I have decided that as long as I am here, I will stay here and enjoy it.
For me, after all, Charlie Chaplin is like Paris. He’s that thing you’ve always heard of and can recognize in a heartbeat even if you’ve never really seen it for yourself. He’s the one who’s always been there; not a single person alive today knows of a time when he wasn’t. He’s the icon that transcends just one country; he belongs a little bit to everyone. Amid a Hollywood full of Chicagos and Houstons, Chaplin is the La Ville-Lumière, the City of Love and Lights. It is only fitting, therefore, that he made such urban films. With that being said, his personal favorite film, and the one which is most universally praised, is The Gold Rush: his most rural.
I’ve never been to Paris. But I’ve heard its beautiful and dirty. It carries an age-old enigma. It has inspired many a Woody Allen film.
I’ve seen Chaplin movies. They are beautiful. They are dirty. They are enigmatic, yet simple. And, they have inspired many a Woody Allen film. (Allen said that the ending sequence of City Lights was his inspiration for the closing scene in Manhattan, but I get ahead of myself.)
I think it is those paradoxical combinations of beauty and dirt, mystery and simplicity, sentimentality and slapstick that define Chaplin’s film-making expertise. In The Gold Rush, we see the first manifestation of those combinations, one that has stood the test of time for almost ninety years. Ninety years! The idea that something so old could be so engrossing to a modern audience is quite staggering, and I am assured that anyone can sit down and watch this movie and love it having read nothing in this blog at all. However, I hope that having read certain things in this blog about competent film-watching, the experience would be even more beneficial. It is the goal of this post, therefore, to contribute to watching The Gold Rush even more. That, I suppose is my purpose in all my reviews.
I hope that in reading these reviews and in watching the respective movies themselves one can find themselves evolving from a casual consumer of movies into a competent expert in film. I have already gotten into Chaplin with a review on Modern Times, and, like I said earlier, as long as I’m here, I think I’ll stick around. After all, no one, in their quest to fully comprehend the vast world of cinema before them, can come to such understanding without coming into contact with Charlie Chaplin. If there is one man in the history of film that is unavoidable in your pursuits, it is Chaplin.
In the Gold Rush, you have the finest pre-sound era Chaplin film. Note, this is not the finest pre-sound Chaplin film. It is the finest pre-sound era Chaplin film (City Lights and Modern Times were made after the advent of sound but were still silent films). What The Gold Rush did was come to establish the Chaplin formula: x parts comedy with y parts sentimentality. He would incorporate romance to a great degree later on, but even in The Gold Rush, the motifs of romance and struggle (as if there was anything more romantic than humanistic struggle) are present and poignant. Really, no Chaplin film before The Gold Rush housed the perfect balance that has so characterized his movies with all their heartwarming humor and riotous simplicity.
The romance plays against a backdrop of boisterous speculation. The scenes that focus on the romantic element of the film are relatively sparse in comparison with this other set of scenes that focus on the speculative spirit of the three main characters: Big Jim McKay, Black Larsen, and the unnamed “Lone Prospector”. Big Jim, played by Mack Swain, is a prospector who has come across a huge gold deposit in the Yukon. Black Larsen, played by Tom Murray, is an escaped fugitive who fights Jim for claim to his deposit. The Lone Prospector, so credited, is played by Chaplin. In reality, he is the Tramp. This movie, for some reason, introduces the Tramp with a different title, but no one, including Chaplin himself, denies that this is, indeed, the Tramp stuck in the hectic speculation of the Yukon-Klondike Gold Rush.
In this role, the Tramp is transported out of his ever-familiar city life, which is constantly tearing him down in other vignettes and feature films, and into an even more insufferable terrain. Yukon territory is depicted as a world of vast, flat plateaus filled with circling snow waves, harsh wind that carries chunks of ice and freeze, and jagged mountain cliffs that often are utilized in slapstick sequences where the three characters work to keep their shack from sliding off into an abyss. At no time in the career of the Tramp was so pitted against nature; as a matter of fact, the normal motive was of him pitted against a mechanized world. This conflict is most well-documented in the Modern Times, as I hope was well-established in my last review. In The Gold Rush, the enemy is weather.
However, there is another enemy which dominates The Gold Rush that was common in all of Chaplin’s films. That is the enemy of human misunderstanding. Slapstick thrives on instances of humans misunderstanding each other. All of Arrested Development and The Office and other contemporary sitcoms are dependent on this concept. Practically every romantic comedy since the beginning of time finds its great climatic moment of conflict based on the concept of humans misunderstanding each other; these scenes often end in the two people throwing their grudges to the altar of sacrifice and embracing each other in the arms of love. In The Gold Rush, the misunderstanding plays on multiple fronts. First, there are the instances in the shack out in the Yukon mountain region, as the three strive to beat each other while also helping each other survive. Second, there is Big Jim, who becomes stricken with amnesia, who must recruit the help of the Lone Prospector; the whole idea of amnesia being based on misunderstanding of the past. Third, there is the Tramp’s misunderstanding with the love interest, Georgia (played by Georgia Hale), when he finds a letter from her that he mistakenly thinks is written for him. The misunderstanding surrounding who is in love with whom is perhaps the most appealing of the three, as it leads to the film’s climax.
The sentimentality of The Gold Rush as manifest in these moments of human conflict is considerably less than the sentimentality in Modern Times and City Lights, but it is surprisingly effective. When I first saw the movie, it seemed to be a series of clever vignettes, and this is especially because the movie is segmented in its approach to the plot. However, with more viewings (and more traversal into the realm of the “competent movie goer”) I came to a realization that he was not just creating a movie by tying together skits (a la Saturday Night Live movie spin-offs), but he was truly doing exactly what was documented in my last review: he was delving into the emotional, enabling his comedy to circumscribe into a singular artistic moment. The movie is only a moment, it’s hardly over 60 minutes long.
A silent movie has no narrator like a piece of literature, and there isn’t, therefore, any omniscient observer telling us the motives, desires, character traits, and personal history of every character. It has no dialogue like a great dramatic work, and therefore there are no words providing a logical explanation for a given character’s behavior. A silent film is dependent solely on two things: the director’s choice of camera work and the actor’s ability to tell a story with his or her body. Perhaps one reason why the movies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have survived so well is because they are created by the deft directorial hand of their respective creators, who also provide the dexterous acting performances necessary to propel the plot and imagery. In this regard, they are the ultimate auteurs, the movies are theirs in ways that no movie was ever anyone’s. In regards to The Gold Rush, this was the movie that Chaplin was most attached to, and we can therefore deduce that he cared very much with how the film was delivered.
In my opinion, Chaplin was very selective about the scenes he put into the movie. This can be evidenced by the re-release of The Gold Rush in the mid-40s, wherein certain scenes were added or altered. Chaplin obviously had a certain vision for the original. I believe that one of Chaplin’s desires was to move the Tramp from the realm of short-film side show to the realm of humanist connectivity. If this was not his true motive, then it was certainly the result anyway. What began with such movies as The Kid really took shape in The Gold Rush. What the Tramp did through comedy was bring help to the human in finding his own humanity.
For Chaplin, there was little ground that lied between tragedy and humor; they were integral parts of life and could not, therefore, be separated. The inspiration for The Gold Rush started with a viewing of documentary footage of the 1896 Klondike Rush, where a line miles long of prospectors wound its way through Chilkoot Pass. According to the official biographical Chaplin website, this image coupled with the story of the Donner Party to create the plot line to Chaplin’s film, which was so inspired that it was the only one of Chaplin’s movies to begin production with the entire story already written. What he found in these instances of intense ambition and violent deprivation was the perfect groundwork for a good comedy.
Why? Because, like I said, there was little ground between tragedy and humor. Through good satire, Chaplin could really touch the human condition. Many films have tried to do this. But The Gold Rush worked.
Such satirical scenes include the two famous sequences wherein the Tramp is eating. In one of these scenes, the Tramp eats his shoe—symbolic of the Donner Party—and the development is hilarious. He treats shoelaces like spaghetti, and soles like steak. The other scene is one of the most well-known sequences in cinematic history. In this scene, he pierces two rolls with forks and, realizing the similarity of appearance the pierced roles has with legs and feet, moves the forks around so that they dance, the rolls acting as tap shoes. Despite the fact that the rolls themselves move with Fred Astaire-like grace, his facial expressions that go along with it really sell the whole scene. Never mind the fact that the two scenes are obviously connected. The Tramp is busy playing with his food in one scene (making the food look like a pair of shoes), but when things really get bad, he has to eat his shoes. That is the Tramp’s luck. Irony abounds, and comedy ascends.
Such simple sequences as these (both taking place at a table in the seating position with no camera movement or jump cuts) are the moments when Chaplin’s endearing form endures. Here he is, making fun out of misery, showing us the lowest rung of the human situation, while making it somehow glorified. For me, what makes these comedic sequences work is the personal nature of the scenes. They are lonely, exposed, and clever enough to make them sweet. But, a truly competent film-watcher does not call it sweet. The competent film-watcher would probably call it brilliant. I know I do.