(This is the first post in a new bimonthly series.)
Around the time that the home video era got started, the process of adding color to old black-and-white movies became both popular and controversial. The stated intention behind colorization was to introduce classic films to modern audiences in a format that would look more familiar. The fad didn’t last, thankfully, but I’ve often thought about it in the last few months as I’ve watched a whole slew of silent films. The thought occurred to me: why has there never (to my knowledge) been any kind of campaign for “talkization”? I answered my own question pretty quickly, though. The demand just isn’t there. To the vast majority of people, silent movies are a historical curiosity, nothing more. Chaplin and Keaton are still beloved among some, but if you ask people on the street about City Lights or The General, you won’t get the same kind of response as when you ask about Casablanca or It’s a Wonderful Life. Not even close. It wouldn’t be difficult to add voices to a silent movie, but I think we’re all in agreement that doing so wouldn’t create any new F.W. Murnau fans.
However, there is at least one case in which a silent film was updated for the sound era. (Not counting the transitional period at the end of the 20s, when some movies were started one way and finished another.) In 1942, fresh off his success with The Great Dictator, the first film in which his own voice played an essential role, Charlie Chaplin re-released his masterpiece, The Gold Rush. He added a synchronized music score and voiceover narration read by himself. The new version was a good fifteen minutes shorter than the original, due to the removal of intertitles and the pruning of a few scenes.
Was Chaplin the Ted Turner of his day? Or worse yet (depending on how you’re keeping score), was he the George Lucas of his day? Like many silent films, The Gold Rush has had preservation issues. When Chaplin finished the 1942 version, he considered it definitive and abandoned the original. A 1993 restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill brought the 1925 version to a state of reasonable completeness, although the original title cards seem to be mostly lost. The two cuts of the film sit side by side on the 2012 Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, which I think is the ideal outcome to a situation like this. (It would be nice not to have to wait until George Lucas has been dead for thirty-five years to see a high-def restoration of the Star Wars trilogy in its original form.) But let’s examine the changes Chaplin made to his film. I don’t think they’re disastrous, but they aren’t always improvements either.
The first thing one notices is that Chaplin’s droll, authoritative voice is perfectly suited to narration. He gives a kind of play-by-play commentary to the proceedings, as well as doing voices for a few of the characters. Chaplin evidently didn’t think 1942 audiences could (or would) follow the pure visual storytelling of the silent era. When the voiceover exceeds the content of the original intertitles, it becomes basically redundant, but never unpleasantly so. Its biggest failing comes at the imagined dinner party scene. Chaplin’s character dreams of entertaining dancing girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) and her friends, one of whom is so delighted with his generosity that she calls for him to give a speech. He stands but is too overcome with joy to say anything, instead expressing his feelings through the famous dinner roll dance. In the original version, the stuttering eloquence of the title card brings the moment to the height of pathos. Hearing Chaplin’s disembodied voice proclaiming his speechlessness doesn’t have nearly the same effect.
Interestingly, this disappointing moment is quickly followed by the best “sound” moment in the film. The dinner, which Georgia has forgotten to attend, was to take place on New Year’s Eve. The townsfolk are assembled in the dance hall, and at the stroke of midnight they begin to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Now, this song will get me a little teary-eyed no matter what movie it’s in. But this instance is something special, and hearing a choir singing is entirely preferable to an instrumental version played along with the “silent” film. This brief scene highlights Chaplin’s extraordinary gifts as a director, rather than a performer. Individual close-ups, lasting just a few seconds each, examine the faces of people whom we don’t get to know outside of this sequence. We don’t have to. There is a world of hardship, loss, and perseverance visible in those faces. In just a few moments, Chaplin evokes exactly the deep emotional impact that was his highest ambition as a filmmaker. Hearing the words of “Auld Lang Syne” throughout the sequence virtually doubles the impact.
Even more fascinating than the attempt to make a silent movie talk is the fact that Chaplin looked at a movie that was already under an hour-and-a-half and saw ways to make it even more efficient. Upon close examination, some of his cuts did away with purely unnecessary shots, like one in which Black Larsen (Tom Murray) fries up some bacon for himself. Also gone is a redundant opening shot of prospectors marching through the wilderness. The 1942 version wisely begins with the camera irising out to the magnificent shot of a horde of ant-sized people climbing the Chilkoot Pass. Other elisions are more contentious. Midway through the original film, Chaplin’s character pawns his pick and shovel, signalling his transition from “The Lone Prospector” to the Tramp pining away in unrequited love with Georgia. The omission of that brief scene doesn’t cause any confusion, but it’s a meaningful moment. Later on, in the 1925 version, Georgia writes a letter apologizing to Jack (Malcolm Waite), the town’s alpha male, whom she had been frustrating with a game of hard-to-get. Jack passes the note on to the Tramp so that the lovesick little fellow will think Georgia is in love with him. It’s a monstrously cruel joke (and, admittedly, a contrived device), one that the 1942 version scrubs away. Instead of Jack and Georgia making the Tramp a pawn in their lovers’ quarrel, the moment becomes the pivot on which the film turns. From then on, it’s a genuine love story, whereas in the original version, Georgia’s feelings of pity for the Tramp blossom into love only at the very end of the film.
Regardless of which version you’re watching, The Gold Rush is a thoroughly moving experience. Chaplin’s dexterity as a dramatist is front and center. The film’s mood flows from comedy to suspense to deep, deep sadness with the smoothness of a great dance. Chaplin makes each transition from everyday fears and anxieties to sublime absurdity feel like the most natural step in the world. I don’t really know how to talk to a pretty girl — and now my foot’s on fire. Plenty of modern comedies have tried to imitate that kind of progression, but very few have managed the same fundamental dignity and elegance of motion. The Tramp endures, and his creator’s desire to give him a voice is ultimately immaterial. With a simple shrug, or a tip of his hat, or the way he leans on his cane, he says more than any words ever could.