The Gold Rush
US (1925/1942) Dir. Charlie Chaplin
Before I proceed with this review I should point out that it is based on the 1942 “remix” of the 1925 silent classic by Chaplin himself, predating George Lucas’s fiddling with his works by some fifty years. Here Chaplin added a new musical score, sound effects, narration and dialogue which he provided himself, as well as a redacted romantic subplot which results in a shorter film.
The story sees a Lone Prospector (Chaplin) makes his way across Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush, where he is caught up in a nasty blizzard. Seeking shelter he ends up in the cabin of wanted thug Black Larsen (Tom Murray) who is about to send The Prospector to his death when another prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) comes to his aid and forces Larsen to let them stay in his cabin.
Larsen is sent out to get food but gets lost in the blizzard which the other two barely survive until it clears and they set off again on their own journeys. Jim encounters Larsen and they fight, during which Jim loses his memory. Meanwhile The Prospector ends up in a small town where he falls for a local dancing girl Georgia (Georgia Hale), who is also being courted by the brutish Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite).
Upon completion in 1925 Chaplin felt this was the work he’d like to be best remembered for, so it feels a little strange that he would want to tamper with it. His rationale was to make the film palatable for a new generation of film fans who had been weaned on sound movies which is fair enough, but if it ain’t broke….
Having not seen the original I can’t make any comparisons but I can say that the sound effects and Chaplin’s narration detracted more than they added to the experience, but this just might be a reflection of my affinity with the silent film medium as it was intended. Chaplin’s voice and delivery style is very dramatic and stilted, reminiscent of the old Pathé newsreel presenters, and clashes with the comedy action on screen.
The musical score, while melodic and often stirring is quite intrusive in places where something softer may have sufficed, and surprisingly overpowers the visuals with its prominence rather than compliment them. Then again the score was Oscar nominated so maybe Chaplin had a point.
Enough complaints, the film itself was rather fun and of course famous for two food related skits – one involving a leather boot being a last resort meal for two starving men and the dancing bread rolls (which Fatty Arbuckle actually did first in 1917). While they remain the most fondly remembered moments the film has much more to offer, including a starving Big Jim hallucinating that Chaplin is a large chicken or the dangerous stunt with a log cabin balancing on a cliff edge.
The story of the hunt for gold is rather secondary to the gags and the pathos laden second half of the film, despite being the focus of the title. With the arrival of Georgia the mood changes somewhat, descending into minor melancholy when Chaplin’s attempts to woo Georgia result in his public and personal humiliation.
As a bumbling buffoon, the tramp character is designed to make us laugh but here is a target for our sympathy and what better way to achieve this than being unlucky in love. The attraction for Chaplin is obvious and instant yet accidental as Georgia is trying to woo another man but our hero is smitten nonetheless. Jack’s boorish manner sees Georgia use Chaplin as a way to antagonise him, the result being an amusingly catastrophic dance routine.
Some key moments from this subplot have been excised in this version which underscore the rivalry between Jack and Chaplin and help make greater sense of later developments that feel clumsily inserted. Another problem is that Chaplin’s vocal narration doesn’t explain much that intertitles would have conveyed better, nor do they feel always feel appropriate, even if they are from Chaplin’s script.
Big Jim returns for the final act to help bring the story full circle and provide us with a feel good ending (again slightly altered here) but as part of the initial main plot point, Jim’s importance is not that heavily developed and his twenty minute absence almost reduces his role to a mere convenience for the early gags.
His amnesia had comic potential for Jim’s reunion with the Prospector but is thrown away in a two seconds flat and lacks an emotional hook. This is a shame as the chemistry between Chaplin and Swain makes for a fun “little and large” double act that could have been exploited further than it was, but at least we got some great moments out of it.
The chemistry between Chaplin and Georgia Hale is interesting to say the least, as the role of Georgia was originally meant for Chaplin’s wife at the time Lita Grey (their marriage hit the rocks during filming). The result is that the Prospector feels more avuncular towards Georgia while she is more of a playful tease having fun at his expense, but not in a mean way, flattered by his interest rather than repulsed.
Production wise this was an ambitious film in terms of location with the snowy tundra of the Klondike being a tall order to replicate. Early location shots in Truckee, California were later supplanted by expensive but credible looking sets on soundstages located at Chaplin’s own studio lot. You’d never guess though as the impression of space and distance is created with impeccable precision and authenticity.
As ridiculous as these sounds, I do feel that something was lost from my enjoyment of The Gold Rush purely down to finding the augmentations and amendments both distracting and counterproductive. There was clearly a good film here but I hope the original version will prove more satisfying as the pure silent film many have experienced it as.