Like all great films, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush has classic
comedy moments that are endlessly referenced in various films, such as
Johnny Depp homage in Benny and Joon (1993), proving the enduring
significance of the film, and its master, alike.
The most memorable scene is, perhaps, when the famished tramp dines
on an old, boiled shoe as if it were a gourmet feast, sucking upon the
nails as if they were meat bones and twirling the shoelaces around his
fork as if they were spaghetti. The reality is that the boot was made
out of licorice which, while making the film, Chaplin ate so much,
before he was satisfied with the take, that he had to be taken to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. There is, of couse, the timeless dance of the dinner rolls.
After his box office flop with the critically acclaimed A Woman in Paris (1923), due to its lack of his signature character The Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, The Kid, The Circus, Citylights)
was forced to return to the genre that had defined his career. His
attempt to steer away from his slapstick entertainment had failed but
this was not to say that he was going to abandon his new sense of
cinematic grandeur. He was determined to accomplish something more
worthwhile than throwaway entertainment. This, and inspired by the real-life Klondike Gold Rush with tales of cannibalism, led to the most best-loved of Chaplin movies, The Gold Rush (1925).
Chaplin’s third feature-length film, which he wrote, produced,
directed, starred and edited, the film is the story of The Lone
Prospector (Chaplin) during the Klondike Gold Rush, as he attempts to
find gold in the harsh territories of Alaska. The ‘Little Tramp finds
himself in many misadventures. Battling his way through the elements, he
meets Black Larsen (Murray), a wanted criminal who will stop at
nothing to get his hands on some gold. He also comes across a fellow
prospector, with whom he will share a cabin, Big Jim McKay (Swain),
who has finally defied all odds, and struck it rich. When the Lone
Prospector’s is forced back to civilization, he falls in love with
Georgia (Hale) who is also being pursued by handsome lady’s man Jack Cameron (Waite).
The film moves along at a brisk pace with some fine performances,
most notably, alongside Chaplin, is Mack Swain as the hilarious Jim
McKay who, at one point, is so hungry, during a famine, he imagines his
cabin mate as a chicken, ready to eat. As for ‘The Little Tramp’
himself, his success is down to his ability to use his whole body to mime out scenes with great grace and acute comedic timing. Hale is perfect in her disdain of The Lone Prospector, her originally intended for Lita Grey, (the second Mrs Chaplin), who was pregnant at the time of production.
The film was in pre-production for a year an half, during which,
Chaplin tried to shoot in the Yukon, eventually opting for the location
of the opening scenes in Truckee, California, using some local tramps as extras.
He was to spend months in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, filming in
extreme weather conditions, for only two short scenes thus most of the
snow seen in the film is actually rock salt.
Originally made without dialogue or music (it being the silent film
era), it was such an international success that Chaplin reissued the
film in 1942 with both a soundtrack and narration thus eliminating the
use of title cards. This was largely due to another box office failure The Great Dictator, in order to re-ignite his career.
The Gold Rush, still funny after almost eighty years, is a
masterful blend of several genres, including comedy, drama, western and,
of course, romance. The perfect silent comedy.