Bizarre, isn’t it? I’ve seen plenty of clips over the course of my life, but never even a complete two-reeler, much less his feature-length work. It just never happened.
So here I am, watching what is arguably his most popular feature (a lot of people, Chaplin included, would argue for the more sentimental City Lights, but I ain’t there yet), if not his most profitable, a reputation bolstered by a re-release in the 40s, re-edited and with a new narrative track. That was also supposedly Chaplin’s favored version, but rebel that I am, I watched the original, silent version. Come to think of it, I’ve never watched any of Lucas’ bowdlerized versions of the Star Wars movies, either.
The first thing that is going to hit you upside the head is the fact that Chaplin was a serious filmmaker. I mean, that goes without saying, right? But the casual viewer enters the movie without realizing just how serious. After a intercard setting up the historical context of the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1898 – “historical” is a bit much, since we’re talking less than 30 years before – we have a shot of hundreds of people making their way up to a narrow mountain pass. Supposedly populated by boxcars of hobos shipped in from Sacramento, this is the sort of practical shot that you can imagine a young Werner Herzog seeing in a darkened theater and thinking, “Ja, this is what I want to do with my life!”
After this, we’re getting into more typical comedy territory, as Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character – in this iteration, “The Lone Prospector” – waddles along mountain precipices, unknowingly followed by a huge black bear, and eventually stranded in a cabin during a horrific blizzard with fellow prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) and the villainous Black Larsen (Tom Murray). Chaplin, intrigued by horror stories of the Donner Party, plays their isolation and hunger pangs for maximum comedy, resulting in two classic bits – one, mined for years thereafter by Looney Tunes, where Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is an enormous chicken, and the other, where the Tramp boils and eats his shoe. That such an act of desperation is successfully played for laughs is indicative of the heights of Chaplin’s talent.
Eventually, the Tramp hits the boom town and sells his useless prospecting tools. This is where he is going to meet his -and Chaplin’s – eventual lady love, Georgia (Georgia Hale), whose every appearance is presaged by a card with lovely typography announcing “GEORGIA!” Never mind that the lady is a prostitute in the local saloon. Such things were not spelled out, even in pre-code Hollywood, and like John Wayne’s naive Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, the guileless Tramp only sees a beautiful woman, where others see a commodity.
Chaplin – like all the great clowns – believed in comedy leavened with a generous portion of pathos, and the Tramp’s smitten love for Georgia provides all the pathos he needs. The Gold Rush has one of Chaplin’s signature bits, what has come to be known as “The Dance of the Rolls”, when the Tramp, unable to speak how rapturously happy he is to be in the adoring presence of his lady love on New Year’s Eve, instead demonstrates his joy with a spontaneous dance number using two rolls on forks as legs. How serious is Chaplin about his clowning? Look carefully – You’ll see him counting time.
The pathos comes when he realizes this is all a dream – Georgia and her fellow working girls have forgotten the date they casually set with the funny little man and are partying hard at the saloon. And even then, as th Tramp looks in the bar window in an attempt to see his feckless love, there is a sequence where the bar patrons sing “Auld Lang Syne” and the camera picks up close-ups from the crowd, faces we have never seen before, and will never see again, united in that song, and with such a mixture of melancholy, regret and hope that it is incredibly affecting.
Incidentally, the Tramp doesn’t see Georgia because she, her friends, and her brute of a boyfriend have gone to his cabin “To have some fun with the funny little man”. Georgia feels no small pang of sorrow when she discovers the remnants of the party the Tramp worked so hard to put together, but that doesn’t stop her from carrying on with the brute, culminating in a scene where said brute passes a note confessing her rather bewildering love for the douchebag to the Tramp, resulting in a scene that would have been painful beyond bearing had Big Jim not arrived and carried off the Tramp to help find the “mountain of gold” he found and lost during the blizzard.
In point of fact, Chaplin excised the whole passing of the love note sub-plot from the re-issued version, and that is probably a wise thing. Georgia had already rebuked Brutus the scene before, and her confession of love to him really complicates the eventual romantic denouement we know is inevitable.
No, Chaplin has whisked us away for one more classic comedy setup: he and Big Jim wind up once more at Black Larsen’s cabin, the one landmark Big Jim can count on to find his missing claim. A violent windstorm actually moves the cabin during the night, depositing it on a precipice and causing it to see-saw as its occupants wake and move around. It’s probably the first time a set was built on gimbals to tilt so wildly, and the sequence has some pioneering miniature work involving the cabin and even a tiny, articulated Chaplin. Again, it’s a set-up that is going to be utilized over and over again in the coming years.
As luck would have it, the cabin’s precarious position is just outside Big Jim’s strike, so at the end of the movie we have the delight of seeing the Tramp in rich man clothes (though old habits die hard, and he still scrambles to pick up a discarded cigar butt). While he and the equally opulent Big Jim are interviewed and photographed on the deck of a cruise ship, we find out that GEORGIA! is also a passenger, setting up their final meet and romantic clench, which in the context of the ’25 version, feels rote and unearned. The older, wiser Chaplin set it up better in the later re-issue. Still, there are few better things than to follow a sympathetic character in a rags-to-riches story and see him get the girl, unless it would be to also see the brute boyfriend get eaten by a bear.
I watch The Gold Rush not entirely tabula rasa; there was a series on PBS in the 80s called The Unknown Chaplin, which I avidly devoured. In it was shown a treasure trove of Chaplin’s outtakes, which served as a marvelous examination of how the man worked. He used the studio as a sketchpad, basically, working scenes over and over with variations to see which played best, which produced the best laughs. It’s estimated that his first feature, The Kid, had a shot-to-print ratio of somewhere around 55:1. It’s a small wonder then, that The Gold Rush was one of the most expensive silent features ever made – but then again, as one of the most profitable, it proved a risk well worth taking. After this would come The Circus, and then the coming of sound, with which Chaplin would have something of a problematic relationship.