08 September 2008

The Gold Rush (1925)

d. Charles Chaplin. United States. 94 mins.

What impresses me most about The Gold Rush is how it maintains a precise equilibrium of comedy and pathos. Of Charles Chaplin's three agreed upon masterpieces (all of which I love equally), this is the one that seems to do this the best. City Lights tilts more toward the pathos and Modern Times tilts more toward the comedy, but The Gold Rush gently and seamlessly slides back and forth between hilarity and touching romance.

Released in 1925, The Gold Rush kicked off what would become Chaplin's most sustained period of brilliance (which would run through Limelight in 1952). He said this was the film for which he wanted to be remembered, and arguably it has become that film. Even those with a passing interest in the movies can recognize Chaplin's work in The Gold Rush from the brief clips they've either seen or from the comic reverberations that have affected innumerable comedies. There's the Tramp serving up stewed leather boot to a starving fellow prospector and twirling a boiled shoelace like a piece of spaghetti. Then there's the Tramp charmingly using forks and dinner rolls to create an impromptu dance for the woman he loves. Chaplin's take on the humor of cannibalism – where one starved man sees the other as a gigantic chicken – has been repeated endlessly. The climactic set-piece of a cabin teetering off the edge of a cliff might seem familiar, but watching Chaplin choreograph it, you can't help but sense its total uniqueness in its execution.

There's not much to speak of in terms of a plot, but that is the reality for so many of Chaplin's movies. Plots are merely ropes, strung from point A to point B and upon which the comedian could hang his entertainment. For The Gold Rush, Chaplin's standard Tramp character is off in the snow-topped mountains of Alaska and seeking his portion of nature's fortune, billed only as the Lone Prospector – a.k.a., the Tramp with a backpack. All the other characters are bundled in parkas and hiking boots, but the Lone Prospector is decked in the Tramp's standard apparel, from the oversized pants and shoes to the shortened jacket and well-placed derby, even carrying his cane (useless in the snow). A snowstorm traps the prospector up in the mountains and he becomes forced to share a paltry cabin with fugitive named Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and hardened explorer named Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), leading to, what is in my mind, the most underrated joke in the entire film: as Larsen and McKay duel for dominance of the cabin with Larsen's shotgun between them, the barrel follows the Prospector, who is unable to escape it no matter he tries to hide.

The film comes to establish a pattern that the genuine humor will be most firmly rooted in the desolate cabin, while the pathos and romance finds itself directly correlated with a neighboring small town. After eventually leaving the cabin, the Prospector finds himself pining after Georgia (Georgia Hale), a dance hall girl whose affections are accidental but nonetheless warm the Prospector. The romance is familiar, but not cliched; Georgia and her friends look down on the Prospector with amusement and transform his sincerity into their own cheap giggles. Georgia has her own beau, too, whom the Prospector must go up against (as if the blistering elements of the Klondike and his already neglected heart weren't enough hindrances). From even these brief plot descriptions, it's possible to sense how The Gold Rush is rooted firmly in the Chaplinesque tradition of powerful themes disguised with ribbons and bows as entertainment. Two of his most common themes – the pain of unrequited love and the damage of arrogance and greed – are nestled at the base of the film's rich spring.

It's been said of Chaplin that he was never much interested in expanding physical ways movies were made – that he had no particular value for innovative cinematography and all that was required was that the camera simply be pointed in his direction and he'd fill up the frame with his antics. I'll admit that this is relatively consistent across many of his films, but I find one particular shot in The Gold Rush brimming with excellence in construction and excellence in its powerful outpouring of emotion. It occurs about halfway through, when the Prospector has left the remote cabin and come into town, and he has entered the dance hall. Dozens of people are drinking, singing, laughing, and dancing, but the Prospector – steady but unsure – stands outside the action, perfectly staged in the middle of the frame and filmed from behind so his black wardrobe pops against the lights and merriment of the dance hall. Chaplin's masterpieces all have an affecting shot like this (in City Lights and Modern Times, the emotionally charged sequences come at the end), but it's notable in The Gold Rush for coming in the middle and encapsulating the outsider nature of the Tramp, a man who represents all that is good with society and stuck perpetually in its periphery.

Like many of Chaplin's films, the behind-the-scenes story is almost as interesting as what's on-screen. Chaplin acknowledged that the film was inspired in part by the story of ill-fated Donner Party, and while the fifteen-month shoot didn't end nearly as disastrously as the Donner Party, production was still beleaguered with a multitude of problems. Chaplin had taken all of the crew to Northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountains (where, without mere coincidence, the Donner Party had come to its end) and shot reels and reels of footage until the original leading lady (Chaplin's 16-year-old girlfriend-quicky-turned wife, Lita Grey) became pregnant. Everything was relocated back to Hollywood for re-shoots on man-made sets, Hale was cast in Grey's role, and very little of the Sierras ended up in the film.

Few filmmakers would be blessed enough to produce a film as good as The Gold Rush, but Chaplin is among the pantheon of artists who left us many masterworks. There are even two versions of The Gold Rush available – the original 1925 version and Chaplin's 1942 "revival" of the film for audiences accustomed to sound. The differences are none too subtle. The revival is twenty-seven minutes shorter – shorter because of cut title cards but also missing some of the more romantic passages – and the revival includes an Oscar-nominated score Chaplin composed and a narration he provides (not only of the action, but dubbing in words into character's mouths). As far as DVD releases and television broadcasts are concerned, the 1942 revival seems to be recognized as the canonical and Chaplin-preferred version of the film, and for many years it was the only copy of the film available on DVD. But when MK2 and Warner Bros. released the "Chaplin Collection" editions of his films, their release of The Gold Rush wisely includes both versions of the film, restored with great care. I find the 1925 silent version to be a more satisfying and pure experience (not to mention less distracting), but honestly, don't let availability stop you one way or the other. See one, see the other, see both, see them once or see them a hundred times – just see The Gold Rush because it's certainly among the best films ever made.


MovieMan0283 08 September, 2008  

This is my favorite Chaplin, though I've never seen the '42 version. I love the scene in the saloon when he thinks the woman is motioning to him until she rushes past him into the arms of some burly prospector. Such an obvious gag, but he executes it so well.

Jason 09 September, 2008  

The way you review a Chaplin movie is simply a marvel to read. I have not had the privilege of seeing The Gold Rush, but your review has certainly heightened the urgency.

Sam Juliano,  09 September, 2008  

Another beautiful review in this series T.S., and as you rightly assert, it's one of the three Chaplin masterpieces that ranks among the best films of all-time. I agree that this (of the three) best marries comedy and pathos, and the latter element finds delirious expression in the cabin, where some of the classic Little Tramp set pieces (the chicken apparaition, the preparation of the shoe for dinner, etc.) Your review superbly blends the historical and the analytic, befitting one of the landmark films of cinema. I must agree that the original '25 cut is the ONLY one to take seriously, regardless of Chaplin's preference.

T.S. 10 September, 2008  

@MovieMan - I hear you. Chaplin is a master of staging something with such tremendous vigor, even if it is something that is predictable in the narrative.

@Jason&Sam - Thanks for the wonderfully kind words. Jason, you need to see it soon! And trust Sam when he says the '25 version is right version to see. If you have to see the '42 cut, then like I said I suppose that's better than nothing, but treat yourself to the silent version.

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