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Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Gold Rush

By 1925, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous person in the world. It had been four years since his last feature, The Kid, and fans were waiting impatiently for his next. It would be The Gold Rush, and it was one of the highest grossing silent films. It was also a critical success, as today some cite it as his best film.

When the sound era came in, Chaplin continued to make mostly silent films (City Lights, Modern Times), but in 1942 he took a look at The Gold Rush and added a musical score and narration to replace the intertitle cards. This was his definitive version, and he destroyed his prints of the 1925 version. In the 1990s, piecing together bits from prints around the world, the 1925 version was restored.

After seeing the film Dawson City: Frozen Time, I wanted to see The Gold Rush, which is set during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. I had a choice of seeing both versions, and went with the '42, seeing as Chaplin thought that was his final say on the subject. It makes some changes to the original, but is still a masterpiece of comedy and pathos.

Chaplin utilizes his Little Tramp character, this time known as the "Lone Prospector." To start with, he seems woefully unequipped for such a venture, just in his normal suit of clothes. He's freezing and hungry, and comes along the cabin of a criminal, Black Larsen, who wants to throw him out. But they are joined by Big Jim, a kind man who has just found a lot of gold, but they are snowed in.

This first act contains one of the famous scenes of the film--the eating of the shoe. Chaplin boils his shoe and eats the leather, downing the shoelaces like strands of spaghetti. I particularly liked a simple but effective bit: Larsen and Jim are fighting over a rifle, and no matter where Chaplin tries to hide the gun is pointed at him.

Later the scene shifts to town, where Chaplin becomes enamored of a dance-hall girl, Georgia. She is being pursued by the much bigger Jack, but Chaplin ends up amusing her. While he is cabin-sitting for a prospector, she and some friends come over and they enjoy some time. He invites them to come over for New Year's Eve, but is stood up. He has a dream where they are all enjoying themselves, and we get the famous dinner-roll dance scene, where Chaplin sticks two forks in dinner rolls and does a little dance with them. If someone only knows one Chaplin scene, it might be this one.

The last act contains the cabin on the precipice scene. The cabin that Jim and Chaplin share blows to the edge of a cliff, and there's much comedy as they move from side to side inside, making the cabin teeter.

The Gold Rush is certainly one of Chaplin's better films (I'd put it behind City Lights and Modern Times) and it incorporates much that he is known for--the forlorn but plucky little man, beset by bullies but honest and with integrity, and therefore able to finally win the girl. He is also invariably polite, tipping his derby at every chance.

The 1942 film has the odd use of narration. The actors are not dubbed, but Chaplin himself declaims the dialogue. He might have been wiser to have different actors read for the various characters, but once you get used to it you kind of forget it.

I'm unfamiliar with the other actors. Georgia Hale played Georgia, and it is presumed that she and Chaplin had an affair. She didn't act after sound came in. Mack Swain (Big Jim) was a vaudevillian who appeared in many films for Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio. Tom Murray was Black Larsen, and he and Swain both died in 1935.

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