#615 The Gold Rush
1925 // USA // Charles Chaplin
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Watching Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush with hundreds of audience in the theater is one of my greatest cinematic experience ever. But what intrigues me the most is the fact that I could hardly remember which version of The Gold Rush I have watched a decade ago. It is presumably the 1925 silent version rather than the 1942 reedited director-cut sound version but I can’t really discern assuredly from my fuzzy memory. Memory is selective, but no matter which version I indeed watched, there are certainly scenes which I could never forget.
Jerry Lewis described Chaplin as the first great total filmmaker, that is, a singular auteur who left his fingerprints on every aspects of filmmaking. Chaplin wrote the story, directed the scenes and his fellow actors/actresses, not just controlled but involved in the innovation of every technical aspects from the use of miniatures, cinematography, editing, music scoring, or even wearing the chicken suit (literally). He is a genius and a perfectionist. The 1942 sound version, a renovated “remake” with Chaplin’s own added voiceover narration, musical score, sound effects and new title credits whilst all intertitles are excised, often utilises alternate takes from the original film. Plot is refined in particular the relationship between Chaplin’s character and his idolised sweetheart. It’s hard to decide which one is the authoritative version even though Chaplin evidently preferred the later one as the definitive, but one just can’t discredit the merits of the original.
The story is simple and straight forward, Chaplin’s The Tramp, credited as The Lone Prospector, is seeking wealth amidst the snowy mountain. He is trapped in a desolate cabin due to a storm with two comrades, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), against starvation. He and Big Jim survive through a series of funny misfortune. Big Jim loses the memory of the location of the gold mine due to a head blow shoveled by Black Larsen, who is actually a fugitive on the run. On the other hand the little fellow goes back to town empty handed, he meets Georgia (Georgia Hale) in the dance hall and falls in love, even though Georgia is already involved in a relationship with the heavy built bully Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite). The 1942 sound version mainly excised Georgia’s scornful interactions with the tramp, for example, originally an intended apology note to Jack on tramp’s hand is substituted with a now clearly addressed note to tramp, the last kissing scene is absent and instead the film ends with the two walking off screen with holding hands. The love relationship is presented as more plausible and perhaps more worthwhile from the Trump’s perspective.
According to Chaplin, his inspiration for The Gold Rush came from the stereoscopic photography of the Chilkoot Pass and the story of the Donner Party. He recreated the iconic image of a file of people climbing up the Pass at the opening scene by shooting in location in Summit. This immediately establishes the film within the Northern genre, like Westerns, which largely discerned by its geographical location and the respective motif of themes. Northerns genre focus on trappers, adventurers, lumberjacks, miners, Mounties, Eskimos, and snowy scene. But the central theme is often the human plight and struggle experienced by those who went north seeking wealth and fame. Undoubtedly The Gold Rush ticked all the required boxes but surprisingly never shows an overwhelming desire of gold in the protagonist. The Lone Prospector is depicted as an outsider who most of the time indulges in the blissful ignorance. He is unaware of the unscrupulous bear tracking him on his back or the tipping cabin hanging at the cliff’s end. Complicated and awkward situations evolve into gags, starvation leads to the hallucination of the Lone Prospector as a human-sized chicken or the renowned dining scene of a a boiled boot, a stood-up New Year’s Eve dinner turns into a dream sequence with Chaplin performing the timeless rolls-on-forks dance. Spectators sometimes are too busy in laughing and forget the ingenuity of a master fully employing his skills.
If there is a drawback in The Gold Rush it would be the elementary plot. Unlike The Kids (1921) and City Lights (1931) which imbued with heart-wrenching melodrama, or Chaplin’s later works Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) which woven with philosophical messages and dialectical moments, The Gold Rush is a pure visual comedy. Audience is released from the burden of the need of reflection after the film ends, yet the film is far from any dumb and thoughtless comedy. The narrative structure is circular and symmetrical. The film is bookended with characters in displacement: travelers are crossing the Pass and the Lone Prospector is shuffling along an icy precipice seeking fortunes; the epilogue is the return sea trip in which the little tramp and Big Jim are now millionaires. Prolonged scenes in the cabin are situated after the prologue and immediately before the epilogue whilst the town and dance hall scenes involving the love interest are placed at the center. It’s hard to think of the structure as accidental but a calibrated craftsmanship from a master. Yet at the end, what makes the film perennial is its universal quality across time (the gags never get old) and space (the gags are alluring across cultures and languages). It is an exemplary of pure comedy, not less a pure cinema.