Friday, July 29, 2011

For Love and Money

Film: The Gold Rush
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

The common thought of a silent comedy is that it plays like slapstick. The reason that most people think this is that a great number of silent comedies are little more than slapstick. I don’t mean this in a denigrating way; I like slapstick, and good slapstick is always fun to watch. Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is proof that quite a bit more could be done with silent comedy, though. While there are certainly slapstick moments in this film, there are also a number of other, far more sophisticated gags and jokes.

The film features Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, this time heading up to the frozen north in the hopes of getting in on the Klondike gold rush. He doesn’t fare too well, though, and winds up trapped in a cabin with two other men. The first is named Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted criminal who wants nothing to do with the Tramp and wants him out of the cabin. Then a third man shows up. This is a prospector named Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has just found a motherlode of gold on a mountain and wants to file his claim. The three men reach an uneasy truce until the food runs out completely. They draw cards to see who will go for provisions, and Larsen draws the low card. Of course, since he cares nothing for the other two men, he simply runs out on them, leaving the other two to starve.

This opening sequence, which goes about 20 minutes, is the most well known from the film. This contains the sequence in which Chaplin boils his own boot for food. It’s also, as far as I know, the first instance of a starving man looking across the table at a friend and seeing the friend turn into food, a moment referenced in a couple million cartoons. Eventually, a bear wanders into their cabin, they shoot the bear, and manage to survive the rest of the storm. The two part ways, the Tramp to a prospecting town and Big Jim to stake his claim. However, once he gets there, he meets Larsen, who conks him on the head with a board. Jim wakes up without his memory, but Larsen gets his just desserts, dying in an avalanche.

Of course there’s a girl in the picture. Georgia (Georgia Hale) is a dance hall girl, who is the love of Jack (Malcolm Waite), and the object of the Tramp’s infatuation. He does what he can to stay close to her, eventually taking a job cabin sitting for prospector Hank Curtis (Henry Bergman) near the dance hall. Through a series of mix-ups, the Tramp believes Georgia loves him, and when Big Jim McKay shows up unable to remember where his claim is, the Tramp has a chance to suddenly become a wealthy man.

What’s really interesting to me here is not the huge number of truly great gags, and we’ll get to those in just a second. Instead, what’s most interesting is how much actual plot there is in this film. A lot of silent comedies are pretty straightforward in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish. Boy meets girl, boy goes to elaborate lengths to impress girl, boy gets girl. Nothing wrong with that, but The Gold Rush shoots for a lot more. It runs a very thin line between the comedy of the various situations and real tragedy. Of course, those two things tend to be very closely connected.

And now on to the gags. There are three that are rightfully famous. The first is the boot eating scene mentioned (and pictured) above. The second is the dance Chaplin does with the rolls stuck to the end of a pair of forks. Apparently, audiences reacted to this scene so overwhelmingly that in some theaters, the film was stopped, rewound, and the scene run again. The third comes at the end, when Big Jim and the Tramp return to the cabin, and a huge wind blows it to a teetering position on the edge of a cliff. Many a comedy would kill to have a single scene as good as any of these three.

And yet, there’s plenty here that seems to have been almost forgotten. Chaplin turning into a chicken is one of these. The fight between Chaplin and Jack is another. Still another is Chaplin dancing with Georgia in the dance hall, discovering that his malnutrition is causing his pants to fall, and tying them up with an end of rope only to discover the other end attached to a large dog.

There are some movies that you watch because they are good for you. Others you watch because they are fun and entertaining. Still others get watched because they are classics, and viewing them is necessary to understand where film came from and where it is still going. The Gold Rush is all three of these things and more. This is a delightful film, suitable for anyone, and able to entertain anyone. It’s not my favorite Chaplin, but it’s a damn fine one.

As a final note, The Gold Rush was re-released in 1942 with a new soundtrack, sound effects, and the title cards removed and replaced by a voiceover done by Chaplin himself. The version I watched was not this one, but the original silent. I have no idea how much those alterations change the actual viewing of this film.

Why to watch The Gold Rush: Chaplin’s earliest great film.
Why not to watch: His later great films are better.


  1. Nice post. I just heard about your blog on the Man I Love Films podcast and decided to check it out. You make strong points about the amount of actual plot in this movie. That's what really stood out to me when I watched The Gold Rush in a film class a while back. Unlike even later classics like Modern Times and City Lights, the story here actually takes center stage over complex gags.

  2. Chaplin's comedy is always tinged with a little darkness (or a lot), and The Gold Rush does get pretty dark at times.

    I love a sight gag as much as the next guy, but I really respect this film because it tries to do more, and usually succeeds.

  3. The 1942 release is in my opinion superior to the silent version. Unless you are a puritan and would refuse any improvement of course. I find that the sound track complements the movie nicely and makes it easier to watch for an audience who is not used to silents. This is the movie I usually take out for visitors when they want me to show them something from my collection. It never fails to entertain.

    1. One of the private hells of this project is that when there are multiple versions of a film available, I'm torn as to which to watch. Do I watch the one that is considered the classic version that originally garnered respect? The restored version? The director's cut?

      I'm sure I'll find the 1942 version eventually. This is not a film I mind rewatching.

    2. I like the 1942 version. As a matter of fact, I like it a lot. But I prefer the original version. I used to have the original silent version on VHS and I watched it frequently.

      The last time I saw The Gold Rush, I got it from the library and the DVD had both versions. I realized I hadn't seen the 1942 version for a long time, so I chose that one, and it reminded me that the restoration and Chaplin's narration makes for a fun viewing.

      I still prefer the 1925 version. Not because I'm a "purist," I just prefer the raw power of the original silent film. It's very funny, but it seems so much more real.

      With the narration, The Gold Rush come awfully close to turning into a Warner Brothers cartoon. (A really good Warner Brothers cartoon, but still ...)

    3. I think I'll get there eventually. As it happens, though, as much as I like Chaplin and appreciate him, if I'm going to watch a silent comedy, I gravitate much more toward Buster Keaton. I like his stoicism, and I love his sight gags. Chaplin translates better emotionally, I think. There's a lot more pathos in Chaplin's work, but I find Keaton funnier, and funny always translates well.

  4. I am sorry about all these comments long after the review. I recently found your blog and greatly enjoy it. Yours and Squish's are simply the best ones out there and as I go through the movies I have myself seen so far on my own little "mission" I find that reading your blog complements watching the movies beautifully. It is like watching them again through other eyes.
    Keep up the good work and bear with me for a late comment here and there.

    1. Are you kidding? I love comments on old posts. It's a reminder that people still read them now and then.