The Gold Rush (1925) Director: Charlie Chaplin
In his later life, Charlie Chaplin declared that he wished to be remembered for The Gold Rush above all his other movies, and today it is rightly regarded as a silent masterpiece. Whereas Chaplin initially migrated to California in pursuit of more creative control over his movies, in The Gold Rush the Little Tramp (perhaps the romantic alter-ego of Charlie Chaplin) is lured to the northwest by the promise of riches only to end up impoverished, frozen, and eating his own shoes. Poverty remains a key theme for The Tramp. The Gold Rush is an experiment in blending the comic shtick of the Little Tramp with the darker depths of human tragedy, and after all, what is more tragic than poverty, starvation, and complete isolation? In contrast to the slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton, Chaplin’s blend of humor is somewhat more subdued and melancholic. The Tramp is a character the audience both pities and also finds laughable. Chaplin believed that tragedy and comedy are at root united (something Socrates alludes to in Plato’s Symposium). Like Don Quixote, the Tramp is the epitome of modern tragicomedy and melodrama blended together.
The Gold Rush follows the story of the Tramp as he travels to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush but he wanders into the midst of a blizzard (the story was inspired by the Klondike gold rush and tales of the Donner Party Chaplin heard about while visiting Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at their “Pickfair” home). We are given opening scenes of thousands of prospectors climbing through the Chilkoot Pass (apparently these were thousands of real vagrants employed by the crew for a day of filming). We first see the Tramp as “a lone prospector” scuttling along a dangerously icy cliffside, three days distance from any other person. His whimsical jaunt through the mountains is contrasted with the harsh expeditions faced by hundreds of real adventurers. When a storm hits, the Tramp seeks refuge in a lone cabin. He joins together with an amusing character named Big Jim (Mack Swain, a frequent Keystone collaborator) who has found a nearby gold deposit. They intrude upon the cabin of a wanted criminal named Black Larsen (Tom Murray). The group argues over the gold that was discovered by Big Jim and they come to an uneasy compromise before starting to go stir-crazy and delirious in the cabin without food -so they eat their shoes (in truth these were prop shoes made of licorice). In a wonderfully inventive scene, Big Jim hallucinates and imagines the Tramp is a clucking chicken, and he very nearly kills the Tramp in a starved and half-crazed state of mind.
After the storm passes, the Tramp decides to move on to the next gold town. He wanders down to a mountain town and falls in love with a dance hall girl, played by Georgia Hale (a romantic paramour of Chaplin’s offscreen), but she is merely toying with him. She chooses to dance with the Tramp mostly as a joke –the notion that she would dance with the poorest tramp in the room makes her friends giddily delighted. As they dance, the Tramp’s pants begin to fall down, despite his best efforts to keep them up with his cane, and his belt becomes entangled with a stray dog. Nevertheless, the Tramp persists. He invites the girl to a New Years Eve dinner, but when the time comes, she does not attend simply because she forgets about this amusing little fellow. Sadly, the Tramp sits alone with his prepared candle-lit dinner, dreaming of himself flattering the girl and her friends by dancing with potatoes on forks (a now iconic scene). Not long ago, the Tramp was forced to eat someone’s shoes, but now he uses potatoes as mock shoes to entertain. In one situation, he is desperate to eat, in the other he is desperate to impress. Still he remains sad and lonely. As the night wanes, the Tramp goes out wandering through the streets. Suddenly, the girl remembers the Little Tramp. She rushes to his home but finds an elaborate meal prepared but no Tramp. She then has a change of heart and leaves the Tramp a note. Meanwhile, Big Jim and Black Larsen fight over Big Jim’s gold. Black Larsen ambushes Big Jim, knocking him unconscious but shortly thereafter Black Larsen is killed by an avalanche. When Big Jim awakens, he realizes he is experiencing partial lost memory loss, so he searches for the Tramp to find the cabin since Big Jim cannot remember its location. Big Jim can only recall that the cabin is near his prized gold deposit.
At any rate, before the Tramp can reunite with his love interest, he is dragged by Big Jim up the mountain to find the cabin. They finally locate the cabin just as another blizzard comes in. Hurriedly, they quickly rush inside for the night, but while they sleep the cabin is blown away to the edge of a cliff where it teeters precariously over the edge in a now-famous and hilarious gag. This cartoonish scene was brilliantly devised when Chaplin’s cinematographer Roland Totheroh suggested a unique scene constructed with miniatures. After the cabin falls off the cliff, the two narrowly escape to find Big Jim’s gold. One year later, the Tramp has been unable to find his one-time love. He and Big Jim are now multi-millionaires on a boat which he soon finds is also carrying his lost love, Georgia. In one last amusing gag, the Tramp decides to don his former ragged clothes for a photograph but he accidentally falls straight down a flight of stairs directly into Georgia causing quite a mix-up. Whereas she once rather maliciously mocked the Tramp, now the Tramp is causing a ruse but with no malice intended. At any rate, the police are stopped from arresting the Tramp because he is identified as a multi-millionaire. With this fact announced, the Tramp and his girl embrace for a photo. As they start kissing, the photographer announces they have ruined the picture (perhaps a wink at film critics) but the Tramp merely waves off this accusation and the film ends.
The Gold Rush is a somewhat cynical movie. The idea of a “gold rush” is a sad commentary on the nature of humanity and its persistent pursuit of riches, especially within the context of the Roaring ’20s when it was released. Simple people like the Little Tramp are often left by the wayside as masses of people clamor for riches –the Tramp is mocked for his innocence, despised for his compassion, while he is ceaselessly at the mercy of people more powerful than himself. Yet The Gold Rush forces the audience to buck this scramble for wealth, at least for a moment, and take pity on people like the Tramp. His intentions are always pure but the crushing cruelty of the world regularly leaves the Tramp feeling lonely and dejected. Without the benefit of riches, the Tramp is attacked and put down at every turn. And what is the connection between love and wealth? Women like Georgia will not fall in love with a goofy poor vagabond like the Tramp, but only when he becomes a millionaire does she decide to embrace him. With riches, the Tramp’s life significantly improves, but the Tramp’s happy ending is, in fact, Chaplin’s tragic ending –it is a sorrowful commentary on the nature of the human experience. Life without wealth is worse.
The Gold Rush was a massive success both domestically and abroad. It was filmed at Chaplin’s Hollywood studio where there were large and ornate sets established to capture the harsh and frozen tundra. Initially, Chaplin tried to film on location in Truckee, California, but he eventually abandoned this footage and returned to his studio. During the production of the film, Chaplin’s marriage to Lita Grey had collapsed and he promptly began a romance with Georgia Hale, the female lead in The Gold Rush. The film was later re-released in 1942 with added sound narration by Chaplin and a new music arrangement composed by Chaplin.