BOOTLEG FILES 406: “The Gold Rush” (1925 silent classic directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin).
LAST SEEN: Unauthorized postings of the full film can be found online.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In a large number of public domain releases along with official copyright-protected offerings.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright – though some people are not aware that this is no longer considered a public domain title.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Yes, there have been commercial releases – but you cannot stop the bootleggers!
If you are planning to be in New York City during Christmas week, I sincerely hope that you can find the time to check out Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 masterpiece “The Gold Rush,” which will be playing at the Film Forum for a one-week run. This presentation is special at several levels: it offers a newly restored 35mm print of the silent classic, along with a newly recorded orchestral score based on Chaplin’s own music. It is also a relatively chance to see the original version of the Chaplin gem on the big screen after years of being out of commercial theatrical circulation.
Besides being considered as one of the greatest comedy film productions of all time, “The Gold Rush” is also celebrated for its distinctive role in the realm of copyright law. Through a somewhat subjective interpretation of international law, the Chaplin estate was able to rescue “The Gold Rush” from the public domain. And through an equally vigorous campaign of threatened litigation, the Chaplin estate managed to scare away many would-be bootleggers. However, some hearty bootleggers are still ripping off the film.
But, then again, “The Gold Rush” always seemed to be the subject of tumult and controversy. Chaplin joined Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks in the 1919 creation of United Artists, yet he was the last member of that legendary quartet to produce a film for release by the new distribution company. His first United Artists offering was also his first attempt at drama: “A Woman of Paris,” a 1923 feature designed to launch his long-time leading lady Edna Purviance as a star in her own right; Chaplin only appeared in the film in an uncredited bit part as a railroad station porter. Alas, the film turned out to be a major commercial flop and Chaplin’s partners in United Artists were antsy to have him quickly create a hit film.
Chaplin began filming “The Gold Rush” in February 1924. His source material – the 19th century Klondike gold mining culture – was far removed from his usual brand of contemporary urban comedy, and the film dwelled seemed to go into dangerous territory by using cannibalism as a comedy element. (The tragic fate of the Donner Party was, incredibly, the inspiration of the film.) The original screenplay also included a taboo-breaking interracial subplot with Chaplin’s Little Tramp having a romantic interlude with an Eskimo woman, but that part of the story was not included in the final print.
Chaplin felt that Purviance was too mature to play his romantic lead, so he tapped 15-year-old starlet Lita Grey as his co-star. (Chaplin was two decades older than Grey, but he saw no problems in having them as on-screen romantic equals.) Relations between Chaplin and Grey permeated beyond the sound stages, and the couple needed to elope in Mexico when they discovered that Grey was pregnant. The media picked up on the story and the controversy shook Chaplin, who stopped production and removed Grey from the film. In December 1924, Chaplin hired Georgia Hale, an up-and-coming actress, to inherit Grey’s role. All of the footage involving Grey was destroyed and filming continued for another five months.
“The Gold Rush” was finally released in August 1925 and it became Chaplin’s greatest commercial success to date. The film was also home to some of the most remarkable comedy sequences ever put on camera, including Chaplin’s playful dance number involving dinner rolls and a wild moment where a prospector’s shack dangles off the edge of a cliff.
Contrary to popular belief, silent films did not completely disappear from release after the coming of sound film recording. In fact, many of the classics of the silent era were re-released with new synchronized music scores and sound effects throughout the 1930s – including the short films that Chaplin made prior to his role in creating United Artists. Recognizing there was still value in the dialogue-free films, Chaplin decided to re-release “The Gold Rush” in 1942.
However, this new presentation changed the film’s content radically. Chaplin removed all of the intertitles and recorded a new spoken narration along with a new music score. The most controversial element of this updated version was Chaplin’s re-editing a number of scenes (including the classic denouement) and substituting alternative takes that gave many scenes a different mood. Chaplin insisted that this upgrade was superior to the 1925 version – although many film critics begged to differ – and he decided to withdraw the silent original from circulation.
In 1952, when Chaplin sailed to England for the European premiere of his feature “Limelight,” the U.S. State Department barred his re-entry into the country. Chaplin never took out U.S. citizenship – he kept his British citizenship throughout his four decades in America – and he decided to relocate his family and business operations to Switzerland. The chaos that impacted Chaplin’s life during this period caused him to overlook the renewal of the U.S. copyright on the 1925 version of “The Gold Rush,” and in 1953 the film fell into the public domain.
For many years that followed, public domain labels pirated the silent version of “The Gold Rush.” The quality of the prints that were used by these labels varied from adequate to awful. Ironically, these crummy copies helped to introduce the film to new generations of movie lovers – Chaplin not only kept the original prints from the silent version out of release, but he would also not allow his 1942 version to be seen again until the early 1970s. Chaplin died in 1977.
So how did “The Gold Rush” revert from being a public domain film back into being a copyright-protected title? In 1996, U.S. copyright laws were amended as a result of the 1994 Uruguay Round General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which covered the restoration of U.S.-based copyrights from creative entities in foreign countries. The Chaplin estate argued that U.S. law recognized its ownership of “The Gold Rush” because the work was registered to a foreign citizen where a valid copyright remained in effect. And, indeed, “The Gold Rush” was registered directly to Chaplin (not to United Artists) and the film’s British copyright never lapsed.
At first, it appeared that the Chaplin estate’s argument was on shaky ground – “The Gold Rush” was an American film, not a British production. However, the Chaplin estate aggressively used this interpretation of the copyright law to serve a multitude of cease and desist notices against a number of public domain labels that were offering “The Gold Rush” for sale.
Fast-forward to today, and “The Gold Rush” has been available in official DVD release authorized by the Chaplin estate. But it is still being offered in unauthorized DVD and online presentations. For example, TCM.com, on its page devoted to “The Gold Rush,” has an e-commerce link to a 2006 public domain DVD anthology collection that includes the Chaplin title with 14 other comedy features. Archive.org has the full film as part of its line-up of public domain titles, and a number of Chaplin fans have posted “The Gold Rush” on several online video sites.
And that brings us back to the Film Forum screening in New York. While it is very easy to watch “The Gold Rush” on your computer or to pick up a cheapo public domain copy, it is impossible to comprehend why would anyone turn down the chance to see the film as Chaplin originally intended – on a big screen, in a pristine visual print, accompanied by his music. By all means, anyone in the Big Apple needs to include “The Gold Rush” as part of his or her Yuletide activities. After all, a peerless opportunity like this is the ultimate Christmas gift for the true movie lover.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!