The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
Your first Chaplin is a crucial moment, I reckon, in the way you end up perceiving him. I saw City Lights after a long, difficult, disheartening day at work and it was one of the times when you have to give every bit of energy you have to resisting an over-the-top statement like “it changed my life.” The film snapped so much into focus regarding what I love about movies and why. At no point since then have I felt such immediate love for one of Chaplin’s major works, though I’ve admired them all, but a recent revisit to The Gold Rush indicates this may change. I wrote the film off as a good, gag-filled trifle with a mostly inessential story; I wasn’t wrong, I just missed the fact that it’s bloody brilliant.
In remembering City Lights, if you’re like me what pops into your head is the grand, beautiful sadness of it all; the pathos, particularly in the finale, sticks out as the winning fixture that moves it into the drift of a masterpiece. Until you watch the film again you remember neither the number of jokes and visual tricks, nor how consistently good and witty they are. The Gold Rush creates the opposite effect — no one will forget laughing out loud at the potato sequence, or at the hysterical moment in which the Tramp becomes a wandering chicken in the fevered eyes of a hungered cabinmate. But it’s easy to miss that, if anything, the background setup of romantic travails is better developed and more believable than in City Lights, which is almost allegorical by contrast.
That’s not to say Chaplin’s story (the Tramp goes to find his fortune in the Yukon, gets mixed up with prospector and convict, falls in love with flapper, hilarity ensues) isn’t erratic — it is, and it exists merely as a platform from which Chaplin and his merry crew can swing. But he never skimps on the grandiose but scrappily, vividly presented setting, and his characters are all unforgettably felt, from the Tramp himself down to bumbling Big Jim, lively Georgia (who spends most of the film poking fun at the Tramp, unbeknownst to him, in a quite more convincingly thorny conflict than the romantic subplot in something like Modern Times), and brutish prison escapee Black Larsen. The threadbare plot is just enough for Chaplin to go to town and for the audience to have the time of their lives, and the result is teeming with creativity and charm.
In characterization terms, what’s perhaps most impressive is how sympathetically Chaplin handles Georgia and her friends; their playful ribbing of the Tramp is mean and misdirected but never truly cruel, and they don’t come across as ogres in a film that doesn’t need such things. Even the convict is a comical foil rather than a danger. When the Tramp expresses the full physicality of his elation after Georgia fakes a romantic proposition — then gets caught — his sense of joy is absolute, infectious, even to an audience aware he’s being duped and aware that his final triumph is perhaps materialistic and temporary. The point being that moments matter most, perhaps. Allowing oneself to enjoy a feeling that may or may not disappear with the turn of the hour is a victory that accumulates into a life of victories.
Buster Keaton might’ve been Chaplin’s superior in terms of sheer physical comedy, but Chaplin was the true filmmaker, immaculately crafting this seamlessly directed series of setpieces that ought not to make sense when strung together. This screenplay must have been a riot to read — a house teetering on the edge of a mountain pushed around by a couple of men? Sure, why not! And as an actor, Chaplin is equally fearless — never flinching before the humiliation and outrageous stunt work he requires of himself. And what I’d forgotten most of all was how moving and transcendent it was when he put those candles out and waited for his sweetie to show up, and stood at his door in the cold and listened to them all singing in the distance, utterly oblivious to his pain — that deflated look on his face! It says more than any dialogue ever could.
The original 1925 version of the film is definitive; Chaplin did later recut the film and add narration, but there’s not too much utility for that version… except that it does allow us to witness Chaplin firsthand as an artist, since he provides narration for the movie. Twenty years after he made it, his voice still overflows with obvious enthusiasm and sympathy. It’s almost like he knew what he was doing.
[This is a partial revision of a review posted at another venue in 2006.]