The Gold Rush (1925). 95 minutes. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as the Little Tramp/Lone Prospector), Georgia Hale (as Georgia), Mack Swain (as Big Jim McKay), Tom Murray (as Black Larsen), Malcolm Waite (as Jack Cameron), and Henry Bergman (as Hank Curtis).
The Gold Rush is the silent film Charlie Chaplin hoped he would be remembered for. Set in the Yukon during the late nineteenth century, the movie features well-known Chaplin comedy routines such as the protagonist boiling and eating his own shoe, a tabletop dance with two bread rolls on the ends of forks, and a cabin that slides back and forth over the edge of a mountain cliff. But one of the movie’s most impressive accomplishments is the way that it develops Chaplin’s Little Tramp into a deeply moving, remarkably touching character, something that The Gold Rush was criticized for during its own time but that today makes it seem soulful.
The plot revolves around three prospectors—Big Jim, Black Larsen, and the Little Tramp/Lone Prospector—who, while seeking their fortunes, end up sharing a cabin together in the Yukon mountains during a snow storm. When Larsen leaves the cabin to pursue a claim, Jim and the Prospector are left alone and starving. The Prospector cooks his shoe for the two to eat; a delusional Jim envisions the Prospector as a chicken and deliriously attempts to shoot him. The two eventually come into contact with a large bear that they kill and feast upon, and then they part ways. Soon, the Prospector comes to a mining town, where he becomes smitten with a dance hall girl named Georgia. He engages her and her friends to come to his place for New Year’s Eve dinner, but that evening he falls asleep while fantasizing about the party, and they forget to come.
Eventually, the Prospector reunites with Jim, who has forgotten the location of his claim but knows it is near the cabin they shared and needs the Prospector to help him track it down. The Prospector promises Georgia he will return a rich man. Jim and the Prospector find the cabin, where they spend the night. In the morning, they learn that their shelter has been blown to the edge of the mountain. The two men struggle to escape from it, eventually emerging unscathed. They then locate Jim’s claim and become wealthy overnight. When we next see them they are on board a steamer leaving the Yukon. The Prospector discovers Georgia on board and is overjoyed, although he is nearly thrown off the ship under suspicion of being a stowaway. The two pose for a journalist and embrace.
Chaplin developed his habitual character the Little Tramp across most of his feature films. The Tramp dons a bowler hat, sports a short but striking mustache of the style later adopted by Adolf Hitler, and wears an ill-fitting suit with a jacket that seems too small and pants that seem too large. He also carries a pliable bamboo cane. This persona is instantly recognizable today even to people who have never seen one of Chaplin’s films. Chaplin’s influence on the burgeoning film industry was profound as he produced, directed, wrote, scored, and acted in his own productions, eventually founding United Artists with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The Gold Rush was the most ambitious Chaplin comedy for the studio to date, and we see that ambition in the snow-laden sets and the complex heaving cabin whose floor tilts back and forth during the sequence in which it is transplanted to the edge of the mountain.
One of the chief delights of the film is the winter sets. During the early cabin scenes when the characters in their desperation threaten each other and plot murder, they run outside and rush back in again, doors are blown open and shut, winds push and pull at the cabin, and snow pours in. The cabin set seems authentically rickety, easily blown away, so that when it finally is pushed to the mountain edge, we have no trouble believing its flimsy structure has been transported. There is also a sequence where the Prospector tries to earn money to fund his New Year’s Eve party by shoveling snow in front of storefronts for a fee. He piles up discarded snow in front of the shop of a man who turned him down. Through partially covered windows the shop owner has a change of heart and asks him to plow his doorway, and the Prospector tosses more snow, repeating the process at another door. There is an abundance of white powder everywhere. Parts of the movie were filmed in Truckee, California, although most of that footage went unused. The rest was recreated on studio sets in Hollywood.
The wintertime setting creates an interesting comedic opportunity. As the characters experience the dire circumstances of Yukon life and prospecting in general, they are reduced to huddling in scraggly clothes in delicate shacks and scrounging for sustenance. Their deprivation becomes a source of humor especially when the extremes of Klondike living cause the men to be imaginative and creative. The Prospector and Jim eat the Prospector’s shoe, the Prospector fashions a hulking makeshift replacement boot for himself out of cloth and rope, Jim in his hunger envisions the Prospector as a giant chicken, and during the New Year’s Eve fantasy sequence the Prospector attempts to put on an elegant dinner for his guests in his tiny ramshackle cabin. The whimsical nature of the characters in spite of their meager circumstances demonstrates Chaplin’s ability as writer, director, and performer to find humor in the sparse and humble, something that was integral to his convincing depiction of the Tramp character. Nevertheless, Chaplin’s reliance on the expensive and complex to provide that humor is one of the movie’s quiet subtexts: think of what it must have cost to produce that much snow on Hollywood sets, or to construct the cabin that tilts and tosses its inhabitants from one side to the other.
Just as The Gold Rush makes use of its characters’ physical adversity for comic purposes, it also highlights adversity of another kind during the Prospector’s fantasy on the evening that Georgia and her girlfriends plan to visit him for New Year’s Eve dinner. He envisions them all seated at the table opening presents with him, drinking champagne. At one point in this fantasy, he picks up two rolls and spears them on forks, then uses them to perform a clever dance on the table. It is one of the most famous of all of his routines.
But look at what is happening in this sequence: in his mind, he is not only amusing the girls in his capacity as the Little Tramp, but he is also living out the fantasy that he is loved and appreciated by the girl of his dreams and her cohort of friends. His food, drink, gifts, and amusing way of entertaining them make them all his fans; but when the fantasy fades away and we come to, realizing that what we have just seen is a dream, we are left with the Prospector asleep in his plate, the candlesticks drooping, the house otherwise empty, the atmosphere pathetic. This scene is not only an excellent embodiment of the Tramp’s personality traits (he is shy, devoted, and wistful) but also a great example of Chaplin’s universal human appeal. When juxtaposed with the character’s reality, the dream not only makes us feel for the disappointed, solitary Tramp but also register a moment of self-recognition. It is a perfect depiction of how sad our little dreams of ourselves can be.
In August of 1925 The New Yorker responded to this movie (and presumably scenes like the one I have just described) stiffly and without admiration: “One might be given to expect wonders of Gold Rush burlesque with the old Chaplin at the receiving end of the Klondike equivalent of custard. But one is doomed to disappoint, for Chaplin has seen fit to turn on his onion juices in a Pierrot’s endeavor to draw your tears….” I think that for people who have not seen a Chaplin movie before, it might be worth thinking about what The New Yorker said many years ago. This movie really does appeal to our sense of pity for the central character as much as it strives to make us laugh. The Little Tramp is one of cinema’s greatest creations, and one of the wonderful things about this movie is that it offers us many sides to the Tramp character, including his trademark physical humor, his diminutive dreams, and his potential for loneliness. For those who only like the physical comedy of Chaplin’s great movies, The Gold Rush may be a harder sell, but for those who appreciate Chaplin’s phenomenal ability to pull off both some of the finest comedy in film as well as some of its finest dramatic characterization, The Gold Rush will fit the bill.