Posted: 1/24/00

The Gold Rush (1925)
by Michael Koenig

A Tramp seeks love and wealth in Chaplin's masterpiece, which blends comedy and pathos with a dream-like simplicity.

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By the time Charles Chaplin made The Gold Rush, he had already been the most famous man in the world for more than 10 years and the Little Tramp he created was the world's most famous fictional character. He had grown bored with the formulaic nature of two-reel comedies and consciously set out to make a masterpiece that would intertwine comedy and pathos, so that the comedic scenes were also sad and the dramatic scenes also funny and neither could exist without the other.

In The Gold Rush, Chaplin succeeded brilliantly in making a very funny comedy whose subject matter includes cannibalism, greed, and murder, as well as the mercenary nature of love.

By this stage of his career, Chaplin was plagued by the overwhelming burden of perfectionism. He had never worked with a script, and so he worked out the plot and the comedic bits of his films through repeating the same scenes over and over until inspiration came. He owned his own studio, so he could shut down production while he spent days working at a fever pitch, trying to come up with a solution.

His method of directing actors was to play out their parts for them and have the actors imitate his performance. In Chaplin's best features, The Gold Rush and City Lights, the actors convey their emotions economically, through the use of subtle gesture. Chaplin avoided the broad histrionics that sometimes occur in other silent films, often telling his actors that the audience is "peeking at you." He also used few title cards for dialogue, using action to convey the interrelationships between the characters and using cards mostly to set the scene or advance the plot.

Plots are stripped down to the utmost simplicity; like a poem or a dream they seem to have been taken directly from the subconscious. The characters often don't have names: they're usually referred to as the Lone Prospector, the Tramp, the Millionaire, the Dance Hall Girl, or the Blind Girl. No one knows where they came from or where they belong. The Alaskan Gold Rush of 1897 is a perfect setting for such a tale, since it is a place that every character has run away to.

Chaplin was supposed to have gotten the inspiration for The Gold Rush from looking at 3D photographs of the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1897. Though it may be difficult for a modern audience to imagine, at the time the film was made the Alaskan Gold Rush was not an event from distant history, but rather as much a part of living memory as the moon walk is today.

The film opens with a shot of thousands of anonymous prospectors trying to make their way up the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass. This brief documentary-style recreation is very convincing, since Chaplin and his crew brought in thousands of extras, many of them hoboes, to the location in northern California near Truckee. Chaplin walked the trail with the extras, but, perversely, used none of those shots in the film.

Cut to an unconvincing stage set. The Lone Prospector (Charles Chaplin) is walking along a cliff, characteristically turning each corner by hopping on one foot, followed by a bear. He escapes the bear and staggers into the cabin of Black Larson (Tom Murray), who is wanted for murder. In our first introduction to him, Black Larson has taken a wanted poster with his own picture on it and thrown it into the fire.

Jim McKay (Mack Swain) has found gold on his claim, but the storm has blown his tent away and so he staggers into Black Larson's cabin. Black Larson orders both men out, but Big Jim overpowers him. Eventually, the three men choose cards to determine who will go and try to find food. Black Larson loses and is sent away. He encounters two lawmen and murders them both.

Big Jim and the Lone Prospector celebrate Thanksgiving Dinner by boiling the Lone Prospector's boot and eating it. This scene is perhaps the funniest example of a running theme in Chaplin's work, the transformation of objects, in which an object is used for an entirely unexpected purpose. Big Jim looks upon his meal with horror and resignation, but the Lone Prospector puts the best face on things, gesturing to Big Jim that the chewy leather is tasty and eating the shoelaces like spaghetti and chewing on the nails as if extracting the succulent meat from a chicken bone.

Big Jim and the Lone Prospector go weeks more without food. Because they have eaten his boot, the Lone Prospector's foot is wrapped in rags. Big Jim begins to hallucinate that the Lone Prospector is a five-foot-tall chicken. Chaplin masterfully morphs between a man making chicken-like gestures and impersonating an actual chicken by wearing a suit.

Eventually, the two men part. Big Jim returns to his claim, only to find that Black Larson has stolen it. In the struggle, Black Larson hits Big Jim over the head, then dies in an avalanche.

Meanwhile, the Lone Prospector goes to the town that has quickly been built up to satisfy the needs of the prospectors. At the Monte Carlo dance hall, he sees a beautiful dance hall girl (Georgia Hale). The title card that introduces her says only one word: Georgia. He immediately adores her.

She dances with the Lone Prospector in order to spite her boyfriend Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite). The Tramp has hitched up his pants with a dog's leash and so the dog follows them along the dance floor, with the Lone Prospector oblivious to the reason why. Even with a dog tied to his pants, Chaplin moves with astonishing grace, which caused W.C. Fields to call him, whether disparagingly or affectionately, "that goddamn ballet dancer."

Hank Curtis (Henry Bergman), takes pity on the Lone Prospector and allows him to tend to his cabin while he goes to mine for gold. After being conked on the head by a snowball, the Lone Prospector invites Georgia and her girlfriends to dinner at his cabin on New Year's Eve.

Now follows one of the most famous comedic sequences in all of silent cinema, the dance of the rolls. The Lone Prospector places forks in two dinner rolls and holds them below his neck so that they look like a miniature person dancing with delicate grace. Seeing the sequence out of context, it is easy to forget the sadness of this scene, which occurs within a dream sequence in which the Lone Prospector imagines a wonderful New Year's Eve dinner with the girls, who have stood him up.

In order to fully review The Gold Rush, it is necessary to discuss the film's ending. If you haven't seen the film and don't want to know how it turns out, READ NO FURTHER!!!!!

Soon, Big Jim finds the Lone Prospector and agrees to give him half his riches if the Lone Prospector will help him find his claim. They return to the cabin, but a storm blows it away, leaving it perched on a precipice. In another wonderful comedic sequence, the two men scramble toward safety, as the cabin lurches closer to the cliff with each step. This scene is a nod to the "thrill comedies" of the era, which got laughs from putting their stars in danger.

The ending of the film is fraught with symbolism, and seems to have been extracted directly from Chaplin's subconscious. The Lone Prospector and Big Jim are now millionaires, occupying a suite on an ocean liner returning home. Both wear fine evening clothes and smoke cigars.

Georgia is also on the boat, returning home disappointed. A press photographer asks the Lone Prospector to pose for photos in his old mining clothes. Georgia discovers him when he falls from the top deck onto the steerage area below. She tries to hide him from the staff, who are looking for a stowaway.

They tell her that the Lone Prospector is now a millionaire. He orders: "James. Make arrangements for another guest." He takes Georgia in his arms, inviting the photographers to take an engagement picture of them. The couple move their lips together to kiss and the photographer shouts at them: "Oh! You've spoilt the picture."

Of course, Chaplin himself was a poor man who had almost instantaneously become wealthy but still wore the clothing of a Tramp. Chaplin had a dual nature. He could be extraordinarily kind, keeping trusted employees on the payroll long after they had stopped doing any work for him. He could also be cruel, perhaps even sadistic, dismissing the people who loved and admired him with no consideration.

Georgia Hale fell in love with Chaplin during the making of The Gold Rush; she had had a crush on him since she had first seen him on the screen, ten years earlier. In her memoir, published posthumously, she refers to Chaplin as if he were two people: Charlie, who was kind and generous; and Mr. Chaplin, who was cold and imperious.

The cruel part of Mr. Chaplin died in 1977, but the Tramp remains immortal.

It is sometimes difficult to see The Gold Rush as it would have been seen in 1925. Although Chaplin normally jealously guarded the copyright on his films, the silent version of The Gold Rush went into public domain and has been reissued by a number of companies, with varying print quality and choice of musical score. Some versions are elaborately tinted, as was the practice in the silent era to denote day or night, while others are strictly black and white. Let the buyer beware.

Chaplin also reissued the film in 1942, adding an original score and replacing the titles with his own spoken narration, which is completely unnecessary. He also recut the film, changing the ending to delete the final kiss.

If you'd like your own copy of this film, please click here.

Michael Koenig is a writer, editor, and a graphic artist. He lives in Oakland, California, and is generally in need of a nap.

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