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DVD Review: The Chaplin Collection: Limelight, The Gold Rush

By Glenn Abel

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photo "The cycle is complete," the not-so-great Calvaro says in Charles Chaplin's "Limelight."

It was more than a line from a self-pitying clown. Chaplin's 1952 film completes the circuit be-tween the pure joyous comedy of his youth and the time-weary art of his advanced years. Chaplin, fully expecting "Limelight" to be his last film, made it his last testament.

To this day, the audiences don't know whether to laugh or cry when encountering the long-winded melodrama about an aged performer and a troubled young ballerina.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci is among those who consider "Limelight" Chaplin's masterpiece.

When the tramp clown breathes his last, "Who is dying here is not Calvaro, but Charlie Chaplin," Bertolucci says. "With 'Limelight,' tears flow very easily."

"The Gold Rush" (1925) and "Limelight" (1952) serve as bookends for Volume 1 of Warner's "Chaplin Collection," the highly anticipated resurrection of his major films, presented in collaboration with France's MK2 and the Chaplin estate.

As with their companion DVDs -- "Modern Times" and "The Great Dictator" -- the films enjoy across-the-board improvements in video and audio, including digital transfers from Chaplin family elements and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. Imaginative bonus features inform and entertain without wearing out their welcome. Both double-disc sets retail for $29.95. They're also part of the Volume 1 box set that goes for $89.98.

"The Gold Rush" has been delighting audiences for almost 80 years -- it's one of the flat-out funniest films made in the silent era or any other. This is the movie Chaplin wanted to be remembered for. Just add up a few of the classic scenes -- the Little Tramp making a meal of a boot while twirling the shoestrings as pasta; Chaplin's transformation into a big, juicy chicken; the miner's shack wobbling on the edge of a cliff; and, of course, the magical dance of the dinner rolls.

But this is Chaplin, and so there is controversy. Image and Fox Home Entertainment felt the wrath of the faithful a few years back when they released Chaplin's audience-friendly 1942 sound version of the film, ignoring the classic all-silent film.

MK2 and Warner didn't dare blow off the original, but their "Gold Rush" package relegates the 96-minute silent to Disc 2, as an extra. The 1942 version gets the star treatment, taking up all of Disc 1. It runs 69 minutes, as transformed by Chaplin when he recut the film, added narration and recorded an orchestral score.

The 1942 edition will be more accessible to mainstream audiences, but it's a shame that most viewers will bypass the original, probably the grandest silent-movie entertainment of them all. (A new piano track by Neil Brand adds even more zest to the silent.)

Alas, the plot thickens: There are significant differences in image presentation among the three versions. "The Chaplin Collection's" 1942 film looks great, with most of the wear digitally scrubbed out, but some video-philes will stay with Fox's 2001 release, which retains a bit more contrast and detail with the tradeoff of wear. The Warner silent sports a decent restoration job from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, but its images tend to be flat and inconsistent, with wear throughout. Warner's two versions are presented full-screen (1.33:1, as Chaplin intended), lacking a bit of picture information found on Fox's window-boxed film, which runs 72-minutes. And the Warner silent employs some subtly different takes than the updated film. Then there are the audio issues ...

It's enough to drive a soul screaming into the Yukon. But take heart: One big difference between 1942 and 1925 turns out to be simple and delightful.

In the newer version, the Little Tramp and his dance-hall love, played by Georgia Hale, walk off together at the end, chastely holding hands. But in 1925, the sparks flew as the lovers kissed -- little acting seemed necessary. Hale remembered in 1980 that Chaplin kept reshooting the kiss for reasons not purely artistic. She knew then that the director was in love with her.

A half-hour MK2 TV documentary retells the tale of the production, which started in the Sierra Nevadas before retreating to an elaborate set in Los Angeles, where 100 barrels of flour stood in for mountain snow. An army of real-life tramps helped create the opening scene of prospectors marching through the snowy pass like worker ants. Lita Gray, the leading lady, not yet 16, became pregnant with Chaplin's child six months into the shoot, leading to her replacement by Hale. Production dragged on for one and a half years, an eternity for a director who used to make three or more movies a week.

The docu points out that Chaplin's humor frequently revolved around hunger, the curse of his childhood. "The Gold Rush's" comic tale of starving prospectors was based, in part, on the real-life horrors of the Donner party. The DVD includes rare outtakes of Big Jim the miner chasing his hallucinatory chicken (Chaplin) through the woods.

The MK2 documentary for "Limelight" is the Chaplin Collection's best so far. It covers the period in which Chaplin left the United States, only to return once, reluctantly, for his honorary Oscar.

Chased by the hellhounds of the extreme right, longtime resident alien Chaplin had been denied re-entry after he traveled to London for the "Limelight" premiere. Later, he settled in Switzerland, having no desire to return to the United States, "that unhappy country." "Limelight" remained largely unseen in the United States for decades.

His co-star, Claire Bloom, recalls in the documentary: "He was being studied by the FBI; we all knew that." The British actress, still lovely and still working, says her mother kept a good eye on Chaplin, infamous for his affairs with young women.

Chaplin sought refuge from his political woes in the music-hall memories of his youth. He and art director Eugene Lourie re- created London of 1914 on a lot at Paramount. The film began as the novel "Footlights," which Chaplin apparently never intended for publication. (He reads a smidgen of the manuscript in the DVD extras.)

Bloom recalls being costumed to resemble Chaplin's mother and his childhood sweetheart. Calvaro the clown was loosely based on the comic's father.

The docu doesn't address the old charges that Chaplin spiked Buster Keaton's best work in the film. Regardless, the extended Keaton-Chaplin slapstick se-quence remains the highlight for many viewers. The DVD photo gallery includes W. Eugene Smith's terrific stills of the men at work.

"Limelight" extras include footage of Chaplin getting a hero's welcome in London and revisiting the places of his youth. Home movies from the 1950s show Geraldine Chaplin as a child and teenager. (The great Chaplin comes across like any other proud goofy dad, playing with his kids.) A hilarious 1919 short shows Chaplin on the loose as a flea-circus wrangler. Chaplin and his collaborators' luscious score, which won a belated Oscar in 1972 -- once the film finally qualified by screening in Los Angeles -- can be enjoyed separately, as an extra. The music sounds fine in mono or in 5.1, but the surround seems to introduce some boominess. Both films have introductions by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, rendered pretty much useless by their placement on Disc 2 (almost all of his information is repeated in the docus). Trailers and posters from around the world complete the DVD packages. Subtitles range from French to Korean.

"The Chaplin Collection's" next releases, due early next year, include "The Kid," "City Lights," "Monsieur Verdoux" and "The Circus." All but "Verdoux" are double-disc sets.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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