Now out on a Criterion DVD, this new edition of the Charles Chaplin classic comes in two flavors: a self-narrated 1942 cut (72"), and a wonderfully clean restoration of the original 1925 silent (82"). While the package dutifully refers to the ‘42 release as ‘definitive,’ there’s little doubt that the silent original is far preferable.* And not only for some restored footage. Indeed, a couple of priceless bits, like Charlie ‘basting’ his shoe before serving it up as Thanksgiving dinner, only appear in ‘42. But in general, Charlie’s voice-over narration just gets in the way, leading us by the nose, selling the gags and reducing his sharp, challenging comedy to a sweet, bedtime story, taking away much of the epic quality. Even pre-schoolers should stick to the silent version. (Someone in the room can read the brief titles out loud.) Chaplin’s directing chops rarely get the credit they deserve, largely because of the stiffening technique of his late sound work. Not so here, with RUSH’s quasi-documentary prologue, remarkable staging in depth, deft camera movement and even some special effects which still delight while always serving the picture. (Chaplin’s does enter to an obvious studio mock-up, but that’s so he can start his WINTER’S TALE ‘pursued by a bear,’ just like Shakespeare’s A WINTER’S TALE.) Unlike Buster Keaton, with his long narrative arcs, Chaplin always leaned toward an episodic structure. But in this well-formed fable, he weaves the four or five story threads so tightly that this beautifully shot tale of fortune & romance earned the hard way in the frozen North is much more than the sum of its parts.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Silent film historian & restoration expert Kevin Brownlow, who had a hand in the silent restoration, makes all the obligatory polite nods toward the ‘42 cut just as he once made polite nods toward some of the horrors the nonagenarian Abel Gance made ‘updating’ NAPOLEON/’27. Not that Chaplin’s reworking was in any way so dire, but Brownlow’s true preference, in both cases, seems pretty obvious.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: One of the best chapters in Walter Kerr’s outstanding THE SILENT CLOWNS is ‘Two Epics,’ a look at this film and Keaton’s THE GENERAL/’26.