The Gold Rush (1925) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by inarguably the most famous figure of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin. More than just a shabbily dressed clown, Chaplin was a true pioneer of early cinema and a rampant perfectionist. He didn’t just write, direct, and star in his films, he got involved in everything, even writing some of the musical scores. The Gold Rush serves as a decent introduction to his most famous persona, the irrepressible loser the Little Tramp, whose waddling gait, bowler hat, cane, and toothbrush mustache are basically synonymous with Chaplin. In this comedic adventure, the Little Tramp makes his way into the mountains of Alaska during the gold rush days of the 1890s. Seeking to strike it rich, he instead runs afoul of a desperate murderer and a surly, burly prospector. Foiled in his mining efforts, the Little Tramp falls for a high spirited young woman back in town, only to be teased and humiliated by her and her friends. But don’t worry, things come together nicely — in a death-defying sort of way. In the opening credits, Chaplin calls The Gold Rush a “dramatic comedy,” and given its strong currents of pathos and romance that serves as very apt description. (95 min.)
J. – It’s hard to believe that we’ve yammered about 16 silent movies so far and not a single one of them has been a Chaplin film. I think for many movie viewers Chaplin is pretty much the poster boy for the silent era, so I’m glad we’ve finally gotten to his work. There are four Chaplin films on the Sight & Sound list, and The Gold Rush is the only one of the bunch I hadn’t seen previously. And I have to say, I was a bit disappointed. There were a number of nice story elements and certainly a couple of laugh out loud bits, but on the whole I found it to be a very uneasy mix of romance, violence, and comedy that never quite came together. It certainly wasn’t as funny as I remember other Chaplin films to be, and the pathos pushed by the movie really didn’t feel earned.
S. – This was the first Chaplin film I’ve seen and I have to agree it seemed very light weight. There was plenty of funny and ridiculous, but attempts to tap into anything deeper were simply not believable. The Little Tramp persona was familiar to me despite not having seen any full-length Chaplin features, so I was expecting something exceptionally good from a character that had stamped itself onto my consciousness almost by osmosis. Some of the scenes that were played purely for laughs were very good indeed. A fantastic example is when the two ruffians in the remote cabin are wrestling with a gun. Chaplin moves around the enclosed space constantly to avoid being in firing range, however, he never fails to have the barrel pointed directly at him. His mad scrabbling about is somehow graceful and his utter failure at avoiding danger amazing and very funny.
Somehow in my mind Chaplin always reminded me of Pepe le Pew, I think because I picture him trying to give flowers to a girl while looking rather pathetic (I accept that outside of my head this is not a particularly convincing connection). So I was braced for some sappy, eye-lash batting attempt at romance. Fortunately it was not that lame, but the romantic interest was also the weakest part of the story. Maybe because he was clearly an ill-suited suitor for the local good-time gal.
J. – I confess that I find your mental connection between Chaplin and Pepe Le Pew to be rather strange – if only because Pepe is extremely aggressive whereas the Little Tramp, I think, is more a character who doesn’t drive the action so much as reacts to it. But sometimes it’s tough to control where the mind takes us! As for the flowers and the looking pathetic, that’s going to be our next Chaplin film.
I agree that the romantic subplot is one of the weaker elements of the film. I think that is partly because of the lack of suitability between the Little Tramp and Georgia (Georgia Hale), but also because that whole segment of the film just never feels particularly organic. There’s an episodic quality to The Gold Rush that doesn’t really serve matters well. The love interest is introduced perhaps halfway into the film, so she has no connection to all that has come before, and ultimately she has nothing to do with how the story is resolved (until the epilogue). It feels like the romance was shoehorned in because hey it’s a comedy and therefore there must be romance. And I’d be OK with that if Chaplin wasn’t so maudlin about it all. Chaplin has a penchant for pathos and sentimentality that I feel overwhelms that section of the plot rather than giving it emotional heft (thankfully he’ll get better in later films at melding the comedy and the sentimentality).
S. – As a whole The Gold Rush feels disjointed, like a bundle of sketches all pasted together into the semblance of a story. The film becomes a vehicle to showcase many amusing scenarios in which Chaplin gets to demonstrate his range rather than the scenes building on the foundation of a solid idea. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t entertaining but it left me more with the impression of having watched an episode of a sitcom as opposed to a movie. Perhaps that is why the love story didn’t gel for me.
The goofing around elements, however, were right at home in this format. The sight of the little tramp jauntily climbing an icy mountain trail, having a close-encounter with a bear and a murderer, preparing a dinner party, scoring a dance with the prettiest girl in the room and eventually striking it rich is not really the stuff of serious drama but it is a bunch of funny clips.
J. – Well, some of it is. I think what surprised me most was how unfunny I found many of the scenes. Some of that assuredly comes from the gags just being old and tired to a modern audience (see: starving man hallucinating that his friend has turned into a food item). But I think many were just not particularly good gags, or at least were executed in a manner that lacked zip. A lot of silent comedy is physical and therefore the best stuff is often built around elaborate setups or expert escalations. The dancing scene was a great example of that, with the Little Tramp trying to keep his pants up and inadvertently using a dog’s leash as a belt — great set up and even better escalation. But even some of the more famous gags, like the cooking and eating of the shoe had little chuckle-inducing power for me.
That said, the famous bread roll dance really was excellent, even after having seen it mimicked a dozen times on The Simpsons (I’ve seen a lot of reruns). It was one of the rare moments that combined the physical comedy and the sentimental streak of the film into a cohesive whole.
S. – When I think about how much I enjoyed the two Buster Keaton films we have seen from the list, this Chaplin adventure rates a very distant third. Perhaps I could summon more enthusiasm for The Gold Rush had I watched this prior to the Keaton movies, which managed to combine terrific gags within an interesting narrative. But there were some very memorable scenes, obviously the classic bread roll dance was a standout, and the tilting house balanced precariously at the precipice of a mountainside was played out for maximum ridiculousness. I have high hopes that the remaining Chaplin films we have still to view will manage to deliver the laughs packaged into a more satisfying movie experience.
J. – The tilting cabin was a very funny set piece and is the sort of inspired escalation from which the best silent comedy derives. I agree that The Gold Rush is not up to the level of Keaton’s work. And I don’t think it’s just because of the narrative, certainly Sherlock, Jr. is even more episodic than this film. Keaton’s jokes are simply more inspired, and he’s willing to go to such desperate lengths for a laugh that he manages to astound as he elicits guffaws. Which is why The Gold Rush‘s tilting cabin probably works so well too — it feels dangerous. I don’t want to come across like I didn’t like The Gold Rush because I did enjoy it. But it certainly ain’t the motherlode of silent comedy either. But if memory serves me, Chaplin does up his game for his other films on the list. So, since we have to watch all of them anyway, perhaps it’s best that your introduction to his work was a lesser effort, S. — it’s all uphill from here (hopefully not in the snow).