Lost in the Movies: Silence is Golden: the two versions of The Gold Rush

Silence is Golden: the two versions of The Gold Rush

In the famed Kuleshov experiment, conducted in the Soviet Union immediately after the Russian Revolution, it was demonstrated that audiences would react differently to the same exact shot depending on what shots followed or preceded it. The actor in close-up was interpreted as mourning, for example, when intercut with the image of a corpse, or hungry when alternated with food, or even happy when juxtaposed with a child laughing. There were obvious implications for the theory of montage, but it isn't only editing that alters viewers perception this way: camera position, movement of camera, and movement of actors within the frame can all subtly alter an audience's impression of the same scene, while the more circumstantial elements of a film - like art direction, lighting, or color scheme - can ironically have an even stronger effect.

And then there's the soundtrack, one of the subtlest yet most effective ways to manipulate a viewer. It's an especially problematic element in the case of silent films, whose musical scores were often up for grabs - dependent on what the house organist felt like playing, in later years reliant on whatever generic recordings the video distributor was able to use. That's just music - what of an actual narration, imposed upon the material that orginally "spoke visually"; is such an imposition blasphemy or merely a logical, technological update?

When he re-released The Gold Rush in 1942, Charlie Chaplin nervously cut down his 1925 box-office smash, eliminated the intertitles, composed a new score, and added a playful (self-recorded) voiceover. Mindful that audiences used to talkies might grow restless, Chaplin had taken a sharp turn from his earlier position; for years he had been Hollywood's most (ironically) eloquent voice on the lost art of pantomime, resisting the onset of sound so stubbornly that he waited a dozen years after The Jazz Singer before allowing himself to speak onscreen. Yet apparently Chaplin (along with audiences and critics) was pleased with the results, labelling this cut "definitive" and allowing the original version to disappear from circulation.

Recently, the Criterion Collection unveiled a new edition of The Gold Rush on DVD and Blu Ray, containing both versions of the movie (the silent version is a painstaking '92 reassembly) so now home viewers can quickly decide which they prefer. Myself, I vote for the earlier, silent version. Somehow the voice speaking on the soundtrack, however gently, however silently when it's time for physical gags, sets the wrong tone for the film. It puts an artificial frame around the material, saying, "Look, I'm old." Music can do this too, with an especially creaky organ establishing a nostalgic, distanced air yet that "organ effect" seems different, as if setting the images in relief, making us aware of their age yet still able to peer through the mists of time. Chaplin's narration on the the other hand is caught between anxiously, almost apologetically, acknowledging the obsolescence of the original technique and trying to overcompensate for that obsolescence. At any rate, I found myself distracted from enjoying the story, out of rhythm with the original pacing, and more restless than when I watched the silent film, whose spell was easier for me to fall under.

I also think the shortened ending is a mistake, and for the same reason as the narration: it's a compromise that makes the worst of both worlds. In the silent version, the film ends with a comic, romantic moment in close-up (after posing awkwardly for a photographer, Chaplin's Lone Prospector, now wealthy, embraces Georgia, the girl of his dreams; up till now his affection has been unrequited) where the update closes things off rather abruptly and embarrassingly as the Tramp and Georgia ascend to the ship's deck. It's been suggested that Chaplin wanted to cut down the overly optimistic conclusion, but in fact the axed ending is a very wry, human moment (allowing Georgia to accept Charlie's assumption that they are to be engaged). Like the famed last shot of The Graduate (and indeed, like the celebrated what-does-it-mean expression of Charlie at the end of City Lights), the moment is both romantic and ambiguous, albeit in a more subtle fashion than those other two examples - it's easy to read it as an uncomplicated fairy-tale happy ending, as Chaplin himself may have even intended it.

Yet in close-up, Georgia looks rather baffled by the turn of events. Until now, she has been portrayed as charming but shallow, with a touch of tenderness and sensitivity easily overcome by her brash worldliness and self-damaging attachment to a brutish boyfriend. Though James Agee, in his otherwise favorable assessment of the movie, scathingly dismisses her "atrocious, dated, kittenish antics" I couldn't disagree more. In fact I think Georgia is the key to the movie, what makes it a brilliant example of Chaplin's talent for extracting humor from pathos (and vice versa) rather than just a string of funny gags. I'm also not sure what's so "dated" about her coquetry which could easily be transplanted from the 19th-century Yukon (or 1920s silent cinema) to a twenty-first century high school or college without losing much in the translation. She is one of the most grown-up and independent heroines in Chaplin's cinema, and because she represents a flesh-and-blood woman with ideas of her own, rather than a fantasy-projection of a passive (Virginia Cherrill) or spunky (Paulette Goddard) gamine there is real bite and tragedy to Chaplin's unrequited love.

Georgia (the namesake of the actress who played her, Georgia Hale) is emphatically a big girl, wiser and even taller than the earnest little hobo, and in comparison it's the Tramp who seems poignant and pathetic in his eager desire to be noticed by her, even if only with a flavor of ironic condescension. Chaplin's '42 narration notes this explicitly; the most effective (if still rather unnecessary) passage of the voiceover arrives when Georgia and her friends tease the Lone Prospector with sarcastic affection in his cabin. (A side note on that cabin: rather than reflecting a simple rags-to-riches transformation, The Gold Rush's narrative follows a steady progression from starvation to eventual success - and the cabin, on loan from a generous local resident, represent the middle-class phase in this rise, in which Charlie can finally forego problems of the stomach for problems of the heart.) Narrating, Chaplin astutely analyzes the motivations and emotions of each character, perhaps reinterpreting the original scene in the process. We're told that the girls are masking their pity with cynical cruelty (the performances alone do not indicate any such pity - except fleetingly, on Georgia's part), and also that the poor fool actually knows he's being teased but accepts the attention anyway.

Perhaps Chaplin intended this explication as a substitute for the ending (initially required to show that Georgia had finally accepted the Tramp as an appropriate lover, with her smile and kiss). Yet I still contend it's a loss. As originally conceived, the couple pose in a strangely stiff tableau which seems to reflect the sham of their "marriage" (stemming from a misunderstood note Georgia sent her lover, which he then forwarded to the Tramp in a bout of malicious mischief which is, not so incidentally, also cut from the later film). Then, slowly, their eyes meet, they smile, and lean in for a kiss. Yet what's really going on here? Has Georgia realized that she loves the little loser after all, or is it merely dawning on her that she's - pardon the expression - struck gold? Helping the Tramp when she thinks he's a stowaway, we know she has some perhaps motherly affection for him but there's never been any indication she harbors romantic feelings which match or even approach his own.

Unlike in Kuleshov's experiment, putting these two particular faces together - side by side in a single frame instead of back to back through cutting - generates rather than dissolves ambiguity. More subtly than the openly unsettled conclusions of Modern Times or City Lights, the film leaves us with the impression that perhaps the Tramp's problems have not ended despite his material and apparent romantic success; in a way, it's a more tragic ending than those films (a tragedy completely elided in the '42 recut, since apparently Chaplin himself did not realize or care what he'd wrought!) because the Tramp lacks the awareness he finds there. At the end of The Gold Rush, the Lone Prospector is no longer alone and no longer seeking his prospects. Yet perhaps he's only fallen into a fantastical facsimile of success less fundamentally sound, although more superficially satisfying, than that trek into the sunset of Modern Times, hand-in-hand with another tramp, as free of illusions as he is full of hope.


Shamus said...

Joel, I've only recently discovered your (cool) blog,so may I take the liberty of posting a comment here?

I liked you analysis of Gold Rush, especially the ending, but the most crucial thing about this film for me is Chaplin's performance- from the stiff, breathless anticipation of a pose, waiting for Georgia's gaze to alight upon him (it never does) to his manic, gleeful full bodied celebrations- more than any other movie of his, this movie proves that he is, without exception, the greatest actor in cinema.

Also, your mention of Chaplin's rise from the starving proletariat to the (love-struck) bourgeois to successful prospector brought to mind (moving from one superlative to another) the best piece of film criticism I've read: Roland Barthes' essay on Modern Times, and his analysis of Chaplin's politics. I'm wondering if you've read it.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Shamus - it can be easy to forget what a brilliant performer Chaplin was, since he plays the same character in every film, but of course this character is not him - indeed the fact that we forget that is another feather in his bowler.

And thanks so much for the Barthes reco. I'm scheduled to write a piece on Modern Times in a few months for a comedy countdown on another blog, and I was actually already planning to Focus on the film's social and political worldview and particularly the development of Chaplin's persona in that light over the decades. I was already planning to seek out similarly themed essays in preparation but this one will have to leap to the top of my list.

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