Imagine being a big fan of The Beatles who doesn’t like Hey Jude or a car enthusiast that isn’t keen on Ferraris. That’s the situation I find myself in when it comes to The Gold Rush. I’ve never met as big a Charlie Chaplin fan as myself and doubt I ever will. His 1925 film saw the beginning of his golden period, a period which lasted fifteen years before his deportation from the US and witnessed the production of some of his most successful films. Chaplin remarked in his own splendid autobiography that he wanted The Gold Rush to be the film that he was remembered for and to an extent it is. Why is it then that I don’t love his Ferrari, his Hey Jude, his Gold Rush? The Gold Rush was amongst the first Chaplin films I saw and I had high hopes for it. When I was initially discovering Chaplin’s work it was obvious that this was one of his most famous and as a result, surely one of his best. Many people would argue that it is. I was instantly disappointed though with a film that I felt was short of laughter and featuring a plot which I cared little for. The story certainly beats some of his earlier shorts and it’s better written and deeper than say his follow-up The Circus but it doesn’t really do anything for me. It feels like the plot of a short that has been stretched to breaking point and isn’t as sweet, dramatic or sophisticated as the likes of The Kid or City Lights.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like The Gold Rush because I do but I’m at a loss to understand its appeal against films which I think are more rounded in terms of theme, comedy and style. I assumed after my first watch a few years ago that I must have missed something but a recent re-watch left me with the same opinion. The plot finds Chaplin in his ubiquitous guise of The Tramp and on his way to the Yukon to make his millions as a gold prospector. The Tramp being The Tramp doesn’t immediately strike gold and finds himself ill prepared for the harsh conditions of the cold mountains. Bad weather strands him in a remote and rickety cabin with two others, the escaped fugitive Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a man who has found a large deposit of gold but is forced to abandon it due to the weather.
My overarching problem with The Gold Rush is that I find it dull. Chaplin was usually so good at keeping his audience entertained, whether it be through a sight gag, plot development or other ‘comic business’, that it’s shocking to see such long periods in The Gold Rush where nothing much happens. Even when messing around with inanimate objects, something which he is usually so good at, I found myself uninterested. I wish I liked the film more as this is Chaplin’s only feature that I’ve seen to date which I don’t love but I just can’t fall for this movie in the same way that I have his others. I don’t want to be too down on the film though because my only real problem with it is that it doesn’t excite me like some of his other work. This being a Charlie Chaplin film, there is still much to love.
I believe that the movie comes from a good place. Chaplin got the idea of The Tramp as a gold prospector after seeing a photo of a long line of men trudging up a mountainside in search of their fortune. Many of the men pictured were to die on the mountain in heavy storms and the trip was worthwhile for very few of them. The image is something which spoke to Chaplin and stayed with him. Chaplin recreates the photograph in his establishing shot and early ambitious scenes which features over 600 extras. Far from the crowds of the mountain is a lone prospector, The Tramp. A decent early laugh is to be had on a tight mountain path which The Tramp is traversing with some difficulty. While walking across the thin, icy path he is suddenly joined by a bear. The bear follows him for a few moments, both seemingly oblivious to the other before a well timed turn from the human occurs just as the bear disappears down a different route.
Many of the comedic highlights take place when Chaplin is holed up in the cabin. One of the most famous images of Chaplin’s entire career can be found inside the walls of the remote shack. The scene in question is the ‘Tramp eats his shoe’ scene. Hemmed in by a wall of snow, the two men inside the cabin are running low on food and in a desperate attempt to find sustenance, decide to eat The Tramp’s right shoe. After boiling the leather until supple enough to chew, Chaplin wipes a speck of dirt off his plate before landing a shoe on it. The idea of wiping the plate before placing the shoe on it is something that I missed on my first watch but it’s a fantastic gag. The shoe was in fact made of liquorish in order to make it edible but both actors do a good job of making the meal look as disgusting as it sounds. Chaplin’s use of the laces as spaghetti is a great added touch. The cabin is also home to some of the film’s stand out technical and stunt work. A particularly impressive in-camera trick was to turn Chaplin into the giant chicken and the movement of the set when battered by the storm is also very well done. In addition to this, I thought that the puppet version of The Tramp captured the likeness of the character remarkably well when flung from a miniature.
Another highlight of the film and arguably Chaplin’s career was ‘the roll dance’. This sequence will probably be recognisable to most people, whether they’ve seen a Chaplin film or not and it’s a magnificent scene. In it, Chaplin attempts to impress his guests with an impromptu tap dance. Instead of using his legs though, he takes two bread rolls, two forks and creates a magnificent dance routine for the camera. He makes use of his head to create the effect that the ‘legs’ are indeed his own and although I’ve seen the idea done before, it has never been bettered. The roll dance was actually first seen on screen in 1917’s The Rough House in which Chaplin’s friend and early collaborator Roscoe Arbuckle performed the dance but although not originally his, it has become Charlie’s. Something which was borrowed by a friend was a scene in which he is followed around the cabin by a gun. While two characters grapple for control of the rifle, The Tramp ducks and dives around the room, finding that the barrel ends up pointing in his direction no matter which way he turns. This idea was also used in Buster Keaton’s The General to fantastic effect.
The second half of the movie takes place in a well constructed town set. The set used 250,000 feet of timber and was somewhat of a tourist attraction, featuring thick fake snow in the baking California sun. The sets look great but once again the story here does little for me. Back from the wilderness and penniless, The Tramp becomes infatuated with a local saloon girl (Georgia Hale) and attempts to win her over. These scenes are slightly more dramatic and pathos filled than the earlier mountain scenes but they fail to match the romance of City Lights or even Modern Times. They even feel like a step backwards from TheKid, one of Chaplin’s greatest romances, albeit a platonic, paternal romance. Georgia Hale was a replacement casting after Chaplin’s first actress (and wife) Lita Grey became pregnant with the couple’s son. Hale is very good in her scenes and I didn’t miss Edna Purviance who was absent from her first Chaplin film in years. The problem is that I just couldn’t get into the story.
Overall The Gold Rush is an ambitious and generally successful movie. It isn’t as continuously funny or interesting as the movies which sandwich it but it features some of Charlie Chaplin’s most iconic moments and for that I must give it credit. I still don’t see it as his masterpiece and certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a Chaplin first timer but it’s also far from his worst.
- The film was re-released in 1942 with a new score and a narration which were composed and recorded Chaplin himself.
- The dancing rolls scene was so popular that in some theatres, projectionists reversed the film to play it again.
- At the time of filming, Chaplin and co-star Georgia Hale were having an affair, despite Chaplin's first actress, and wife, being at home with their newborn son.