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The Gold Rush (1925) Review

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Staring: 

Charles Chaplin; Mack Swain; Georgia Hale; Tom Murray; Henry Bergman; Malcolm Waite

The Gold Rush (1925)

    A film that could be called Charlie Chaplin’s Greatest Hits, The Gold Rush contains many of Chaplin’s best known comedy sequences, including the “dancing of the rolls” and the Thanksgiving “boot eating” scene, not to mention the “human chicken,” which would go on to inspire those looney fellows who made the Warner Brother’s cartoons.  The film for which he wanted to be remembered, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush also provides an uncharacteristic happy ending, allowing the “Little Fellow” to win the girl as well as the gold.

Joining the long line of prospectors converging in Alaska’s Klondike is the Little Fellow (Charles Chaplin), a lone prospector hoping to avail himself of some of the Yukon’s riches.  Seeking shelter from a raging storm, the Little Fellow enters a cabin inhabited by the outlaw Black Larson (Tom Murray), and the two are soon joined by fellow prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who had just found gold on his claim.  With nothing to eat, the three draw lots to see who should go out and find food, and when Black Larson looses, he leaves the two, with no intention of returning.  Near starving, the Little Fellow boils his boot, and he and Big Jim celebrate Thanksgiving imbibing on the delicacy.  But one boot is not enough for Big Jim, and he soon starts to imagine the Little Fellow is a humungous chicken, and after attempting to pluck the Little Fellow, a bear is shot, providing actual sustenance for the two until the storm subsides.  The two separate, with the Little Fellow finding himself in a saloon in a mining town, where he falls in love with the lovely dance-hall girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale).  Georgia is in a love/hate relationship with Jack (Malcolm Waite), and to make him jealous, Georgia dances with the Little Fellow.  While house-sitting in a cabin on the outskirts of the town, the Little Fellow reunites with Georgia and her girlfriends who were out for a walk, and to Georgia’s amusement, she learns of the Little Fellow’s infatuation with her.  She flirts with the Little Fellow, and accepts his invitation for New Year’s Eve dinner, a date she doesn’t keep.  Georgia, Jack and her girlfriends decide to have some fun with the Little Fellow, arriving at his empty cabin, finding the abandoned elaborate dinner-setting and recognizing the hurt she’s inflicted.  But back at the dance-hall, Georgia scribbles a love-note to Jack, and upon reading it, Jack has it delivered to the Little Fellow.  Believing that Georgia loves him, the Little Fellow agrees to help Big Jim, who, suffering from a bit of amnesia, happened into the saloon.  Big Jim and the Little Fellow return to their cabin, and a big storm blows the cabin to the edge of a cliff, but they escape to find Big Jim’s claim, becoming millionaires.  Aboard ship, the Little Fellow, dressed in his old clothes for a photograph, is mistaken for a stowaway, and none other then Georgia comes to his aid, the two embracing and kissing at the fade-out.

Chaplin’s inspired idea to make a film based on the Alaskan gold rush and in particular, the Donner party’s tragic experience with cannibalism, provided Chaplin with plenty of comedic situations in which he could place his Little Fellow.  Interestingly, for a film called The Gold Rush, the actual search for gold is dispensed with quite early in the film.  There’s a spectacular, but ultimately unnecessary, sequence in which Chaplin literally re-creates the long line of prospectors climbing up the Chilkoot Pass, and then a brief scene introducing the “Lone Prospector,” (with a literal “bear” behind) and the introduction of Big Jim as he uncovers his mountain of gold.  Outlaw Black Larson, who stumbles on Big Jim’s find (after murdering two lawmen who were hunting him), is disposed of in an avalanche, so the obvious story lines of the trials and tribulations on the quest for gold Chaplin left to other story tellers.  Instead, as he would do later in City Lights (and, arguably, Modern Times), Chaplin breaks his story in two, part one focusing on his character’s struggle for survival, while part two, introducing, what, in any other Chaplin film, would be an ill-fated romance; both stories, of course, coming together, in the way of the Silent film coincidence, to resolve, here, in the happy ending.

Part one of The Gold Rush is pure comedy and, if one simply attached the film’s finale, where the cabin is teetering on the cliff’s edge, instead of having the Little Fellow and Big Jim part, it could have been a spectacular short.  A “long” short, like Shoulder Arms, for instance, but the point is that there’s little through-line connecting this pure comedy section with the film’s second, far more sentimental episode.  In this first part, Chaplin, again uncharacteristically, allows much of the comedy to generate not from himself, but his worthy costar, Mack Swain.  The celebrated sequence, where the two eat Chaplin’s boot, is made substantially more funny because of Swain’s reactions to the Little Tramp’s apparent enjoyment of the boiled leather.  Yes, Chaplin gets all of the “good” bits of business, (who can resist him sucking every last bit of “meat” from the nail, and then bending the nail slightly, offering it to Swain as if it’s a wishbone?), but Swain does get his share of close-ups and actively participates in the comedy.  Of course Swain’s hallucinations of the Little Fellow’s transformation into a giant chicken are one of the film’s highlights (the in-camera effects  are extraordinary, too, as is, of course, Chaplin’s performance as the chicken.)  Swain’s laid back presence, particularly the way he simple shrugs off Black Larson’s menace, helps to build a real character, and his return for the film’s finale is as welcome as it is funny, for who better then Swain could compliment Chaplin as they seesaw their way inside the meandering cabin?

Having to replace his intended leading lady, (Lita Grey, whom Chaplin impregnated–and quickly married– during the film’s production), Chaplin casts one of his best leading ladies, Georgia Hale.  The nineteen year old beauty gives a bravura performance as the jaded and bored dance-hall girl.  Endlessly flirting and thinking only of herself, Hale is still able to make her character likable because she shows obvious growth and maturity during her short time on screen.  Georgia has no problem picking out the Little Fellow to dance with, simply to smite her lover Jack, completely uninterested in what feelings she is generating in the Little Fellow himself.  Even when she discovers the Little Fellow’s crush, in a beautifully crafted scene where she discovers her ripped photo and the very flower she’d given him earlier under the Little Fellow’s pillow, Georgia can’t help but share her find with her girlfriends, laughing at the poor guy’s infatuation even as he’s collecting firewood to make them all more comfortable.  Hale’s face during the initial discovery reveals not only her surprise, but a hint of flattery as well, which then turns to slight embarrassment, which may be why she invites her friends over to share in the laugh.  It’s an amazing performance revealing a complexity of character that Hale continues to build throughout the film.  She writes a letter proclaiming her love for Jack, but when Jack has the letter sent to the Little Fellow, and the Little Fellow responds with such obvious excitement, Hale’s Georgia has no idea what’s going on or why the Little Fellow is proclaiming his adoration in such a grand manner.  But Hale’s greatest scene is when she enters the Little Fellow’s cabin after midnight on New Year’s Eve, and realizes that the Little Fellow had gone to great lengths for the dinner date she’d jokingly arranged.  Hale’s obvious remorse is palpable, and again her character reveals a depth of complexity that is refreshing in a comedy.  Interestingly, unlike most of Chaplin’s films, much of the sentiment found in The Gold Rush is presented through Georgia’s eyes rather than the Little Fellow’s, which allows us to empathize with her, and rejoice when she and the Little Fellow get together in the fade-out.

The silent version of The Gold Rush is available on DVD from MK2 Editions distributed by Warner Brothers as part of the Special Features on disc 2 of 1942 narrated reissue of The Gold Rush.  The print, restored by Photoplay Productions (Kevin Brownlow, David Gill and Patrick Stanbury), is in good shape, with some noticeable scratches and a slight loss of sharpness (when compared with the 1942 reissue), but very good overall.  The piano score by Neil Brand suits the film beautifully, enhancing the humor quite a bit.  Also included in the special features is a short introduction to the film by Chaplin biographer David Robinson.  A half-hour documentary, Chaplin Today–The Gold Rush, covers much of what was mentioned in the introduction, as well as discussing the movie with film maker Idrissa Ouedraogo, who, frankly, doesn’t add much.  There is also a photo as well as a poster gallery.

In 1942 Chaplin re-edited The Gold Rush, removing all of the intertitles, substituting his own narration instead, and changing the contents of the note written by Georgia, removing her declared love for Jack and instead inscribing an apology to the Little Fellow for the New Year’s Eve mishap.  Chaplin also shortened the final scene, fading out as the two walk away from the camera instead of allowing the two to kiss.  Apparently this is the version sanctioned by the Chaplin estate and is the “highlighted” feature on the MK2/Warner Brothers DVD release as well as the previous release by CBS/Fox Video distributed by Image Entertainment.   This narrated edition, while perhaps an understandable undertaking in 1942, is nevertheless fatally flawed.  Chaplin not only provides narration, he also provides dialogue, literally lip-synching for many of the characters.  For someone who waited so long to embrace “talkies,” Chaplin has now provided voice for one of his greatest SILENT comedies.  The narration effectively takes all the “work” out of discovering, not only the comedy, but the characters.  The narration almost destroys Georgia Hale’s greatly nuanced performance because he quite literally tells us Georgia’s personality, not letting us discover it for ourselves.  While the boot-eating segment is little harmed by his narration, the whole chicken sequence is robbed of much of its humor.  The only reason to recommend this edition is for Chaplin’s wonderful musical score.  But that, in itself, does not rescue the harm infringed on the gem that is the Silent version of The Gold Rush.

The CBS/Fox Video release contained only the 1942 reissue with a short interview with Lita Grey Chaplin as well as production photographs and an original scenario by Chaplin, written in preparation for The Gold Rush.

Kevin M. Wentink

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