Charlie Chaplin: What Was He Thinking?!

Have you ever seen a Charlie Chaplin film projected, with an audience? I’m always surprised to find out how few have. It’s magical, a communal experience with everyone bonding via laughter. Not only will you enjoy yourself, I guarantee that at some point during the screening you’ll make a mental list of loved ones you wish could be there with you. It’s the most amazing side effect, craving to share your joy with others. My God, what could be a better feeling to have when seeing a film?

Currently, the Film Forum in NYC is having a Chaplin festival, through August 5. Screenings include Modern Times, The Kid, The Chaplin Revue (a shorts collection) and a collection of his Mutual Shorts from 1917, which will have live piano accompaniment (the inventive and indefatigable Steve Sterner). Naturally, they’re showing (arguably) his masterpiece, The Gold Rush (1925), which is screening tonight. Even though Chaplin calls this film, “The picture I want to be remembered by,” I can’t in good conscience suggest this screening. To know why, we must turn back the clock…

In 1942, Charlie Chaplin, 52, was caving to artistic insecurity. Virtually a Luddite when it came to talking pictures, his three features made during the Sound Era were either completely or mostly silent (he composed music but there was very little synchronized sound for the dialog). Like any performer who made a cultural impact, he feared two kinds of mortality: his own death and the death of his body of work. In an effort to keep up with the times, he modernized The Gold Rush for contemporary audiences. Drastically.

Obviously, Chaplin added music (again, his own compositions) and sound effects and seized the opportunity to tighten the plot some, removing a subplot. So far, so good. Logical. Also, he changed the film’s ending, which I think was a big mistake. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that he altered the film’s conclusion to be something more chaste but less satisfying.

However, it’s the narration that does the real damage to The Gold Rush. Chaplin himself provides it, complete with his native British accent. Here’s a before-and-after sample which will state my case…

Did you cringe? I did the first time I saw the 1942 version (I was already familiar with the silent version). I looked around me as if someone in the audience were rudely speaking. Chaplin’s voice and demeanor is, frankly, condescending (“The Little Fellow”!) and clashes with the action on the screen. He sounds like a loud mime.1  His insecurities as an aging artist get the best of him and he spoon-feeds us set-ups and occasionally punchlines. Likewise, his music spells out every gag (his music is an acquired taste, to say the least).

Here’s another example, in this case one of the film’s most famous gags. The Tramp and his cohort (Mack Swain) are trapped and starving in a cabin, his delirious friend hallucinating that Chaplin is a chicken…

I feel like yelling at the screen, “Hey, Dude! I’m sittin’ right here! I can see what’s going on! Give it a rest!”

The obvious comparison is George Lucas’s infamous alterations to the first three Star Wars films, when he “spiced up” his films for a contemporary audience. And it’s a perfect way to defend Chaplin’s actions since they bear little resemblance to Lucas’s. For starters, Chaplin was a relic from the Silent Era and had become fearful that the bulk of his work would be forgotten completely. Film preservation wasn’t in style at the time (it wouldn’t be for decades), and he had seen the work of his peers literally disappear. (If Lucas seriously thinks his films will disappear or become obsolete, he’s an idiot.) And so Chaplin approached The Gold Rush with the logical notion not to preserve but to allow rediscovery. Unfortunately, he doubted the new audience’s ability to comprehend his brilliant mimicry, which is truly sad.

I guess when you add Ego, Age, Insecurity and Power, you get, well, the Loudest Silent Film Ever.

This is a part of the reissue's opening credits, the writing on the wall, so to speak.

To this day, the 1942 version is the one most readily available, at least the best- looking one. (In fact, to many of you reading, that may be the only version you know.) In 1953, the original version fell into the public domain in the US, so copies of that could be had on film and video, but always in less-than-reputable versions. Finally, in 2003, a 2-disc set was released which included both versions, though the 1942 version is the one presented front-and-center.

Sadly, for reasons that I’m sure are buried deep in one of Chaplin’s contracts, the new 35mm print at Film Forum is the 1942 version of the film, which makes me wonder when (or if) a new print of the original version of the film will be available. Like his other films from the Silent Era, The Gold Rush should be seen projected, with an adoring and receptive audience. It’s magical. But what’s screening tonight is a drag.

So, let’s call this post a PSA. If The Gold Rush is ever screening in your neighborhood, be sure to find out what version it is, or else you’ll find yourself yelling, “Shhhhh!” at the screen.

The reissue's poster. Notice the tell-tale caption: "With Music and Words."

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BACK TO POST 1 In the early 70s when Albert Brooks was doing stand up comedy, he did a bit on The Tonight Show as a French mime who spoke during his act: “Now I am walking against zee wind!…Now I am climbing zee rope!” That’s what I think of when I watch the 1942 version of The Gold Rush. And when you’re watching Chaplin, you don’t think of another comic. Sacrilege!

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17 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Film, Gripes

17 responses to “Charlie Chaplin: What Was He Thinking?!

  1. I haven’t seen either version. I’m not against Chaplin doing sound–some of my favorite parts of The Great Dictator were spoken–but random voiceovers sound unpleasant.

  2. MW

    I actually saw the original version first (I think on AMC when they did their silent comedy/film preservation marathon around 1994 or 1995). I wasn’t even aware of the 1942 reissue until a couple of years ago when I rented it…completely stunned. I gave it a chance for about 15 minutes before sending it back. Awful…just, just awful….

  3. Boone

    This article should be handed out with diplomas at film school, like a cautionary tract: Even geniuses can go wrong when the marketplace supports a terrible idea.

    In other words, kids, don’t lose your sense of the actual, visceral audience experience in favor of meaningless market trends. Don’t butcher your children to pay the mortgage.

    Bless you, Stephen.

  4. Huh. I had no idea that existed. I was lucky enough to pull a crappy video transfer of the original version from the library when I was a senior in high school. I did a report on Chaplin during which I screened the dancing scene from The Gold Rush and the nonsense singing scene from Modern Times. Both scenes got laughs from the audience of 17 and 18 year olds.

  5. Adam L

    Gives new meaning to this claim: “She’s a drag – a well known drag. We turn the sound down on her and say rude things.” All this while when seeing this horrible redux on TV I thought I was watching some god awful clip show with an unwanted, dated host. Glad we got that straightened out – now I’ll know what to insist on. Thanks S.

  6. I’m gathering from these responses (plus some e-mails) that most have seen one version or the other and are fuzzy about the facts and distinctions, something I’ve suspected for years. (Hence, the post!)

    My lucky blow was the public domain VHS release in the 80s. It was the cheapest way to get the film. I think that goes for a lot of us from the VHS era. That meant I didn’t see the “sound” version until 1998, when I was 29. Film Forum screened both versions: 8 screenings of the sound version over a weekend, and a mere 3 screenings of the silent version on a Monday!

    Thank God for the 2003 DVD. The silent version is on the 2nd DVD (like what Lucas did with the original versions of Star Wars, et al, with the double DVD sets that came out in 2004). The restoration was supervised by friend–to-the-underdog Kevin Brownlow, which is the best Seal of Approval I can think of. In other words, the original version won’t look better anywhere else.

  7. I’m in no way condoning what Chaplin did, but isn’t it possible that has tinkering wasn’t completely due to his “Ego, Age, Insecurity and Power”. Granted it was the early 40s and talkies weren’t exactly ‘new’ anymore, but the attitude of the industry at the time was still very much “SOUND, SOUND, SOUND!” Unfortunately this was probably the only way to ‘revive’ the film at the time. Would you rather they ADRed the entire picture?

    There are many reasons given as to why the ending was changed, many pointing to the fact that the 1925’s critical response to the film was not favorable toward such a happy ended for The Tramp. Unlike Lucas, who altered the original Star Wars Trilogy to satisfy his own dissatifactions with the film, is it possible that Chaplin was just giving a 1942 audience what he thought they wanted?

    Also, let’s not forget the fact that the film industry is and always was a business. Do you really think that a 1942 audience was going to jump at the chance to see a 1925 silent film? Now a sound version of a silent classic…that sounds more appealing. The film industry is always trying to squeeze a few more pennies out of old product, it is just that today they are more willing (and able) to rip-off the fans with multiple DVD releases of the same film, with new “special features” with every version. How many different DVDs are there of Evil Dead? And now we have Blu-ray!

    Yes they probably should’ve just left The Gold Rush alone and let the 1925 version and release stand, but I suspect that more than just Chaplin’s “Ego, Age, Insecurity and Power” were at play here…and it is also doubtful that he acted alone with this decision. It was the age of the studio system after all.

    • All sound comments, Mediawahwah. I’ll definitely concede to some of them, but here’s some point-for-point responses in general:
      “the attitude of the industry at the time was still very much “SOUND, SOUND, SOUND!”” But Chaplin had resisted that attitude for 15 years, only using sound on his own terms, which, in hindsight, was both judicious and smart.

      “Would you rather they ADRed the entire picture?” Perhaps. I suspect multiple voices would have been more suitable than the one omniscient voice. I strongly suspect Chaplin never considered it. (Teamwork was not his strong suit.)

      “There are many reasons given as to why the ending was changed” Have any ever come from Chaplin or his camp? (That’s not a baited line. I genuinely don’t know.) Even Georgia Hale had her own speculations, but if I remember correctly, even she didn’t know for sure why he did it. I also think his alteration–which is, gratefully, just ending the film a few shots earlier, is the least of his offenses in this case of revisionism.

      “Do you really think that a 1942 audience was going to jump at the chance to see a 1925 silent film?” That’s an excellent point and I completely concur. (I did defend his aesthetic decisions as being logical when compared to Lucas.) The vicious side effect was the obliteration of any satisfactory print of the original version. More so, Janus films (who makes and distributes the Chaplin prints nowadays) is making no effort to give a movie-going audience a chance to decide which version they like better. (Again, thank God for those DVDs.)

      “it is also doubtful that he acted alone with this decision” No, it isn’t. That dude didn’t trust anyone and, thanks to United Artists (which he still had a stake in), he had WAY more control over the life of his back catalog than any other filmmaker/actor. We can only be grateful that he got bored of this narration idea before he did it to his other films.

      • I’ll I agree that he had way more control than other filmakers, due to the nature of his relationship/part-ownership with United Artists. I didn’t necessarily mean that he might not have acted alone artistically. It is pretty clear that artistically he wasn’t the kinda guy that was going to back down. It still doesn’t mean there were not pressures from the business end of things…to make a sound version in the first.

        My comment was not ment to dispute your post, but to just bring up the fact that there may have been other things going on (almost) 70 years ago, that we don’t know about…that led to the decisions that resulted in the 1942 version of the film.

        I don’t know them either, I was just suggesting possibilities…

      • “My comment was not ment to dispute your post”
        I totally got that. Sometimes (frequently) I’m not as articulate about the point I’m trying to make in a post until AFTER it’s been commented upon! Your comments made it easier for me to write some of the things I wanted to cram into the post in the first place. (Thx.)

        “there may have been other things going on (almost) 70 years ago, that we don’t know about”
        To that end, I wish David Robinson devoted more attention to this version is his epic book Chaplin (which is an incredible read). He gives it a paragraph of description, which is sad since this version has greatly affected the lasting impact of the film.

  8. Nick

    So sad. When I first saw the film, I LOVED it – in college, with a roomful of students laughing like crazy. The guy could do no wrong, it seemed.

    Then — on my birthday one year, I got the new full VHS’s of all of Chaplin. And when I hit this ‘little fellow’ crap – it was like seeing a parent drunk. You can’t look at them the same way again.

    Even now, watching one of the good ones, or the original Gold Rush, I hear that damn, pleading ‘Little fellow’ voice in my head.

  9. Jerome Raim

    I’m not going to defend Chaplin’s artistic choice in any way, but I have a different outlook on the whole thing. At a very young at age, my grandfather introduced me to the timeless wonders of Chaplin, including the narrated version of “The Gold Rush”. I’ve known that version all my life and have never been bothered by the Chaplin’s voice (realizing it was his many years later when I was just starting college). I’ve never seen the original version, though I’ve seen parts of it in the amazing 3-part documentary “Unknown Chaplin”.

    The one thing I will strongly defend is the music Chaplin composed for the film. I am a huge fan of his music in general and I’m surprised there’s so little written about it. In his compositions for “The Gold Rush” I hear hints of Debussy and a bit of Tchaikovski (it could actually be a direct rip-off). One of my favorite tunes in the movie appears whenever Georgia’s on screen. So despite all the valid disgust regarding nthe arrated version, I am glad this travesty produced a beautiful soundtrack.

    Georgia’s theme can be heard here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xqa-cN2xPyk (at the 1min30 mark)

    • I’m glad you weighed in. I wanted to hear someone who knew only the sound version, especially having seen it before too much intellect or education could infringe on your perception of it.

      My main objection to Chaplin’s music is its incessant leading to punchlines, but I do like his melodies, especially the kinds of themes you refer to. (I totally enjoyed his score for The Circus, BTW.)

      Will you ever see the silent version or are you gonna stay clear?

  10. Barney

    The Gold Rush is only the most egregious example of Chaplin’s tinkering with his films. All of his silent work was re-edited in later years. With the exception of the restored version of the Gold Rush and David Sheppard’s restoration of the 12 Mutual shorts everything else was re-edited to make it more palatable, in Chaplin’s view, to modern audiences. Much of the melodramatic parts of “The Kid”, particularly scenes with Edna Perviance were removed. The First National films not only suffer from this editing but also from stretch printing. His estate is notoriously over respectful of his artistic wishes to the point that it seriously effects his legacy. It’s a sad state of affairs.

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  12. D Whistle

    The one version I’ve seen I taped from AMC back when they stood for something. Unfortunately, tapes being what they are (not really built to last) after not watching it for far too long, the tape won’t turn well in my new player. It runs a tiny bit and shuts off. I’m glad to say that it was a good version. There was a lovely piano score that I was sure for years was written by Chaplin, though I can’t seem to confirm it. I remember one happy little up and down melody that was played as he hiked through the snowy wilderness, and I don’t know which version would have it. But there was not one word spoken, and it ended happily. So at least I’ve seen the right one, and I’ve delighted my kids by finding little clips of it on the internet. Maybe someday I’ll find the right one. TCM, which is what AMC once was, cannot be counted on to provide restored original films… They like to have contests for composers to score silent films, and then sell that version, no matter how ill-suited the music is.

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