leather, it is civilization that really hurts the Little Tramp. Still, he tries to hold onto some shred of dignity. Chaplin’s wistfulness has rarely been more accessible.
Turning The Gold Rush into a gold mine
Chaplin stuck with the silents longer than any other Hollywood star but even he had to surrender to the talkies. He released The Great Dictator in 1940 and made sound films for the rest of his career. Soon, paternity suits and political woes would damage his popularity but the Chaplin brand was still going strong.
The Gold Rush had been a massive success for Chaplin in 1925 and only the coming of sound had ended its successful theatrical run. Chaplin hoped to revive the film and introduce his silent antics to a new generation but he knew that he could not release it as-is. So, he decided to turn his silent film into a semi-talkie by cutting out the title cards and adding new narration.
While Chaplin’s re-release of The Gold Rush is likely the most famous recut of a silent film, it was not the only one. The 1929 part-talkie She Goes to War had all its title cards cut out and was re-released as a pure talkie in the late thirties or early forties. (The re-release version is not dated but an introduction makes mention of the growing conflict in Europe and makes it clear that the United States had not yet entered that conflict. Therefore, it had to be released sometime before December of 1941, when the United States officially declared war on the Axis powers.) Since no narration was added to She Goes to War, the result was a surreal film with a choppy plot and indecipherable character motivations, a few songs and some odd lines of dialogue. Sadly, this seems to be the only version of the film that survives.
While She Goes to War was chopped up to squeeze a bit of cash out of an old property, Chaplin’s motives is reworking The Gold Rush were not purely financial and this was not a cheap rush job. Chaplin personally scored the film and the music was played by the finest musicians Hollywood had to offer. He wrote and performed the narration himself. He studied the film and rearranged it a little, tinkering with the editing and the central romance.
The result was a critical and commercial smash hit. Chaplin had successfully revived his silent classic and had introduced a new generation to his earlier work. Meanwhile, the original 1925 version lay in storage.
What happens next reads like a zombie thriller. The Film That Would Not Die!
When Chaplin became engulfed in political controversy, he opted for self-imposed exile and had his California assets either moved or liquidated. The 1925 version of The Gold Rush was ordered junked. Instead, the film ended up in the hands of Raymond Rohauer. In the rush to tie up his affairs (and due to success of the 1942 re-release) Chaplin had neglected to renew the American copyright for 1925 cut of The Gold Rush. Rohauer realized an opportunity show a rival version of the popular film, Chaplin sued and won thanks to the fact that his copyright was still good in Europe. Rohauer was obliged to turn The Gold Rush footage over and it was destroyed.
But wait! In the 1990s, Chaplin’s heirs arranged for Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to reconstruct and restore the 1925 cut of The Gold Rush. After decades of scratchy home prints, pirated copies and the 1942 recut, fans could finally see the original film once again.
These copyright issues must be taken into account when discussing the recut of The Gold Rush. Both Chaplin and his heirs insist that the 1942 version is definitive but methinks the Chaplins doth protest too much. Frankly, everyone has a financial stake in keeping the oh-so-copyrighted 1942 version as “the” version of The Gold Rush. That’s not to say that it is the sole motivation of the current rights holders but it is something to keep in mind. The Chaplin heirs deserve kudos for arranging the restoration of the 1925 version—but it is always presented with the caveat that it is not the definitive version. Yeah, yeah, I think we all heard you in the back.
Chaplin’s own behavior toward his other silent features throws the definitive label into doubt. If narration was the way to go, why didn’t The Kid and The Circus get the same treatment? (They were fiddled with for re-release but not nearly as much as The Gold Rush.) When deciding which version of the film is definitive, we simply cannot take Chaplin at his word.
The other famous recut
So, what makes the recut of The Gold Rush different from the noxious tinkerings that George Lucas performed on the Star Wars trilogy? Well, we need to understand the climate of the 1940s. Silent movies were dead as doornails. There were a few films made reminiscing about the good old days of early film but these often took on a snickering tone at expense of the “primitive” silent cinema. Simply put, Chaplin could not re-release The Gold Rush as a silent picture and hope to make enough money to justify the cost.
The late 90s re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy, in comparison, were done in a very favorable environment. Lucas had not yet unleashed his horrible prequels on the unsuspecting populace and people who were too young to have caught the original theatrical screenings were eager to see the movies they loved on the big screen. (Raises hand.) If the films had been digitally cleaned up, restored and maybe even had a few special effects augmented, few would have complained. We all know that Lucas opted instead to paint, spackle, gild, bedeck and festoon the lily. It’s like someone tearing down a historic building, putting up a tacky casino and demand that you love them for it.
It really comes down to one important question. Is the original creator always right? For me, the answer is no. I’m not the same person I was a decade ago. I will be another person in another ten years. When Chaplin and Lucas returned to their work decades later, they were different men with different sets of experiences and those differences show up on the screen. Chaplin’s initial changes were made for self-preservation. Did some of them go too far? Yes. Were some motivated by ego? Likely, yes. However, he did win over a whole new generation of fans and keep the silent fires burning. Was it wrong to junk and fight the 1925 version? Yes, but I understand his logic even if I disagree with his actions. (George Lucas, meanwhile, is busy gaslighting his erstwhile fans. We all need hobbies, I guess.)
Chaplin’s recut of The Gold Rush can be viewed as a necessary evil. Lucas? Let’s just say that I never, ever thought I would see the day when the copyright bullies known as the House of Mouse would be the lesser of two evils.
What’s the verdict?
So, which version of The Gold Rush is better? While the 1942 re-release has worthy aspects, the 1925 film is still the superior product. Let’s break things down a little to see why. There are numerous tiny changes that Chaplin made for the re-release: reaction shots added and subtracted, small scenes cut, etc. I am going to focus on the two biggest differences between the silent and sound versions and explain why I prefer the 1925 film.
As noted above, The Gold Rush is rather dark around the edges. The bleak horror of frozen starvation serves as a counterpoint to make the jokes funnier. In the sound version, the narration is there to constantly assure us that, yes, this is a comedy and everything will be okay. So, we have softened suspense, which is never good.
Next, the narration dates the film. By this time, Chaplin was affecting a plummy accent complete with trilled R’s. While his delivery in some parts is excellent, the stentorian narrator voice is so mid-century that it can be quite distracting for modern viewers. In contrast, silent films in general have a dreamy, surreal quality and The Gold Rush is no exception. Because the title cards are not particularly dated, we are not distracted by old-fashioned modes of speech. (Why did so many Golden Age stars try to sound like they were from Boston, Massachusetts? “Fath-ah, what a both-ah.”)
Finally, the narration violates the cardinal rule of silent title cards: keep it simple, keep it to a minimum and let the action tell the tale. Chaplin insists on telling us things we can see with our own eyes. The Tramp slipped and fell? You don’t say.
However, the version with narration can be helpful as an introduction to silent film. I have had pretty good success showing it to people who hesitated to see a full-blown silent with title cards. And once Chaplin hooks them, they are more likely to come back for a few Essanay shorts.
The love story
Aside from the narration, the single biggest change made for the 1942 release is the recutting of the love story. Simultaneously making it more ambiguous and more banal, this is an example of relatively small differences changing everything.
When Georgia stands the Tramp up, she feels terrible and gets annoyed at Jack (now her boyfriend) when he just wants to canoodle. They end up fighting. The next day, she writes her boyfriend a letter apologizing for her behavior but in order to teach her a lesson, he sends it over to the Tramp. (The letter is ambiguous enough for this cruel joke to succeed.) Just then, Big Jim stumbles in and the note gives the Tramp motivation to join the gold expedition and become a millionaire.
In the 1942 version, Georgia’s note was always intended for the Tramp and it is a direct apology for standing him up. This change doesn’t really work because a) Georgia still reacts with awkwardness when he effusively declares his love and b) it takes away some of her character depth. You see, one of the beauties of Georgia’s character is that you get the impression that she has a life and an interesting backstory independent of the Tramp’s tale. Now, her story is entirely tied up with his. In the silent film, Georgia’s redemption comes at the end when she tries to save the Tramp from the ship’s purser. In the 1942 version, it just becomes another way for her to say she cares for him, which he already knows. In short, the story is telling us the same thing twice.
The final scene in the 1925 film includes a passionate/funny kiss between Georgia and the Tramp. (Georgia Hale recalled that Chaplin made sure to shoot plenty of takes of that scene. Nudge nudge, wink wink.) In the 1942 film, the pair simply walk away from the camera arm-in-arm. Unlike the ambiguous ending of City Light, we know exactly how the Georgia/Tramp story will play out and the coyness is unnecessary.
There are other changes but these two are the biggest. As I said before, the 1942 version is good and has its place. However, the 1925 film is Chaplin’s original vision and most of the elements just plain work better in the earlier cut. Whichever version you see, though, you are in for a treat. This is one of Chaplin’s most famous films and it is beloved for a reason. Essential viewing.
Movies Silently’s Score:????
Where can I see it?
The only edition to buy is the Criterion Collection release, which is available on both DVD and Blu-ray. It includes the 1942 release and the restored 1925 version with an orchestral score based on Chaplin’s compositions. There are numerous public domain versions from scratchier, lower quality prints but don’t bother with those.