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Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Disc review by Tim Salmons of The Digital Bits

Dedicated to the Memory of Barrie Maxwell
1947 - 2012

The Gold Rush (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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The Gold Rush
1925/1942 (2012) - Criterion
Released on Blu-ray on June 12th, 2012 (Spine #615)
Also available on DVD


Film Ratings (1925/1942): A+/A+
Video (1-20): 18/19
Audio (1-20): 20/18
Extras: A+

In 1925, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, scored and starred in the silent comedy The Gold Rush. It was a smash success and is often considered one of the most successful silent films in history. In 1942, he perfected his masterpiece with an optical soundtrack, re-releasing it to success again and being nominated for two Academy Awards for the effort.

Looking back on Charlie Chaplin's body of work, there were so many great films, especially in the full-length venue. The Kid, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, just to name a few, but none really had the long-standing impact that The Gold Rush seems to have had. It's a simple and charming tale that solidified the character of the Little Tramp to audiences everywhere and gave Chaplin's co-founded production company United Artists their first big hit. Chaplin went on to make more films in the new "talkie" era, but The Gold Rush remained a cornerstone of success for him. It was partly for this reason that he re-released it.

In 1941, after the release of The Great Dictator a year earlier (his first film with sound), Charlie Chaplin was troubled that The Gold Rush might be forgotten because of the general disinterest in silent cinema at the time. As a consequence, he decided to re-release it to a new audience. He not only added a soundtrack to it, but he completely re-edited the film, adding a narration in his own voice and composing a new score. It hit cinemas in 1942 and was met with great success and critical acclaim. Because of this, and the lack of interest in silent films, Chaplin discarded the 1925 version. He felt that the 1942 version was his definitive version of the film and saw no use for the original version. It quietly disappeared from circulation and was thought to be lost forever. In 1993, a restoration team undertook the task of reassembling it using materials from all over the globe, as well as the film's original screenplay and shot lists. It was a rough road map, but the work paid off, and today we now have both versions existing happily side by side.

Personally, I prefer the original silent version. I think it allows you to read much deeper into the characters and the situations than you would in the sound version, which basically just tells you everything. Don't get me wrong though. The 1942 is a much more streamlined version of the story, and consequently, better in the telling (although Chaplin did manage to ruin the ending in the 1942 version by lopping it off, but never mind). I usually tend to lean more towards a streamlined story, but in this case, I prefer the subtlety instead. The laugh out loud moments may not still be as prevalent as they once were, but the wit and the charm are still intact. We're also very lucky to even have both versions for viewing, and for that, we should be thankful.

1925 Version

In conjunction with the Cineteca di Bologna, Criterion has restored the original version of the film digitally and at 2K resolution, giving us as pristine a copy as we could ever hope for. It's certainly not perfect. It's a little rough around the edges, including a few black frames to match the pace of the soundtrack. Purists might also cry foul because of certain shots having to be cropped to match the aspect ratio. In these instances, shots that were only available from alternate sources were used but re-framed to hide the optical soundtrack. To me this felt like a necessary restoration step if we are to ever have these missing scenes at all, so it isn't a problem for me. Given what was there to work with in the first place, it's spectacular. It shows some signs of deterioration in spots, but there's a terrific grain structure. It's obviously uneven because of the transfer's multiple sources, but not in an overt manner. It's mostly solid, and also carries a nice even contrast. The images are also surprisingly crisp and have a lot of depth to them. Unless a copy of the original negative can be unearthed somewhere (which is very doubtful), this is probably the best that this version of the film will ever look, and it looks very, very good.

Also included is a newly-recorded score, which is an adaptation and expansion of Chaplin's original score, and with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. In a word, it's wonderful. It captivates and charms you all throughout the film. I literally felt like I was sitting in the same room with the orchestra. Aesthetically, it may not exactly fit the film, but the sound quality is superb.

1942 Version

This definitive version of the film was transferred from a duplicate negative and given the usual restoration treatment by Criterion. When it comes to the picture quality, it's just a notch better than that of the 1925 version. Because it comes from a single source and not multiple sources, the texture and the grain structure are much more even throughout. There are also less signs of deterioration. The image is about as crisp as the previous version, but again, much more even. The depth of the image and its contrast are also very good, but the latter seems slightly lower than that of the original. The 1925 version may have been given a higher contrast to retain more picture quality because of it being sourced from multiple sources. However, it's not a major flaw, and it doesn't affect the overall presentation at all.

The original monaural soundtrack has also been included, much to my delight. It sets the movie in its appropriate time period, unlike the 1925 version's soundtrack. Don't get me wrong though. The depth of that soundtrack is very immersive, but it was recorded in modern times so it doesn't supplement the film as well. With the 1942 version's soundtrack, you're instantly transported to the time the film is set in sonically. The narration stands out the most in the mix, and is the clearest thing about it. It doesn't dominate the soundtrack, but it's the most apparent. The score also works well, as do the added sound effects. It may not rival the modern sound quality of the 1925 version, but it definitely holds up well and matches the images much closer aesthetically. Subtitles have also been included in English for those who might need them.

There's also quite a healthy dose of supplements to go along with the two versions of the film. There's a newly-recorded audio commentary for the 1925 version by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffery Vance; the great documentary Presenting "The Gold Rush", which goes into much more detail about the 1925 version's reconstruction; the A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in The Gold Rush featurette; the Music by Charles Chaplin featurette, which features conductor and composer Timothy Brock; the short documentary Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush (2002), four theatrical trailers; and finally, a 24-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante and James Agee's review of the 1942 version. It's all very informative and entertaining, and it supplements the set of films terrifically.

No matter which version of the film you prefer, there's no denying that The Gold Rush is one of the greatest comedies ever made, and Criterion has done an incredible job of putting together this Blu-ray release. It's very solid and carries a couple of great transfers of a film that hasn't previously had the most impressive home video life. Whether you're a Charlie Chaplin fan or not, I highly recommend picking this release up. It'll leave you smiling.

Tim Salmons
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