The Gold Rush: Agony in Alaska

thegoldrushIt was when Charlie Chaplin was looking at a photo showing a long line of prospectors in Klondyke that he was inspired to make a movie about the great Gold Rush. He rarely had complete stories written when he started shooting a film, but now he seemed to spend more time on the script. The results became a personal favorite of his as well as one of the most impressive silent pictures ever made.

The Tramp (Chaplin) is in Alaska, trying his luck as a gold digger. A storm forces him into a cabin along with a fellow prospector, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), but another man, Larson (Tom Murray), has already hunkered down in there. The three men fight over the cabin, but they eventually agree to share it. There is no food however and they cut cards for who should brave the storm and find something to eat. Larson loses, heads outdoors and finds what he’s looking for… but has no intention to bring food back to the cabin.

In the meantime, Big Jim is having hunger hallucinations and pictures the Tramp as a huge turkey. He picks up an axe but the Tramp manages to defuse the situation. Their problem is eventually solved, but when they leave the cabin and part ways new challenges await both of them.

Hunger as comedy
Hunger, poverty and broken hearts. That’s the stuff of comedy in Chaplin’s world and rarely have these horrors been portrayed to such memorable effect as in this film. The most famous scene is the one where the Tramp cooks his right shoe. He may know that it’s basically inedible, but there’s no reason not to try to fool your mind and stomach into believing that it’s a delicacy; the shoe is prepared with love, seasoned and served as a proper meal on a plate and eaten with a fork and a knife, nails removed as if they’re fish bones.

Another scene shows him dancing with a girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale), while trying to keep his raggedy, oversized pants up. If there is only one thing you can afford in your miserable life it is to uphold some dignity. Unfortunately, when it comes to love, the Tramp finds that harder to do. He tries to impress and woo Georgia, a saloon girl, but initially makes the mistake of thinking that she’s fallen for him. Heartbreak awaits our sad little hero, but Chaplin always finds a way to reward him in the end. The star himself is in wonderful shape as the unfortunate who has a tendency to always land in trouble but never gives up (even though his traditional outfit is very inappropriate for gold-digging in Alaska); Hale is good as the woman of his dreams, and Swain is terrific in the biggest part of his career as the prospector who finds reasons to both fight and work with the quaint Tramp. In another of their extraordinary scenes together, the one where the cabin ends up balancing on the edge of a cliff, Chaplin and Swain perfectly play to each other’s strengths, making the scene both funny and exciting.

Chaplin the filmmaker and his cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh, also make us believe in the situation thanks to an early example of what illusions relatively simple visual effects can create; the movie was shot in California, but imagining the icy landscape of Alaska is easy thanks to their tricks.

Some people may remember the bread rolls dance vividly; the Tramp performs it to Georgia and her friends in a dream. The scene symbolizes the longings of a man whose life is a struggle, not least when it comes to love. The desire to create a better life for oneself permeated Chaplin’s entire oeuvre. It was easy for him to identify with the Yukon prospectors who had suffered in the Panics of the 1890s and now went looking for, if not love, at least enough gold to put more than one’s boots on the dinner plate.

The Gold Rush 1925-U.S. Silent. 82 min. B/W. Produced, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. Cinematography: Rollie Totheroh. Cast: Charlie Chaplin (The Tramp), Georgia Hale (Georgia), Mack Swain (Big Jim McKay), Tom Murray.

Trivia: The shoe eaten by Chaplin was made of liquorice; the shooting of the scene went on for so long that eventually he had to be taken to a hospital because of all the liquorice. Chaplin first cast his wife Lita Grey as the female love interest, but subsequently replaced her with Hale. The prospectors were all played by real-life vagrants. Chaplin recut the film in 1942, adding music and a narrating voice. That version is ten minutes shorter.

Last word: “What I have done in ‘The Gold Rush’ is exactly what I wanted to do. I have no excuses, no alibis. I have done just as I liked with this picture. If people do not like it, you see I haven’t a word to say. Back of it all– back of the funny clothes, the mustache and the big feet –I wanted to produce something that would stir people. I was after the feeling of Alaska, with a sweet, poetic, yet comic, love story. When I started on this film I sweated hard to keep the original thought. That is where many of us go wrong. We sell ourselves an idea and then leave it flat – with the result that we have nothing in the end but hodge-podge. I wanted the audiences to cry and laugh. Whatever may be the public’s opinion of this effort, I have at any rate been successful in clinging to my original idea.” (Chaplin, The New York Times)

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