Man With A Movie Camera (1929) Review

1/3/15

Man With A Movie Camera (1929) Director: Dziga Vertov

★★★☆☆

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Man With A Movie Camera is an abstract Soviet film depicting various scenes of modern life and technology in the cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa. The film, while having no main plot or characters, is famous for its ingenius cinematic and editing techniques (it was edited by Vertov’s wife). It was the director’s opinion that films that tell a story were the new opiate of the masses.

Man With A Movie Camera is good film, especially for those interested in experimental film making and editing. However, it can be challenging to the layperson who may not understand the complex inner workings of the film.

Upon its release, the film’s opening title read:

“The film Man with a Movie Camera represents

AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCENARIO
(a film without a scenario)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)

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This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.”

Shooting for the film took place over the course of about three years and it has no additional intertitles.

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The Battleship Potemkin (1925) Review

12/13/14

Battleship Potemkin (1925) Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein

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★★★★★

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is one of the best propaganda films of all time. After the success of Strike (1925), which glamorously depicted striking Russian workers in 1903, the Soviet government commissioned Eisenstein to commemorate the Soviet uprising of 1905 as well. Eisenstein used this opportunity as a testing ground for his new theories of motion picture “montage.” The film was a shock around the world, for its graphic depictions of violence, eliciting an intense emotional response from audiences. Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister for the Nazis, called the film a “marvelous film without equal in the cinema… anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.” The famous scene at the end of the film depicts a massacre on the steps of Odessa, even though this event never actually occurred. It has since become one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema for its experimental use of montage. Despite being a silent film, in order to retain its vivacity, Eisenstein hoped the score could be rewritten every 20 years.

Though it is a blatant piece of Soviet propaganda, Battleship Potemkin is one of the greatest films of the 1920s and is quite possibly the Soviet Union’s greatest silent film, along with Vertov’s experimental Man With Movie Camera. Battleship Potemkin is an incredible film that employs new theories of montage in order to build tension and create a moving visual panorama culminating in a dramatic crescendo.

The film premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in December 1925 and was released in Moscow in January 1926. Propaganda posters touted the film as “the pride of Soviet cinema” with over 300,000 admissions in the first three weeks.

ACT I: People and Worms

The setting is June 1905. Two sailors, Matyushenko and Vakulinchuk, are taken in by the revolutionary spirit against the Tsarist regime unfolding across Russia. A clumsy officer beats a sailor for accidentally tripping over him. This causes Vakulincheck to rally the crew in support of a revolution.

The next morning, the crew complains about the food –the meat is covered in worms. The captain comes to inspect the meat but the captain says they are maggots and should just be washed off prior to eating. The sailors refuse to eat it, and instead they simply eat bread and water. One sailor, while cleaning the mess hall, reads an inscription on a plate: “give us this day our daily bread.”

ACT II: Drama on the Deck

The men who refused to eat the meat are brought to the front of the deck and are given their last rights by an Eastern Orthodox clergyman. A blanket is thrown over them and the First Officer orders a firing squad against the men. But at the last second, with the suspense building, another sailor reminds them of their brothers. This spurs the revolution onward and the sailors attack the officers and kill them. Next they slaughter the ship’s priest and throw the doctor into the ocean.

ACT III: The Dead Man Calls Out

The mutiny is a success, despite the death of its leader Vakulincuk. The Potemkin arrives at Odessa and Vakulincuk’s body is put on display along the shoreline to remind the people of the evils of the Tsarist regime. A sign on his shirt reads: “Dead for a spoonful of soup.” The people of Odessa gently and peacefully welcome the rebellious Potemkin as it waves a giant red flag, colored onto the film for effect.

ACT IV: The Odessa Steps

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The Cossacks of the Tsar retaliate and march on the unarmed crowds. They gun down defenseless men, women, and children in one of the most brutally famous and recreated scenes in cinematic history. The soldiers are portrayed as inflexible, operating as one unit. The audience only ever sees their boots marching in perfect rhythm, but the crowd of citizens fall to their deaths in all manner of diverse and uncomfortable ways. The sailors on the Potemkin receive word that a Tsarist fleet is headed for the harbor to quell the rebellion.

ACT V: One Against All

The sailors of the Potemkin decide to charge out and meet the Tsarist fleet head on. An intense build-up to their confrontation lasts for what seems like an eternity – time feels extended to the audience. Incredibly, at the last moment, the Tsarist fleet announces they will actually join the rebellious crew of the Potemkin and together they wave the red flag.

Nosferatu (1922) Review

12/13/14

Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) Director: F.W. Murnau

“No one can escape his destiny”

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★★★★★

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is truly a triumph of the silent horror genre, and a masterful classic of the German Expressionist movement. The story is blatant plagiarism –an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, because the studio could not afford the rights to the novel. Stoker’s family later sued for copyright infringement, and a court ordered all copies destroyed. Luckily, a handful of prints survived which have since been preserved. Nosferatu, the sole production of the Prana Film company, stars Max Schreck as the lanky and lurching Nosferatu vampire, Count Orlok.

In many ways Nosferatu, along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, set the standard for all future horror films to follow. Though the story is plagiarized from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is a masterpiece by one of my favorite early directors, F.W. Murnau. Still today, in this contemporary age of flashy special effects and lazy writing, Nosferatu remains a chilling symphony of horrors –a film that accomplishes far more more with a lot less pomp and circumstance.

The story is a framed narrative told by Thomas Hutter (played by German nobleman Gustav von Wangenheim) who lives with his wife Ellen in the fictitious German city of Wisborg (a combination of Wismar and Lubeck, two shooting site locations for the film). He works for a creepy little man named Knock, about whom many rumors circulate in the town. Knock sends Hutter on a long journey to meet a new client in Transylvania, named Count Orlok. Hutter entrusts his wife to a friend named Harding and Harding’s sister Annie. Hutter’s wife remains skeptical of his business trip.

On the road, Hutter stops in the Carpathian mountains at an inn as he nears his destination. The people are horrified at the mere mention of Orlok’s name and they warn him not to go near the castle because a werewolf is on the loose (the creature shown is actually a hyena). In his room, Hutter finds a book about Nosferatu that frightens him. The next day, Hutter takes a coach that refuses to carry him any further past a bridge to the castle. A much darker, black-cloaked carriage appears to take him the rest of the way.

Hutter is then greeted by Count Orlok and he is invited to dinner. At dinner, Hutter accidentally cuts his thumb and Orlok pounces at his precious blood. Hutter goes to bed frightened of the strange Count. He awakens the next day to find an empty castle and two strange mosquito bites on his neck. He writes a letter to his wife to reassure her but privately he begins having second thoughts. In the evening Orlok signs documents to purchase the property across the street from Hutter’s home, but Hutter begins to suspect that Orlok is a Nosferatu, a “Bird of Death.” He runs frightened to his room but there is no way to bolt his door shut and the door opens with the Count slowly approaching. Hutter falls unconscious under the infamous shadow of the Nosferatu.

The next day Hutter ventures down to the castle’s crypt where he finds the Count’s coffin (according to his book the Nosferatu sleeps in the soil of his homeland). Hutter dashes back to his room and he peers out the window to see the Count piling coffins into his carriage and he climbs into the final coffin before departing. Hutter, terrified and thinking of his wife Ellen, escapes out of his window and he falls to the ground. Injured and unconscious, he awakens in a hospital.

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Upon recovering he hurries home whilie the coffins of the Count are shipped downstream. They are transferred to a larger boat, but the crew are skeptical after they see rats crawling out of the coffins. One by one each of the crew members gets sick and dies, until only the captain and the first mate are left alive. The first mate goes below deck to inspect the coffins and he awakens the Count who scares the first mate into jumping overboard. Count Orlok then kills the captain and sails the boat into the Wisborg harbor and leaves undetected with his coffin.

Doctors visit the mysterious ship and after reading its logbook they conclude that the plague was carried by rats and the town is stricken with panic over the plague. Knock had been committed to a psychiatric ward but he escapes after strangling a guard.

Meanwhile, Orlok watches Ellen through his new home’s window, and Ellen reads the book on Nosferatu against her husband’s wishes. The way to defeat a vampire, or a Nosferatu according to the book, is for a beautiful woman to distract him all through the night. That night, she opens an inviting window for Orlok but Hutter thinks she has gone mad and goes to fetch Dr. Bulwer. While he is gone, Orlok enters, in another famous scene of his looming shadow, and drinks the blood of Ellen. He loses track of the time and as the sun rises he vanishes in a puff of smoke at daybreak near the window. Ellen and her grief-stricken husband embrace just before she dies. Apparently, F.W. Murnau carefully constructed this scene using a metronome for the actors.

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The final scene portrays the ruins of Orlok’s castle seated amidst the Carpathian mountains.

The character of Nosferatu is shown onscreen for a total of less than 9 minutes. Today, all the exteriors filmed in Germany are left intact in the cities of Wismar and Lubeck, and can be seen by visitors. Upon release, the film was banned in Sweden due to excessive horror and the ban wasn’t officially lifted until 1972.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) Review

12/7/14

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) Director: Freidrich Wilhem Murnau

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★★★★★

F.W. Murnau is one of the great directors of the silent era and Sunrise is his masterpiece. His cinematic skills allow subtle and simple stories like Sunrise and The Last Laugh, to become great films filled with complexity and originality, while also suspenseful films like Nosferatu illuminate the mind of a great genius. Sunrise plays on the underlying tensions between city and country, land and sea, marriage and infidelity (themes which also appear in his later film City Girl). Murnau’s characters rarely have names and he declines to use frequent inter-titles. Sunrise is truly a great film from a great director.

Sunrise was planned in Germany, but it was his first breakthrough release in the United States for the Fox Film Corporation. The score was completed by Hugo Riesenfeld and premiered a few days before Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer (1927). The Austrian writer Carl Mayer (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari repute) wrote the screenplay and it was adopted from the novella entitled A Trip to Tilsit or “Die Reise Nach Tilist.”

The film has its roots extending into the German Expressionist movement, which is generally considered to have lasted from 1914-1924. It was released during the first year of the Academy Awards and was nominated for four, only winning three including the prestigious “Best Unique and Artistic Picture Award,” a qualified Best Picture award that has been since discontinued after the first Academy Awards ceremony. Sunrise lost to Wings (1927) for Best Production, now called Best Picture. It stars George O’Brien as ‘The Man’ and Janet Gaynor as ‘The Wife.’

This beautiful impressionistic film opens with an unnamed Man and his Wife whose marriage has grown stale with age.

“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place. You might hear it anywhere at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.”

The setting is an early 20th century European village, located in a farming town far away from the city (the set was actually filmed in Lake Arrowhead, California). Vacationers from the city visit the country to get away during the summer.

One vacationer in particular, identified as the “Vamp,” has an affair with the Man. They sneak away in the night to kiss near the lake under the moonlight. She begs him to move to the city where the flappers and jazz music are now en vogue. He is tempted but he is reminded of his wife and child. The Vamp then devises a plot to murder his wife by taking out a boat and drowning her -making it appear an accident. The plan involves the Man pushing his wife into the water and then taking some reeds to make it seem as if he only barely escapes his boat as it is capsizing.

The Man then begins acting as a madman (Murnau had George O’Brien wear weights in his shoes to create the ‘Frankenstein’ image, also echoing his earlier horror film: Nosferatu).

The next day the Man takes his wife out on the rowboat into the lake and attempts to attack her, lunging at her, but he cannot muster the strength to do it. She is frightened and he rows them to the other side of the lake where she runs away to a tram that takes them both to the city. She does not forgive him for the attack.

As outsiders, they go to a café where he again makes an attempt at reconciliation, but she is still in fright. They exit the café together and come upon a wedding at a church. Together they sit inside the church and bear witness to the pastor stating “keep and protect her from all harm.” This causes the Man to break down and beg for forgiveness from his Wife.

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They embrace and leave the church weaving through traffic as if in a dream-like state. They wander into a barbershop where the Man gets a trim and a shave. He defends his Wife from another man’s advances. The couple proceeds to a photographer where they take a photo kissing. As the photographer is preparing the picture in the dark room, he accidentally knocks a Greek statue that has no head or arms. Thinking that he broke the statue, the two take their photograph and flee, while the photographer is left smiling at their misconception.

Then, they enter a carnival to play games and dance throughout the night. Happy and in love, they enter their idyllic boat to sail home away from the city. Suddenly, a tempest erupts and the Man ties the reeds to his wife so she can float home, in an attempt to save her. However, he later washes up on the shore and can’t find her. After the storm clears, he gathers people near the water to send out a search party in the water for her. When they do not find his Wife, the Man returns home to find his beau, the Vamp, waiting for him. She thinks the plan has been accomplished, but he tries to strangle her –a hedonistic woman from the city – for tempting him and destroying his marriage. At the last minute, his Wife is found and they embrace as she awakens from near death and the sun rises.

This was Fox’s first film to be made with a recorded score and it was the first and only film to be awarded the Best Picture category for Artistic Quality or Production, before the category was removed. Many of the cinematic superimpositions were created in the camera as one image was filmed blocking out the rest. Then they put the exposed film back into the camera and shoot the remainder of the scene. Overall, the film was a box office flop because it was released close to the timing of The Jazz Singer, and audiences began to clamor for “talkies” rather than silent films.

Metropolis (1927) Review

11/8/14

Metropolis (1927) Director: Fritz Lang

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★★★★★

Metropolis is regularly cited as the greatest film to emerge from the silent era and not without merit. Metropolis is a monumental achievement of a dystopian future not so foreign from our own. Its rich subtext of Biblical allegory, inspiring story, and dazzling sets make it one of the greatest films yet completed in this series. Certainly a film everyone should see at least one time (if not more than once).

Metropolis is a pioneering epic science fiction film of the German Expressionist era. It was made during the Weimar era in Germany and cost about five million Reichsmarks with the architectural work of Antonio Sant’Elia. The film was cut substantially by censors after its release around the world. In 2008, an original cut was found in a museum in Argentina and the restoration process was able to bring about a 95% accuracy of the lost film. Since its release, it has been dubbed over numerous times by rock bands and composers, giving its score a living history.

The dystopian story was actually taken from Lang’s wife, who crafted it, and the massive sets of the city were inspired by New York City.

The film opens with a title:

“The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be The Heart”

Day in and day out, workers that live below the city are busily running machines that power the massive electricity needed for the aristocracy that lives above ground. Every ten hours a new consortium of workers enters the Workers’ City to continue running the machines.

“As

deep as

lay the workers’

city below the earth,

so high above it towered

the complex named the ‘Club

of the Sons,’ with its lecture halls

and libraries, its theaters and stadiums.”

After viewing the horrors of the Workers’ City, we are brought above to the Edenic woods called the Eternal Gardens where men and women of the aristocracy procreate. They are interrupted briefly by a woman who brings her class of children above ground so the adults can see what their children look like now. She reminds them that these are their brothers.

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Freder, son of the President of the aristocratic city, falls in love with the woman, named Maria, and devises a plan to trade places with a worker so he can see what truly happens in the Workers’ City. He goes below to find that when there is a hiccup in the machine, dozens of workers must sacrifice themselves to Moloch, one of many Biblical allusions throughout the film. Horrified he trades places with one individual and after a tireless day of work he goes to meet the woman who preaches of Christian virtues to the workers.

Meanwhile, Freder’s father goes to visit Rotwang, a mysterious German scientist who lives in an old house that has been overlooked for centuries while the machines rose around him. Here he has been developing a humanoid robot to reincarnate Fredersen’s dead wife. Together, they witness Maria’s small religious gathering and they decide the time is nigh, but as Freder’s powerful father leaves, Rotwang makes an ominous remark about the robot rising against Freder’s father.

End of Prelude

Intermezzo

Rotwang captures Maria and brings her back to his house as he reincarnates her in the robot, so they share the same face. The newly reincarnated Maria dances a nearly nude dance in front of hundreds of men and she then shares the stage with his father. Freder nearly faints and imagines the apocalypse is at hand, with the statue of the Grim Reaper reaching out to him.

End of Intermezzo

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Freder partially recovers from his sickness and reads the book of Revelation. The robot who looks like Maria leads a band of workers to rise up against the aristocratic city, contrary to the former Christian virtues espoused by the real Maria. Meanwhile, Joh Frederson breaks into Rotwang’s home and attacks him as the robot Maria wreaks havoc on the city. The new robot Maria goes to destroy the heart of the machine and the Workers’ City begins to be flooded as the electricity is all shut off.

The real Maria escapes and she rescues the children. Some of the workers gather and dance around the destruction of the machines, in a cult-like fashion. Others grab the robot Maria and set about a pyre to burn her. Freder arrives, thinking it is the real Maria, and he begs them to stop -but as he does her face burns off revealing her robot armor. The people stand around in shock.

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Rotwang spots the real Maria, not knowing his robot has been destroyed. He chases her up to the tower where she rings a bell and Freder comes to save her by casting Rotwang off the building.

Freder then is celebrated as he becomes the Mediator between the Hands (the workers) and the Head (the aristocrats) through the Heart.

The film is fused with dialectical relationships between classes, man and machine, city and country, traditional faith and scientism. The redemption found at the end suggests a hope for the future of man and machine, as well as worker and aristocrat.

The Gold Rush (1925) Review

8/31/14

The Gold Rush (1925) Director: Charlie Chaplin

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★★★★★

In later life, Charlie Chaplin declared he wished to be remembered for The Gold Rush above all his other movies, and today it is one of the greatest films of all time. Whereas Chaplin migrated to California in pursuit of perfection and 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 wind up frozen eating his own shoes. Poverty remains a key theme for The Tramp, a theme which also played heavily in his previous feature The Kid. The Gold Rush is an experiment in blending the comic shtick of the Little Tramp with the depths of human tragedy –and 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 melancholy. The Tramp is a character the audience both pities and also finds humorous. Chaplin believed that tragedy and comedy are at root united. Like Don Quixote, the tramp is the epitome of modern tragicomedy and melodrama blended together.

The Gold Rush follows the story of the Tramp who travels to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush but he wanders into a difficult situation in the midst of a blizzard (the story was inspired by the Klondike gold rush and tales of the Donner Party after looking at pictures while at Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’s home “Pickfair”). 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 from any other person. His whimsical jaunt through the mountains is contrasted with the harsh journey faced by hundreds of 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 out of hunger.

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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 offscreen), but she is merely toying with him. She chooses to dance with the Tramp mostly as a joke: to dance with the most deplorable tramp in the room. As they dance his 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 in a now famous scene. Not long ago the Tramp was forced to eat someone’s shoes, but now he uses potatoes as mock shoes to entertain but he is sad and lonely. As the night wanes, the Tramp goes out wandering in the streets. Suddenly, the girl remembers the Little Tramp. She rushes to his home but finds him absent with an elaborate meal on display, the girl 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 has 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.

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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. They quickly rush inside. As they go to 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 crafted a unique scene with miniatures on the set. 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 that 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. People like the Little Tramp are left by the wayside as people clamor to get rich –the Tramp is mocked for his innocence, despised for his compassion, ceaselessly at the mercy of more powerful men– yet The Gold Rush forces the audience to buck this trend at least for a moment and take pity on people like the Tramp. His intentions are always pure but the crushing cruelty of most ordinary people 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.

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 Gold Rush was later re-released in 1942 with added sound narration by Chaplin and a new music arrangement composed by Chaplin.