The speed and severity of the decline in the popularity of the films of Charles Chaplin is one of the more interesting wrinkles in the popular perception of film. At his peak he was almost universally admired by both critics and the public at large; someone so beloved that no single modern figure can be reasonably compared to him. Yet sixty or so years after his greatest triumphs he is primarily of interest to those attempting to educate themselves in the history of cinema. He is recognised, rightly, as one of film’s greatest technical innovators and ‘The Great Dictator’ turns up in even the most fatuous list of ‘Greatest Motion Pictures’ but, statistically speaking, no one watches his films for pleasure any more. As long ago as the late nineteen eighties Richard Attenborough talked of having to re-educate the public about Chaplin in preparation for his 1992 biopic and an episode of ‘Blackadder’ was able to dismiss, to gales of laughter from its audience, the entire Chaplin oeuvre as witless slapstick, liked only by the stupid. (Although this is,if nothing else, at least entirely in keeping with co-writer Ben Elton’s odious multi-purpose philistinism.)
It is, to come up with the least fatuous modern comparison that I can, essentially as if, only a few years from now, ‘Star Wars’ were reduced to something only watched by chin-stroking film historians, with George Lucas admired for his technical achievements even as the fact that his film(s) made lots of money and entertain millions for decades is comprehensively ignored. (This is something which is not going to happen in so many different ways that I’ve lost count of them while typing this parenthetical section. But it’s at least four.)
That this situation exists with Chaplin is, quite frankly, a crying shame. Chaplin was a marvellous technical innovator, yes, but he was also a great communicator – as an actor and as a director. His films are moving, complex, poignant, funny and worthwhile; loaded with subtext, character, politics and ideas. At his best he can, to put it simply, *point a camera at stuff* in a way that other directors have since surpassed but which no one has ever contained. We do ourselves, and this medium, a terrible injustice if we neglect Chaplin as an entertainer.
All this preamble is designed to get us to this point, where I can say that it is, therefore, marvellous that new combined DVD/Blu-ray editions of many of Chaplin’s films find their way into shops this week, where they have at least a chance of being discovered and rediscovered by the public. Now, I obviously can’t review them all, partially because that would require a book rather than an article, and partially because screeners aren’t available for all the titles as I’m writing this. This is why I’m concentrating on ’The Gold Rush’. This 1925 film was by all accounts, the picture that Chaplin himself wished to be remembered for. It is also, to return briefly to the topic of Chaplin’s vanished popularity, the single highest grossing comic picture of the silent film era and the fifth highest grossing silent film ever made. A sublime tragicomedy, it takes Chaplin’s tramp character out into the Alaskan gold rush of the 1890s, where he encounters cold and starvation, is nearly eaten by a fellow prospector and eventually finds redemption and love with ingénue Georgia Hale. The legendary, seminal ‘rolls dance’ sequence originates in this picture, but it is far from its only pleasure. Technical delights include the amazing way Chaplin cuts from beautifully constructed modelwork to location shooting undertaken in Alaska to the vast ice floe set that was constructed in the baking heat of California with such skill that a continuous sense of place is retained. (The cinematography of the location scenes is genuinely astounding, nevermore so than now, when we can see it in high definition.) Perhaps the best scene in the picture is the sequence in which the Tramp attempts to escape from Trapper Jim’s cabin but is prevented from doing so by the constant wind. This is all the more remarkable because it’s impossible to work out exactly how it was achieved. There is a wind machine, but not one strong enough to actually cause what’s onscreen. Chaplin seems to have soap on his soles, but it may be that the floor is tilted one way and the camera the other. If this is so, then how is Mack Swain’s Big Jim staying as still as he is? It’s perhaps the archetypal Chaplin moment; a magnificent technical achievement from Chaplin the director that combines with the amazing physical prowess of Chaplin the actor to create something which is funny, unsettling, dense and rich. (The tramp is, in theory, trying to escape from being cannibalised in a scene that references real historical horrors.)
The extras on this set are from the previous 2003 edition of the film (in fact, I think the DVD is simple a repressing of the same disc). They include an edition of the ‘Chaplin Today’ series focusing on this movie and its production (and which incorporates a lengthy interview with Idrissa Ouedraogo where he talks about the influence of Chaplin’s work on his own work in African cinema) and a nice visual essay by David Robinson that talks you through the film’s history and afterlife.
That afterlife is of particular interest because of the fact that twenty years after the hugely successful release of ‘The Gold Rush’ Chaplin recut the film, adding new elements designed to take advantage of new technology, cut some scenes, substituted others, re-scored it and altered a couple of shots in ways that some would argue change the narrative substantially. It was then re-released. The Blu-ray/DVD edition takes Chaplin’s 1942 recut of ‘The Gold Rush’ as its high definition centre-piece and relegates the original, silent version to the position of a DVD extra. (As with all of themany and frequent recuts of Chaplin’s work the final version signed off by Charles himself remains, in my view absolutely correctly, the standard approved edition to this day. There’s another ‘Star Wars’ comparison there, actually, should you want to make it.)
‘The Gold Rush’ is, in either of its cuts, a magnificent motion picture and this is an excellent edition. If you’ve never seen any Chaplin and think that maybe you should, this is a very good place to start.