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Watching The Gold Rush (1925) is a weirdly communal experience, even if you are taking it in on a small screen alone in your room, because it was one of the first truly worldwide cultural phenomena, and it has enjoyed an unusually extended life for a film. Watching along with you, spectrally, are most of a century’s worth of people, in every corner of the globe, in opulent movie palaces and slum storefronts, on state-of-the-art equipment and sheets hung from trees. Its humor and poetry transcend cultural and historical boundaries, and there has never been a time when that was in doubt. It remains the highest-grossing silent comedy. When The Gold Rush was released in England, BBC Radio broadcast ten solid minutes of audience laughter from the premiere. When it opened in Berlin, one sequence—the famous dance of the rolls—was so wildly received that it was run back and played again, a rare instance of a cinematic encore.
The Tramp—small, innocent, beleaguered, romantic, oblivious, resourceful, idealistic—lives inside everyone, but Charlie Chaplin made him manifest, with humor that is never cruel, never aggressive, and always speaks to our best selves. The Gold Rush takes the Tramp, in his longest outing to date, from rags to riches, thus combining the pleasure of laughing at his pratfalls with that of vicariously sharing in his eventual good fortune—and what could have more universal appeal? Here as elsewhere, the jokes build on situations everyone can identify with—and quickly raise the stakes. Who doesn’t feel an empathetic blush when Charlie’s pants start to fall down as he dances with the girl of his dreams? Or breathe a sigh of relief when he finds a convenient rope and manages to slip it around his waist without her noticing? It takes only a beat, however, for everyone to see that a large, hapless dog is tied to the end of that rope and is being swung around the dance floor. And then everyone involuntarily braces for Charlie’s inevitable tumble. The sequence occupies only a minute, but in that time, the audience has experienced with near physical intensity a fall, a rise, and another fall—with a wildly unexpected gag planted right in the middle. That combination is Chaplin’s basic comedic formula, the DNA of his pictures.
In 1925, Charlie Chaplin—Charlot in France, Small Mustache in China—was the world’s most recognizable figure of any sort. His career as the Tramp was just eleven years old, having begun with Kid Auto Races at Venice in February 1914. A little later that year, a Chicago reporter wrote: “You can’t keep your eyes off his feet. Those big shoes are buttoned with fifty million eyes.” His salary from Mack Sennett’s Keystone back then was $150 a week; three years later, his agreement with the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit assured him an annual payment of over a million dollars and made him the highest-paid employee in the world. At First National, he began to break out of the two-reel format, making two hour-long pictures, The Kid (1921)—considered his first feature—and The Pilgrim (1923). In 1918, he founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith, and in 1923 he directed the feature A Woman of Paris under its aegis. A drama and a vehicle for Edna Purviance, it was undeservedly a flop; Chaplin appeared only in a brief uncredited cameo. In making it, Chaplin may have wanted to prove his versatility and establish his credentials as a serious artist—his résumé would eventually include credits for choreography, composing, and singing in addition to directing, producing, writing, editing, and, of course, acting—but it was time to give the public what it wanted, in the form of an even longer feature featuring the Tramp.
The Gold Rush is unique among Chaplin’s silent-era films in that he began production with a more or less complete story. (His working methods only fully came to light posthumously, as a result of the outtakes collected and analyzed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for their 1983 television series Unknown Chaplin. Chaplin, singularly, was able to use the studio as his sketch pad, beginning vaguely with an image and then filming, retaking, undoing, and revising as a story gradually began to take shape, resulting in such extraordinary shooting ratios as The Kid’s 53 to 1.) He was spurred by reading a book about the tragic Donner Party of 1846–47, and then by looking through Douglas Fairbanks’s collection of stereoscope cards, which included a series on the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897–99. He re-created the latter with astonishing fidelity in the opening shots, showing the crossing of the Chilkoot Pass, which was arranged by assistant director Eddie Sutherland, using six hundred extras (apparently hobos Sutherland had rounded up in Sacramento), in the Sierra Nevada range, near Truckee, California. Chaplin had intended to shoot all of the exteriors on location, but although at least two other scenes were filmed there and discarded (except for one shot of Charlie sliding down a hillside, which remains), the rest of the picture was filmed on elaborate sets—made from wood, burlap, chicken wire, plaster, salt, and flour—in his studio on the southeast corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood.
Production covered seventeen months, from spring 1924 to summer 1925. Fifteen-year-old Lita Grey (who was twelve when she appeared in The Kid) was originally cast as the female lead. She became pregnant, however, so Chaplin married her instead and, after shutting down production for three months, substituted Georgia Hale, who had starred in Josef von Sternberg’s debut film, The Salvation Hunters. (During the course of the production, the marriage fell apart, after a son had been born and with a second one on the way, and Hale replaced Grey in Chaplin’s affections as well.) The other three principals, Mack Swain (Big Jim McKay), Tom Murray (Black Larsen), and Henry Bergman (Hank Curtis), had all appeared in The Pilgrim, the previous Tramp movie. Swain, whom James Agee memorably described as looking like “a hairy mushroom,” had made many shorts with Chaplin at Keystone; when his career flagged in the early 1920s, Chaplin rescued him. Bergman, a veteran vaudevillian, appeared in almost every Chaplin movie from 1916 to 1936, and in addition worked as assistant director on City Lights (1931). Near the end of his life, Chaplin set him up with a restaurant.
The story is a stew of elements drawn from dime novels, Jack London, and nineteenth-century blood-and-thunder melodrama, conventions that at the time of the picture’s release were as familiar to audiences as their own homes. The Gold Rush wasn’t the first time Chaplin inserted the Tramp into a historical framework—that would have been 1918’s Shoulder Arms, if not 1917’s The Immigrant—but by 1925, the Klondike had entered the realm of romantic adventure, even though it lay within living memory. Chaplin’s Tramp is here called the Lone Prospector, his costume unaltered except for the knapsack on his back, with attached pickax and frying pan. We are introduced to him as he slides along a precipitous mountain path with his trademark waddle, completely unaware of the bear that briefly shadows him (and will later reappear). As ever, only perhaps more so, he is the little man in a world populated by giants, kin to Till Eulenspiegel, Svejk, Josef K., Happy Hooligan, Popeye—the audience’s surrogate amid the confusion of the early twentieth century, before the tide turned toward supermen around the time of World War II. He has washed up in the Yukon the way thousands of others did, out of dreams and unclear ambitions, although he is motivated by romance—in both senses—rather than greed. Even at the end, when, having hitched a ride on Big Jim’s good fortune, he sports two fur coats, one atop the other, you sense that this is less a matter of mere luxury than of banishing cold, including the cold of his immediate past.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a movie inspired in part by the Donner pioneers (who, stranded in the mountains for months by snow, turned to cannibalism for sustenance), some of the most memorable sequences involve food. When the Lone Prospector is starving in the cabin with Big Jim, he resorts to boiling his shoe. After sacrificing the upper to Jim, he makes his own meal of the sole, nails, and laces, rolling the laces on his fork like spaghetti and relishing each individual nail as if they were the bones of a quail (the shoe and laces were made of black licorice, the nails of hard candy). Big Jim later hallucinates the Lone Prospector turning into a giant chicken (played by Chaplin in a chicken suit; the transitions were all done in the camera by his extraordinary cinematographer, Roland Totheroh). And when the Lone Prospector falls asleep waiting for Georgia and her friends to come over for New Year’s Eve dinner, he dreams of entertaining them with a soft-shoe dance staged with rolls impaled on forks, a turn first briefly employed on-screen by Fatty Arbuckle in The Rough House (1917) but made iconic here.
And there is so much else. No one who has seen the picture can easily forget the cabin, come to rest on the lip of a chasm, teetering back and forth as Charlie and Big Jim move from one side to the other within (the transitions between the full-size set and the miniature are immaculate). Charlie’s victory—by proxy—in the dance hall brawl is one of the classic little-man triumphs. (The dance hall scenes by themselves provide a startling trip into the past, with their cast of authentic-seeming mushers and adventurers.) And the Lone Prospector’s snow shoveling technique, when he is raising funds for the dinner—he piles all the snow from one doorstep onto that of the storefront to the left, then solicits work from that establishment—would almost by itself have made a two-reeler in the preceding decade.
In 1942, Chaplin reissued The Gold Rush for an audience that—even though only seventeen years had elapsed since the picture’s initial release, and only six since the defiantly (near) silent Modern Times—had mostly never seen a silent movie. There was no television then, after all, and no revival houses to make such works available. He therefore chose to guide the audience through the experience by means of an explicit score and an orotund narration—Chaplin’s own—that is drawn from the same half-remembered well of Victorian instruction as, say, Edward Everett Horton’s voice-over for Jay Ward’s animated Fractured Fairy Tales shorts. He also eliminated a subplot (the bounder Jack’s cruel hoax) and truncated the ending, which perhaps did suffer from romantic overload as a result of his actual liaison with Georgia Hale. But very little is finally sacrificed; there is no downside. (It was also Chaplin’s preferred version.) The rerelease helpfully came in the middle of the war; it helped extend Chaplin’s franchise to another generation; and, perhaps most importantly, it helped preserve the footage of the original, which remains as crystal-clear, economical, and direct as anything ever committed to celluloid.
Luc Sante’s books include Low Life and Kill All Your Darlings.