TSPDT Greatest Films #32 The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
After Chaplin made The Kid in 1921 he wanted to overstep it with something big, something epic! With bigger laughs, better writing, better drama, and bigger grosses. Well, with his next film: The Gold Rush he achieved all these goals. For a film made in the 1920’s it was a real "tour-de-force". Chaplin took his crew to North California to shoot natural snow and real landscapes. Some scenes needed hundreds of extras to capture the realistic touch of Chaplin’s vision. The making of the film took two years including writing, shooting, editing, reshooting, etc. However the results were more than expected, it generated six million dollars in entries.
The Gold Rush is the story of Chaplin’s little Tramp as the Lone Prospector going to the Klondike to search for gold. Instead, he became friend with another prospector named Big Jim. He will meet him accidentally while he enters into a cabin trying to shelter from a blizzard. They will try to survive from cold and starvation. Later, the Lone Prospector goes into a town and falls in love with a girl in a dance hall. The rest is yours to discover with the pleasure of watching this masterpiece.
It was the first film Chaplin did for the company he founded with the Fairbanks: The United Artists. He had the initial idea of The Gold Rush when he was at the Fairbanks for breakfast on a Sunday morning watching stereoscopic slides from Alaska and the Klondike. Chaplin was fascinated by a slide of the Chilkoot Pass showing a long line of prospectors hiking up on the frozen hill. In his autobiography Charles Chaplin explains that this moment inspired the first frames of the film. For another memorable moment of the film, he read a book about a convoy going to California from Donner. The convoy took a wrong turn and got stuck in the snows of the Sierra Nevada in 1836. Only 18 of the 160 people taking the trip managed to survive. To do so, they had to eat their shoes and the other deceased passengers. The scene inspired by these tragic events depicts the Lone Prospectors eating his shoelaces like spaghetti and licking the nails of his sole like bones of a little chicken. In the same scene, Big Jim has visions and sees the Lone Prospector as a big Chicken and tries to eat him. Interesting fact: the guy in the chicken suit was Chaplin himself. After trying another actor for the part, Chaplin got the better laughs from the crew when he put on the suit. Chaplin had to wear the chicken suit while directing himself and playing the Lone Prospector in the same scene.
One of the major strength of The Gold Rush's writing and most of Charlie Chaplin's films is how he built his scenes around tragedy. In this case, the tragedy is hunger that let people with no other choice to survive than to do cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada. He also used a personal experience of being stood up without a guest at a party he hosted (transposed in The Gold Rush on New Year’s Eve). He always had the right approach to make the most hilarious situations out of these tragic events. The Lone Prospector and his friend were dying of hunger and cold. Even with these heavy obstacles that could be too tragic, Chaplin managed to handle a scene where human misery is laughable and not laughed at.
For the modern day movie viewer some of the gags may seem a little repetitive. It’s good to know that when the first reels of comic films began in theaters they had to rewind the reel because the audiences laughed so hard at the gags that people were shouting to see them again and again. The projectionists had no choice but to replay the reels to avoid riots. With his feature films, Chaplin managed to avoid the constant rewind of hilarious scenes. With longer films the theaters had to respect the schedules of projection. Also, the refinement of the stories kept the audiences more aware of other elements than just the funny little guy being followed by a bear near a steep cliff.
With his childhood background of poverty and hunger Chaplin always knew how to get close to human misery. He had a real talent to invent gags better than the last one, but his real talent to me was how he could write a story that could interest the crowd and be close to human feelings in his understanding of their affliction. The recurring theme of Charlie Chaplin’s films is humanism. This theme is one of the reasons why his films were so popular and got so much enthusiasm from the movie goers of the time; he could take human feelings to the screen and show tragedies with comedy so efficiently.
The Gold Rush had a phenomenal success and still stands as one of the best comedies of all-time. It is often listed as Chaplin's best feature film. On that topic many could disagree with reason, my personal favorite is Modern Times close with The Great Dictator and Limelight. Well, for tastes there are no right answers especially with the quality of the Chaplin’s filmography. He was always trying to surpass himself. The Gold Rush is an "epic" masterpiece of Cinema that cannot be ignored.