"The Gold Rush" **** (out of ****)
Eureka! Charlie Chaplin strikes comedy gold in his silent comedy classic "The Gold Rush" (1925).
The inter titles for "The Gold Rush" describe it as a "dramatic comedy". "The Gold Rush", like other Charlie Chaplin comedies, takes dramatic themes and finds the humor in them. Comedy, it is said, deals with the extremes. It exaggerates situations for comedic effect. "The Gold Rush" is a comedy which is in a constant conflict of extremes. Chaplin balances his movie between extreme danger and comedy, extreme poverty and comedy, heartache and comedy.
As "The Gold Rush" opens we see a row of men on an Alaskan trail in the mountains searching for gold. Although the movie was made in the mid-20s, a time of economic wealth in America, one cannot help but feel seeing a long line of desperate men struggling to survive as foreshadowing what was ahead by the end of the decade as men stood in bread lines waiting for food in a desperate attempt to survive. Is that the history of America? A history of the working class struggling to survive?
"The Gold Rush" contrast the image of men in a long line, climbing up a mountain peak with the Tramp (Chaplin) by himself, also out to discover gold in the Alaskan mountains. The little Tramp is braving the elements but as usual for him, he must face life alone. As the Tramp walks along a mountain cliff a bear follows him. The Tramp doesn't realize it but it establishes the concept of danger versus comedy, which runs nearly constantly through-out the movie.
The Tramp confronts two other gold prospectors, Black Larsen (Tom Murray) a man on the run from the law, and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has discovered a huge gold mine. Larsen has found a log cabin to stay warm, which the Tramp happens to spot. Larsen doesn't want the Tramp to occupy the cabin and orders him to leave. Larsen opens the cabin door as a powerful burst of wind and snow blows onto the Tramp, who at this point is not able to move forward against the strong force of the wind.
Already the viewer can see the elements of danger surrounding the Tramp. Larsen himself is a threat. The brutal cold is a threat. The Tramp we learn is hungry and hasn't eaten. This lends itself to the most prominent theme in all of Charlie Chaplin's movies; hunger.
The strong wind however blows Big Jim into the cabin. He too is cold and hungry. Unlike the Tramp though, Larsen cannot boss Big Jim around and force him to leave. After a brief showdown between the two men, as they fight over control of a rifle, which no matter where the Tramp goes in the cabin, the rifle is always aimed in his direction, it is decided the three of them will stay in the cabin.
Eventually the food runs out and the weather has not let up. The three men are on the brink of starvation and are about to go delirious. Here we have extreme poverty versus comedy. As the men draw straws to determine who will face the elements to find food, Big Jim begins to imagine the Tramp is actually a human sized chicken and threaten his life in an effort to kill him and cook him. The Tramp pleads for his life, trying snap Big Jim to his senses. Here we see both extreme danger and extreme hunger played against comedy. In a compromise, and a desperate attempt to eat, the Tramp cooks one of his shoes for the both of them to eat.
This comedy sequence establishes what was so unique about Charlie Chaplin and his approach to comedy. This scene represents two men starving. They are so hungry, so desperate, that in order to survive one of the men actually cooks his own shoe for the both of them to eat. In another movie, made by another director, this could be heartbreaking. The lows people fall to. But no. Chaplin finds humor in this situation. He plays it out to the extremes. The little Tramp twirls his shoelace up like spaghetti and eats it. He carves his shoe as you would a Thanksgiving turkey. The audience laughs and may not think of the dramatic depths we are watching.
While preparing the shoe, the Tramp is handed a plate by Big Jim. The Tramp notices their is a speck of dirt on the plate and wipes it clean before placing the cooked shoe on it. It all happens quickly and audiences may not pay attention to the gesture however it is a revealing character trait of the Tramp character. The Tramp may be a tramp but he doesn't not view himself that way. The Tramp believes he is a gentleman. He may not wear nice clothes. He may not have a home, money or food but the Tramp has self-respect. While he may be hungry, he may be desperate, he may have cooked his own shoe and is about to eat it, he will not eat on a dirty plate. Some things are just not done!
Soon Chaplin's episodic tale of the search for gold becomes a more conventional boy meets girl romance when the Tramp notices a woman named Georgia (Georgia Hale) at a local dance hall. Georgia has caught the attention of Jack (Malcolm Waite), the local playboy. Although Georgia may act as if she is not interested in Jack, deep down the audience knows she welcomes the attention.
When the Tramp enters the hall you will notice the camera films the Tramp from behind. He is in the forefront while the locals are dancing in the background. This perfectly illustrates the concept of the Tramp as the outsider, the spectator, always watching society from a distance. So many people often feel the Tramp wanted to be an outsider. Audiences often compare and contrast the Tramp character to the Great Stoneface played by Buster Keaton and come to the assessment, Keaton was the active participant in society not the Tramp. This is not fair. The Tramp wants to participate in society. He wants to find love. He wants to be a gentleman. A person of respect. The problem is, society looks down on the little Tramp or often completely over looks him as the Georgia character initially does at the local dance hall.
The second half of the movie, which centers on the conventional romance, allows Charlie Chaplin to engage in what he is best known for; pathos. "The Gold Rush" begins to blend comedy and heartache. Chaplin has often been accused of wanting the audience to "love" his character, he accomplishes that in this movie. The difference is, I do not feel that is a flaw of Chaplin or the movie. The audience goes through moments of heartache and humiliation with the Tramp. He has gained all of our sympathy. We see how cruelly society, including Georgia, treats the Tramp based on his appearance.
If there is a problem with "The Gold Rush" I would contend there are two issues. One, the movie feels a bit too episodic. I find Charlie Chaplin usually has a better sense of story in his movies. There is not a strong plot. The first half of the movie is built around comedic set-pieces. Granted they are very funny set-pieces, but, if you were to ask people what their favorite moments of the movie are. you'll find they are individual sequences. There is the famous dance of the rolls, the cabin tilting side to side, the wind pushing against the Tramp, preventing him from leaving and the eating of the shoe. These sequences don't necessarily help progress the plot from point "A" to point "B".
The other problem with "The Gold Rush" is the Big Jim character. He does not appear constantly through-out the movie. You may even forget about his story and feel the movie has abandon him altogether only to find the character reappear and drop out again.
It has been said "The Gold Rush" was the movie Charlie Chaplin wanted to be remembered for. The movie is a comedy classic but, I am not sure I would call it Chaplin's "strongest" picture and the best representation of Chaplin and his Tramp character. I don't even believe it has his most memorable message. But, you cannot deny the movie has many funny sequences and remains one of Chaplin's most popular films. When the American Film Institute (AFI) conducted its list of the 100 greatest movies "The Gold Rush" made its list. It even ranked higher on AFI's 10 anniversary list and was included it their 100 funniest comedies list.
For all the praise one can (and should) throw at the movie it was also the result of a very bad time in Charlie Chaplin's personal life. Chaplin was married at the time and was going to cast his wife in the lead but Chaplin developed a relationship with Georgia Hale which caused his marriage to end and lead to a very bitter (and expensive) divorce settlement..
None of that should matter while watching "The Gold Rush" however. The movie does contain the usual balance between comedy and pathos you expect from Chaplin and really makes the audience care for the little Tramp character. I'm not sure if I would call "The Gold Rush" Chaplin's best movie but that is only because Chaplin is the greatest comedy filmmaker of all-time and has directed so many comedy masterpieces. Whether it is Chaplin's greatest film or not, make sure you see "The Gold Rush".