Friday, April 15, 2016

Watch This: The Gold Rush

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Gold Rush (1925)
Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin

The small, bushy black mustache.  The black bowler hat.  The baggy pants and tight-fitting black coat.  The oversized shoes and wooden cane.  The endearingly strange, waddle-like gait.

There are few images in all of cinema more iconic than that of "The Tramp," the unlucky but good-natured character portrayed by the great actor/director Charlie Chaplin.  Even today, those who have never seen a Chaplin film can instantly recognize the character, and in fact, most people might not even recognize Chaplin apart from that costume.  The Tramp's enduring popularity is a testament to Chaplin's abilities as a performer and filmmaker, and the character's appeal was never more apparent than in Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece The Gold Rush.  The Tramp made his first appearance in 1914's Kid Auto Races at Venice, and was a worldwide phenomenon by the mid-1920s, when Chaplin released The Gold Rush, which to this day remains the highest-grossing silent comedy film ever made.

The Gold Rush finds The Tramp character, credited here as The Lone Prospector, braving the elements to seek his fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century.  As the film opens, he seeks shelter from a snowstorm in the cabin of wanted criminal Black Larsen (Tom Murray).  The two are joined shortly thereafter by fellow prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who is also hoping to get out of the storm.  After being trapped inside for a few days, they cut cards to see who will venture out to find food, and Black Larsen draws the low card.  Outside, he runs into two lawmen, promptly gunning down both men after a brief struggle.  He then comes across Big Jim's claim, which we know from an earlier scene is rich with gold.  Back in the cabin, The Lone Prospector and Big Jim are forced to boil and eat a leather shoe for Thanksgiving dinner.  Their hunger is eventually sated after The Lone Prospector shoots a bear that finds its way into the cabin.  His first act after firing the shotgun is to hurriedly set the table.

The Lone Prospector and Big Jim part ways, leaving the cabin behind.  Big Jim makes his way back to his old claim, where he is knocked unconscious by Black Larsen, who shortly thereafter falls to his death after a snowy cliff edge gives way beneath him.  We later find out that Big Jim has lost his memory from the blow to his head, and wanders aimlessly through the snowy wilderness.  The Lone Prospector makes his way to a frontier city, where he meets the beautiful Georgia (Georgia Hale) in a dance hall, and he becomes a rival for her affections against obnoxious ladies' man Jack (Malcolm Waite).  Staying at the cabin of a new miner acquaintance, The Lone Prospector invites Georgia and her friends to New Year's Eve dinner, but their failure to arrive leaves him dejected.  His spirits are quickly revived the next day when a prank involving one of Georgia's love letters leaves him with the impression that she loves him.  His happiness grows even more when he runs into Big Jim, who fortunately remembers his former companion.  The two reunited friends set off for the old cabin, hoping to locate Big Jim's claim from there and strike it rich.

The film depicts life in the Klondike as a constant battle against the elements.  There are treacherous mountain passes that must be traversed.  There are freezing temperatures and blinding snow.  There are dangerously high winds during snowstorms.  In the film's thrilling and hilarious climactic sequence, a snowstorm blows the cabin to the edge of a cliff while The Lone Prospector and Big Jim sleep inside, and it tilts precariously over the chasm as they move around inside the next morning.  In addition to the threats of the natural world, The Lone Prospector is constantly in peril from his fellow human beings.  There is a wonderful scene early in the film in which he is trapped behind a table as Big Jim and Black Larsen struggle over a shotgun, which stays pointed at The Lone Prospector no matter how much he pushes the barrel aside or tries to crawl away.  Later, after the unsatisfying shoe dinner, The Lone Prospector nearly falls victim to the cannibalistic urges of the starving Big Jim, who hallucinates that his cabin mate has transformed into a giant chicken.

Indeed, the biggest threat the characters face in the first part of the film is hunger, and many of the film's most memorable scenes involve food.  Trapped inside during the snowstorm, The Lone Prospector salts and eats a candle from the lantern on the table.  Later, as he and Big Jim share the boiled shoe, The Lone Prospector relishes each bite of his portion, swirling the laces around his fork like spaghetti and sucking the leather off of the nails from the sole as though they were chicken bones.  Later in the film, as The Lone Prospector dreams about his planned New Year's Eve dinner, he sees himself entertaining his guests by sticking forks in two baked potatoes and making them dance like two oversized feet.  It is arguably the film's best-known scene, and the bit was later copied with two dinner rolls by Johnny Depp's character in the offbeat 1993 romantic comedy Benny & Joon.  That hunger plays such a key role in the film is not surprising when you learn that one of Chaplin's primary inspirations for the film was the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who resorted to cannibalism after becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1840s.

The comedy in silent films relies entirely on visual humor, and Chaplin's early career in vaudeville served him well throughout his later life as a film actor and director.  Chaplin's gift for physical humor was nearly unrivaled in the silent era, and his abilities are on full display in The Gold Rush.  Take, for instance, the uproarious dance hall scene in which his character's belt comes loose and falls out of his pants as he begins to dance with Georgia.  We see him reaching back repeatedly to hike up his pants, then sticking the handle of his cane through a belt loop to hold them up, all while continuing to dance.  Stopping next to a table at the edge of the dance floor, he quickly grabs a piece of rope and ties it around his pants as a belt, only to realize too late that the rope is the end of a dog's leash.  The large dog is yanked out onto the dance floor, forced to follow them around before pulling The Lone Prospector down and around the dance floor.

The dance hall scene is emblematic of The Tramp's universal appeal.  We know even before his belt falls out of his pants that the dance will not end well for him.  And yet, it's impossible not to root for him.  He is a true underdog, and although he is routinely the victim of circumstance and bad luck, he never stops striving for something better.  His bowler hat, cane, and topcoat reveal a desire to look the part of a well-to-do gentleman, but although the shabbiness of his ill-fitting clothes marks him as a pretender, these efforts evoke feelings of admiration and sympathy, rather than pity.  Of course, there is a shrewdness to the character as well, as evidenced by the scene in which he offers to shovel snow in order to raise funds for his New Year's Eve dinner.  His services are rudely declined by one shop owner, so he moves next door and clears out the doorway of another shop by piling all the snow in front of the entrance to the first shop.  He then returns to the first shop and offers his services at an increased price.  It's a sly scheme, but the shop owner's earlier rudeness makes The Lone Prospector's actions seem like well-deserved payback.

Charlie Chaplin remains one of the most important figures in all of cinema.  Along with fellow comedic actor Buster Keaton, he is one of the most recognizable faces from the silent era.  The Gold Rush is only one of his many great films, and provides a wonderfully entertaining window into his comedic genius.

A note: Reeves Memorial Library owns the Criterion Collection's two-disc special edition DVD release, which includes both the original silent 1925 version and Chaplin's 1942 sound version, which includes new music and narration.  The later re-release was considered by Chaplin to be the definitive version.  It is about 15 minutes shorter than the original version, after the removal of the title cards and a couple of short scenes, one of which involves the subplot about the prank with Georgia's love letter.  In the end, the differences are minor in terms of the overall story, so whichever version you choose, you're still seeing one of the best comedy films ever made.

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