Minutes into the screening of The Gold Rush—a film I’d seen before, but not for years—I realized something was wrong. The Tramp: lost and alone in The Yukon’s white wastes, in search of his vein of gold, wasn’t wearing a proper jacket. He would freeze.
It’s a joke, of course; one of dozens in Charlie Chaplin’s third full-length directorial effort. And it’s a strange one. Chaplin’s Tramp, a globally famous character, wore the same beat up, baggy, repurposed clothes in nearly every film, but most of those films were set in warm urban environments, where being underdressed is forgivable, and occasionally wise. Up in the mountains, it’s real dumb. And the Tramp isn’t dumb.
Let me emphasize this: the Tramp isn’t dumb. In all his forms, he is a survivalist. An opportunist. That doesn’t mean he’s accepted—if he was, he wouldn’t be the Tramp. But whether he’s a hobo on a park bench, leaning in to slurp someone else’s drink, or a rich drunk at the opera, oblivious to patrons around him, he is, for the most part, at ease. The Tramp is smart and adaptable, and because of this, he is usually in his element.
But not in The Gold Rush.
And that got me thinking about The Gold Rush, and where it ‘fits’ among Chaplin’s films—how it’s similar to them, how it’s different, where it ranks. It may be his best feature. I do know it’s the oddest, and the most dramatically complex. Even if The Gold Rush isn’t your favourite Chaplin film, I think you’ll agree that it’s very interesting.
We never learn what motivated the Tramp to go searching for gold; presumably it was greed, though he doesn’t seem greedy. Whatever the reason, his lack of preparedness makes him particularly isolated within a community of men and women who’ve chosen to make their livings in the frozen north, either as prospectors, or businesspeople in the village nearby.
He fits in only with the weirdest of them, and hardly even. One is Big Jim, played by Mack Swain: a fellow prospector who befriends the Tramp more through circumstances than goodwill. The towering Swain, a veteran Chaplin heavy, looks to be part grizzly bear. But he’s not that ferocious. They’re joined, for a little while, by Black Larsen (Tom Murray): another hulking prospector, wanted by the law. Larsen’s a bad apple: Our first sight of him is a simple headshot, but it’s so intimidating and grim that it seems cut from another film. Larsen commits two murders onscreen—which, in a mature Chaplin film, is stunning.
That violence, and the film’s ruthless conditions, set The Gold Rush apart from Chaplin’s work before or after. So does the presence of two heavies. Yet the first half of the film isn’t particularly dark, or even maudlin. It features a classic two-part gag, too.
In the first part, we find Big Jim and the Tramp alone in their cabin, starving and desperate. The Tramp boils a boot, which he serves with the grace of a high-class waiter: unreeling the laces, spaghetti-like, and plating them for his companion. This part is classic Chaplin. The second is not. Big Jim, naturally requiring more food than the Tramp, grows delirious: he mistakes his small friend for a giant chicken (we see Chaplin in a chicken suit, mimicking the appropriate movements) and takes after him with a shotgun.
Later, The Gold Rush will deliver two of the most famous of all Chaplin gags. One, of course, is the cabin on the cliff: a precarious turn of events in which the Tramp and Big Jim, asleep in their abode, are windswept to the edge of a precipice. The cabin teeter-totters back and forth as the two men (of very different weights) move from one end to the other. This is a particularly good-looking scene, with the scale-model cabin, and the animated Tramp slipping in and out of it, both believable in longshot. Inside, the gag is elegant: Swain’s sluggishness juxtaposed with Chaplin’s panicky scrambling, and the displacement of weight—of both men and objects—and its effect, both clever and logically consistent. (Slapstick only really works when it obeys the laws of physics. There is no better way to separate a great clown from a merely good one than this.)
The other gag, even more famous, is the roll dance: actually part of a dream sequence. The Tramp, entertaining four ladies for New Year’s Eve dinner, spears two dinner rolls with two forks, then performs a soft-shoe number with them. The rolls are the feet; the forks, the legs. This is a charming bit, obviously, but it’s more interesting for Chaplin’s facials. His eye movements, even the positioning of his head, are part of the dance too.
Just who is Chaplin trying to impress with this trick? Why, it’s Georgia (Georgia Hale): star entertainer at the village tavern. Georgia’s a dazzler: a brash, self-assured woman teleported from Broadway to the sticks. The Tramp is in love with her, but then, so is every other man in town. Hale’s performance recalls Joan Crawford’s early work, and she brings a similar vivacity to the role.
Georgia is also very, very well written. She’s dismissive, and at times even cruel toward the Tramp, but why wouldn’t she be? She can count on attention in this dump of a town, and can afford to be selective. Georgia will, at one point in The Gold Rush, wound the Tramp more deeply than any woman does in any other Chaplin silent; deeper too than any of the brutes do physically; and yet, she is so complete a character that we have compassion for her. If there is a shortcoming in this script, it is the presence of Georgia’s boyfriend, Jack (Malcolm Waite). He’s just another silent film sleazeball. We don’t need an abusive partner to charge our sympathy for Georgia, because we know her.
I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending of The Gold Rush, because woven through it is the culmination of this delicious relationship between Georgia and The Tramp. Do ask yourself, though, what Chaplin’s really trying to say in these closing moments. I find it ambivalent; even bitter. In Chaplin’s next film, The Circus (1928), the Tramp’s purity of love leads to melancholy; in City Lights (1931), love conquers all. But here? It’s a little cold.
Where to find The Gold Rush:
The Gold Rush was screened this past Sunday at Toronto’s Revue Cinema, part of the Silent Sundays series. Live accompaniment was provided by pianist William O’Meara.
The Gold Rush is also part of the Criterion Collection, available on Blu-ray.