Tuesday, September 9, 2008
The Gold Rush
Charlie Chaplin has historically been considered the King of silent comedy. Buster Keaton, since the 1950’s when he was rediscovered, has been gaining ground as an equal, if not a superior, but Chaplin is still more widely known and just as revered as both Keaton and fellow contemporary Harold Lloyd (who was financially the most successful of the three during their lifetimes). I’ve personally been underwhelmed by the three Chaplin “masterpieces” that I’ve seen up till now (1921’s The Kid, 1931’s City Lights, and 1936’s Modern Times), but 1925’s The Gold Rush finally showed me why Chaplin has the stature he has. It contains the same blend of comedy, romance, action, and drama that Chaplin used in all his work, except I felt it was more consistent on all fronts. The Gold Rush often gets paired with Keaton’s The General as the examples of the best of all the silent comedies, and while I don’t think it’s in the same class as Keaton’s masterpiece, it’s certainly a good movie. And according to Chaplin himself, it’s the movie for which he’d most want to be remembered.
Beginning with an incredible shot of miles of prospectors hiking their way up an Alaskan mountain to search for gold (Chaplin was recreating a picture that he'd seen which served as inspiration for the movie, and it reminded me vividly of the great opening shot of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God), we’re plunged into the tale of a lonely prospector (Chaplin as his signature Tramp character) who meets two men on the mountain. One is a wanted criminal; the other is fellow prospector Big Jim (Mack Swain). They get trapped in the criminal’s cabin as a snow storm rages on outside and are in there so long that they run out of food, leading to two classic sequences. The first is one in which Chaplin boils his shoe with all the culinary care of Emeril Lagasse (and devours it with the ravenousness of frat boys taking out a bowl of wings on game day), and another being the best example I’ve seen where someone mistakes something that isn’t food, for food. Chaplin, while lamenting their lack of food, is transformed into a giant chicken right before Big Jim's eyes, so Jim chases after him with a shotgun before realizing that it's still just Chaplin. The storm subsides and the guys are able to go their separate ways. Jim goes off to reclaim the millions of dollars worth of gold that he'd found before his camp was blown away by the storm. Chaplin, meanwhile, makes it to the nearest town and gets a job watching the cabin of a man who’s going away for a while. Chaplin also meets, and immediately falls in love with, the beautiful dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). It’s the love story in particular that is more effective in The Gold Rush than in other Chaplin works. Hale was a convincing leading lady (if a bit too flighty, as a character, for modern tastes), and she works well with Chaplin in their scenes. Chaplin himself has some great moments as we take the time to watch him watching her as he's falling in love.
Many of the comedy bits are quite funny, especially a classic scene where Chaplin puts two rolls at the end of forks and makes them dance on the table. That scene has been copied by everyone from Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon (while dressed like Keaton throughout the movie, his mannerisms are more Chaplin-esque) to Grampa Simpson in a classic episode of "The Simpsons". The action is also very good, including another legendary sequence with the cabin stuck on the edge of a cliff after another snow storm, while Chaplin and Big Jim are still inside. Chaplin quite convincingly meshes early FX (in this case a minature) with a tilting set of the cabin. But ultimately it’s the pathos that Chaplin evokes so gorgeously from the lonely prospectors love for the radiant dance hall girl that makes the most lasting impact. Whether it’s in the hysterical dance between Chaplin and Georgia, where Chaplin’s pants keep nearly falling down, or in a scene set on New Year’s Eve that contains Chaplin’s greatest acting and is the absolute definition of melancholic beauty, this is Chaplin’s greatest achievement.