When audiences sit down to watch Charlie Chaplin’s classic silent comedy The Gold Rush today, they may be surprised to hear sound effects and narration accompanying the 1925 film. That’s because in 1942, Chaplin rereleased the film to theaters, updated for a moviegoing public that had long forgotten the days when their stars could not speak. He considered this new version the definitive The Gold Rush, so much so that he later destroyed prints of the 1925 version. Chaplin’s revisions call to mind those of George Lucas with his Star Wars films, of which the director reedited and added new effects to the first three films in the series. Much like Lucas, Chaplin did himself a disservice.
Chaplin’s mistake was not simply that he released a worse version of his acclaimed film, but rather that he denied future audiences the ability to see the original work. The silent version was only reconstructed relatively recently, but even today, the sound version is still maintained as the definitive cut of The Gold Rush.
Much of this decision goes back to Chaplin’s original opinions about sound. The filmmaker notoriously dismissed the technological advancement, in 1931—four years after sound broke through with The Jazz Singer—saying, “I’ll give the talkies three years, that’s all.”1 He explained in his autobiography, “I was determined to continue making silent films . . . I was a pantomimist.”2 Chaplin’s resistance makes complete sense; the careers of many silent stars collapsed during the transition between the two eras.
Chaplin continued to make silent films throughout the thirties, first with City Lights in 1931. “You have a lot of courage,”3 Chaplin claims his peers told him. But City Lights was a hit, and in 1937 Modern Times did well enough, albeit not as well as the filmmaker had hoped. In the latter film, Chaplin’s character does speak, but in a gibberish language. It took Adolf Hitler to motivate Chaplin to finally speak English, and so in 1940, The Great Dictator became Chaplin’s first full-on talkie. A story of mistaken identity through various circumstances, the little tramp trades places with Hitler surrogate Adenoid Hynkel (both played by Chaplin). “As Hitler I could harangue the crowds in jargon and talk all I wanted to. And as the tramp I could remain more or less silent.”4 Another hit, it was the second-highest grossing film of 1941 behind Sergeant York. 5
Finally having broken into the present with a talkie, Chaplin then began to think about his past. Fifteen years before The Great Dictator, he released The Gold Rush to rave reviews and over six million dollars at the box office—one of the largest box-office takes of any silent film. 6 Yet because it was silent, that made it obsolete to Chaplin in 1942. “He wanted to keep the tramp’s image alive among newer moviegoers,” explains silent film accompanist and expert Jeff Rapsis. Many historians suggest that Chaplin was concerned about his early films being lost forever—today we know, in fact, that seventy percent of silent features met that fate.7 This is one of the notable differences between Chaplin and Lucas; the latter filmmaker had no reason to fear that his films would literally vanish. What they did share, however, was an insecurity about evolving technology and how new audiences would react to potentially “dated” material.
Sitting down to modernize The Gold Rush, Chaplin altered the film in four major ways. First, he wrote a new score with Max Terr, which would later become the music for the reconstructed silent version as well. He added sound effects for certain moments, leaving others silent; one scene includes audible gunshots and a crowd singing, but when that same crowd later cheers, we hear nothing.
Then there’s the narration, which Chaplin wrote and delivered himself. “In doing the narration it has been my purpose not to rob the story that is being told on the screen,” Chaplin told Variety, “but to tell just enough to make the continuity clear and help the mood.”8 For the most part, Chaplin adheres to this logic; often his narration is the same as the deleted title cards of the silent version. However, he also frequently voices the characters when they speak, which is when the narration feels truly intrusive. Repeatedly, Chaplin reads lines for characters when their mouths are closed, and even when they are speaking the lines rarely match.
Along with all the sound work, Chaplin also cut select scenes and shots from the film—the silent version runs about fifteen minutes longer than the sound version. Most notable is the ending, where he cut the final kiss between himself and Georgie Hale. Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance views the films as two different stories, one an epic and the other a simpler, smaller tale. “Ending with that embrace was part of the heroic story that he wanted to tell [in 1925] that was somewhat autobiographical because Chaplin of course, in private life, had just gotten married and gotten the girl,” says Vance. “In 1942 he no longer needed any of this, he didn’t need a heroic ending, which had a lot of personal baggage, he just wanted a simpler ending.”
“I feel that that picture is perfectly timed for the market today,” Chaplin told Variety in 1941. “It is pure escapist entertainment designed for laughs.”9)) It seems he was right; the “revival,” as it is labeled in the opening titles, was a hit, beloved by audiences and critics much like the initial release was. Bosley Crowther even put the reissue on his top ten list of 1942—above Sullivan’s Travels!10—and James Agee named it his favorite film of the year, a ludicrous decision.11 It received Oscar nominations for the music and the sound work.
The truth is that The Gold Rush did not need narration, just as it barely needed intertitles. Rapsis recalls a time over a decade ago when he came to play live music for The Gold Rush, but as the film started, realized they were not playing the silent version as intended—but the 1942 version without sound. “I had to make a quick decision,” Rapsis said. “I thought, ‘You know what, let’s make this an experiment.’”
He let the film run, playing his music alongside it, without any explanation to the crowd. They never had any idea there was anything wrong, applauding at the film’s conclusion. “It still held an audience and people thought it was a great experience. That’s a real compliment to Chaplin as a filmmaker.”
When Lucas was questioned about his changes to Star Wars, he told The Hollywood Reporter that “Star Wars, there’s basically one version—it just keeps getting improved a little bit as we move forward . . . All art is technology and it improves every year.”12 The point of contention seems to be what, exactly, merits an improvement.
Chaplin never should have doubted himself—even with this moment of bad judgement, he still remains one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, and The Gold Rush is wonderful even when experienced with his intrusive narration.
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), 389.|
|2, 3.||^||Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Melville House, 2012), 322.|
|4.||^||Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Melville House, 2012), 387.|
|5.||^||Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 466.|
|6.||^||David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), 358.|
|7.||^||Library of Congress, “Library Reports on America’s Endangered Silent-Film Heritage,” press release, December 4, 2013, https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-13-209/.|
|8.||^||“Chaplin Promises New Surprises in ‘Gold Rush’; Sound Track for ‘Circus’,” Variety, November 25, 1941, 9.|
|9.||^||((“Chaplin Promises New Surprises in ‘Gold Rush’; Sound Track for ‘Circus’,” Variety, November 25, 1941, 9.|
|10.||^||Frank Eugene Beaver, “Bosley Crowther: Social Critic of the Film, 1940-1967” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1970, Arno Press, 1974), 169.|
|11.||^||Eric L. Flom., Chaplin in the Sound Era (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 1997), 148.|
|12.||^||Alex Ben Block, “5 Questions With George Lucas: Controversial ‘Star Wars’ Changes, SOPA and ‘Indiana Jones 5’,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 9, 2012.|