Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925).
I first saw this film in a school assembly at around the time of its 50th anniversary. It was, I think, one of the formative experiences of my life. Though it would be over a decade before I saw the film again, its images stuck with me. In the intervening years I had no trouble conjuring practically every scene in the film: the shoe eating episode, the dance with the rolls, Big Jim’s hallucination of the Tramp as a giant chicken. But even without those dream-like touches, the film would have spoken to me. I came from an old-fashioned family, with deep American roots. I had been raised to romanticize that older world, the world of cabins and kerosene lanterns and pot-bellied stoves. I had often heard it spoken of and read about it in stories. Now here it was, palpably represented in scratchy sepia-toned images. My love of silent comedy began with The Gold Rush.
The inspiration for this film came to Chaplin from a stereopticon slide he saw while visiting Pickfair, the fabled home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The shot (which Chaplin would recreate cinematically) was of a long line of hundreds of men trudging through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass during the Alaskan gold rush (1897-1899).
This was an epic backdrop in which to place the Tramp. Large scale films about punishing life in the wilderness were in vogue at the time. Recent years had seen the success of Robert Flaherty’s Arctic documentary Nanook of the North (1922), major westerns like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), as well as Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), which has its climax in California’s Death Valley, perhaps the least hospitable spot for life on the globe. As a parlor socialist, Chaplin surely also knew the works of Jack London, who’d actually taken part in the Alaskan gold rush and written about it in works like The Call of the Wild, White Fang and the short story “To Build a Fire”. 1923 had also seen the first of many remakes of The Spoilers, an Alaskan gold rush yarn based on the 1906 novel by Rex Beach. And even some comedians had dabbled in the genre, namely, Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Ben Turpin’s Yukon Jake (1924).
The Gold Rush (1925) gave Chaplin an opportunity to dramatize privations even greater than those he had depicted in The Kid. The theme of the film is hunger: for food, for riches, for love. At the center of it is the Tramp, one of the 100,000 prospectors who’ve descended on this remote, forbidding region in pursuit of big wealth. For his apparent ambitions he suffers mightily. Fleeing a blizzard, he must share a cabin with a wanted murderer named Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and later spends several weeks starving with the man who will become his partner, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). During this ordeal, the men resort to eating their own shoes for Thanksgiving dinner, and at a certain point McKay, crazed with hunger, mistakes the Tramp for a chicken and pursues him with an ax.
Worse than the company of either of these two associates, however, is the specter of loneliness.
The Tramp pines away for the love of the vivacious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) whom Charlie mistakenly believes is interested in him due to a series of cruel jokes and misunderstandings. In the end McKay and the Tramp strike it rich, and the Tramp gets his girl.
And the gorgeous art direction. There’s a reason many regard The Gold Rush as one of the greatest films of all time. It sticks in the craw. As I said, I first saw it at an elementary school assembly in the 1970s (my first silent film, in fact) and I swear, if I had never seen it again, I would still be able to recall every scene to this day. It is like The Wizard of Oz in that respect. A succession of highly memorable, dream-like scenes. There are the Chilkoot Pass, shoe eating and giant chicken scenes which we mentioned earlier. But there’s also the Tramp’s famous dinner table dance with forks and rolls (borrowed from Arbuckle’s similar routine in The Rough House.) Johnny Depp memorably paid tribute to this scene in Bennie and Joon (1993).
Other stuff! Charlie walking along a snow covered ledge, followed by a bear.
Black Larsen falling to his death (like Snow White’s Wicked Queen) in a mountain ice collapse. And the high point of the movie, when McKay and the Tramp are trapped in a cabin that’s hanging half off a cliff, having been blown there by high winds during the night.
The scene is an ingenious fusion of Lloyd’s Thrill Comedy and Keaton’s surreal visual sense. There is perhaps more than a little Keaton influence in the film overall, the extremely large canvas, the interest in scale. It is the only time in Chaplin’s career we find ourselves talking about “hundreds of extras”, “location shooting” and “battling the weather”. These are common enough facets of plenty of Hollywood shoots, but not Chaplin’s ordinarily.
Accordingly, it was Chaplin’s biggest budget film to date, but also his biggest grossing (over four million dollars, a lot for its day). The Gold Rush is hailed by many (including the director himself) as Chaplin’s masterpiece. I consider it the greatest of all silent comedies, and not just because it is the first one I ever saw.
Let the buyer beware! In 1942, Chaplin, flush with the success of his first talkie The Great Dictator, re-released a version of The Gold Rush containing his own musical score, a different ending, and narration by the man himself in the style of Peter and the Wolf. Trust me: that is NOT the version you want to see, although it tends to be the one that pops up most often. Though naturally Chaplin’s music is far better than that you will hear in the version below, the narration spoils the effect of the movie — takes you completely out of it.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.