The Gold Rush (1925)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Starvation isn’t usually funny.

They may not know it, but many children have seen the work of Charles Chaplin. Even if they haven’t seen one of his unforgettable movies, they’ve seen Chaplin. Maybe they’ve grown up with Looney Tunes, caught a glimpse of Big Top Pee-Wee or Benny and Joon, or have seen comedic gags of any kind. In any and all of those cases, they’ve unknowingly seen Chaplin’s work. To say that the man changed screen comedy is an understatement. Saying that he changed the entire realm of comedy is a bit closer. And The Gold Rush, one of his personal best, remains the film by which Chaplin most wants us to remember him.

Esteemed critic-turned screenwriter James Agee Gold2wrote at length about Chaplin, most notably in his famous essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” in Life magazine. “The Tramp is as centrally representative of humanity, as many-sided and mysterious as Hamlet, and it seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety, or poignancy of motion,” Agee wrote. “Although it was another generation’s children who promised to be good all week if they could see a Chaplin comedy, the bantam tramp with his flapping shoes, battered derby hat, jaunty bamboo cane, absurd black mustache, shabby, defiant clothes, is not dated,” he emphasized in a Time magazine review for the 1942 re-release. “Before Chaplin came to pictures people were content with a couple of gags per comedy; he got some kind of laugh every second.” Mack Sennett, with whom Chaplin made several films, dubbed him nothing short of “the greatest artist that ever lived.”

As Agee pointed out, The Gold Rush is an example of Chaplin as The Tramp, the comedic character for which people will most recognize Chaplin, but chastised him later in his career for abandoning it. Despite costing a then-hefty $2 million to make (and an additional $125,000 to refurbish for re-release), The Gold Rush was Chaplin’s most successful comedy, raking in about $7 million, placing it as the fifth-highest grossing silent film and the highest grossing silent comedy.

Some comedians, Chaplin included, believe in a fine line between tragedy and comedy. Never before, or after, is that more apparent than here. The auteur (Chaplin not only starred in his films, but wrote, directed, and produced) drew unlikely inspiration from slides of the Klondike Gold Rush prospectors and a book on The Donner Party, who infamously resorted to eating their moccasins and dead compatriots. Charged with creativity, Chaplin shot more than 27 hours of footage for his elaborate 70-minute movie, on location in the snowy mountains of Sierra Nevada, among thousands of extras, where his characters would battle starvation, freezing, isolation, and bears.

In Film Comment, David Denby praised The Gold Rush as a high point in cinematic naturalism, and noted that Chaplin’s comedic success draws from a background of starvation and disaster. “Chaplin has said that his humor depends on getting The Tramp in and out of the maximum amount of trouble and perhaps we continue to honor him as the greatest of modern comedians because The Tramp’s difficulties are always so much more extreme than anyone else’s and his resistance so much more heroic.”

The film opens with a lone Gold3prospector making his way up a snow-covered mountain. We know it’s The Tramp, not just because of his cane, derby, mustache, and signature walk, but because a black bear comically follows close behind. The Tramp winds up in a ramshackle cabin with another lone prospector, Big Jim, and an ominous criminal, Black Larson, but of course they don’t know that. This character dynamic leads to fistfights, chases, and even a few shootouts. When they finally separate, The Tramp makes his way back to town and falls for a dance hall gal named Georgia, who the deplorable chap must win over.

Throughout this plot, Chaplin masterfully weaves laugh-a-minute gags like running against the wind, a case of falling pants and a barking belt, playing frozen for a free breakfast, setting fire to a foot, and shoveling storefronts. And don’t forget the climax with the tiny cabin teetering on the cliff’s edge. “Do you feel that rocking?” Big Jim asks. “It’s my stomach,” The Tramp responds. The scene puts forth an unbelievable use of miniatures and comic suspense, and is further evidence that Chaplin was not only a master of comic gags, but the very best at milking them for all they’re worth.

But wait! I promised that most children have seen Chaplin’s work. Well, if those scenes didn’t ring a bell (not even the foot on fire), then these oughta jog your memory. The Gold Rush’s most famous scenes – and those reduced, reused, and recycled time and time again – include the boiling and devouring of a leather shoe (twirling the laces like spaghetti), the dancing of the dinner rolls (croissants mimicking the Rockettes), and a hungry Big Jim looking over at The Tramp, envisioning him as a giant chicken. I told you that you’ve seen the master at work.

As a sidenote, the DVD has 1942’s excellent overdub with a full soundtrack and Chaplin narrating. It makes for an excellent transition from sound to silent for kids. If this one entrances you, leading you to more movies from Chaplin, I highly recommend City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Monsieur Verdoux.

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