Director: Charles Chaplin (USA). Year of Release: 1925
Alaska. A century ago. Can The Gold Rush really have been made in 1925? Tonight we’re seeing a restored version of the original print, so there’s no intrusive narration. Instead, we get an orchestra playing Chaplin’s score (including various homages to Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss and Scottish folk songs).
We see a line of men struggling through the snow in single file. Cut to: a few days later. There is now only one prospector. He’s wearing a suit and a bowler hat and carrying a cane – not necessarily the best equipment for serious snow walking. But he trips across the icy rocks with the balletic grace that shows that he’s quite at ease picking his way through the difficult terrain.
The character is listed in the cast list as The Lone Prospector, but we all know him as Chaplin’s little tramp. In a crashing storm, he holes up in a shack with two other men – one of them basically good, the other fundamentally bad. As they run out of food, they draw lots to see who should go out and find help. The baddie draws the lowest cards, but he gets involved in a fight with the police, and the tramp and his compadre Big Jim McKay are now left on their own.
There now follows some scenes which will be familiar to you even if you’ve never seen a Charlie Chaplin film in your life, possibly even if you’ve never heard of Chaplin. There’s the one where they have a thanksgiving dinner of a boiled shoe and its laces, the one where a starving McKay hallucinates that Chaplin is a large chicken and chases him with a shotgun, the one where Chaplin sticks two forks into pieces of bread and makes them dance.
And then there’s the protracted scene from which you realise that The Italian Job learned a lot. The Lone Prospector and McKay are in a hut which, unbeknown to them, is largely perched above a deep ravine. Each step that they make towards one end of the room is one inch nearer to plunging them into the abyss. Fortunately, each time one of them moves towards that side of the room, the other instinctively moves back. These are moments of sheer grace which you can only admire.
I’ve seen some reviews try to explain why The Gold Rush is funny. As far as I’m concerned, this approach is fatal, as any attempt to describe who does what and why its incongruous just destroys the elegant poetry. There is something about watching Chaplin making pratfalls, about his cheeky but apologetic grin, about how he glides around the room that is simply hilarious to watch. The moment you try to explain why, just destroys the moment. Just watch the scenes for yourself.
The Gold Rush shows a Chaplin who is starting to develop a social conscience. He is – as he always was – on the side of the little guy, who ties up his trousers with rope and spend much of the film (after he boiled his shoe) with one of his feet wrapped up in a plastic bag. But it is not yet the Chaplin of Modern Times or the Great Dictator who looks towards some sort of collective resistance.
In a sense this does not really matter. The first reason for going to see a Chaplin film is not because you’re looking for a blueprint of how you change the world. But the concentration of the individual loser who comes good in the end does make the film open to more than a little sentimentality. In short, the funny bits are indispensable, but the film does flounder a little whenever the love interest comes on the scene.
There is a subplot about the Lone Prospector and Georgia, a woman who is in Alaska for – I’m not really sure why, to be honest. He falls madly in love and puts a photo of her underneath his pillow. She finds out and she and her friends promise to come to visit him on New Years Ever – something that they have no intention of doing. Nonetheless he does get to dance with them, if only in his dreams. At the end, he does win the girl though this is not unconnected to him striking gold.
I’ve seen the interpretation that she only wants him for his money. That doesn’t fit what we see. Having become a millionaire, he takes a ship to Europe. The press ask him to pose for some photos in his mining gear. As the photographer asks him to step back he falls down to the steerage deck, where on account of his appearance he is accused of being a stowaway. Georgia offers to pay his passage.
So it is not that she is after his money. What is more at play here is Chaplin’s sentimental idea that love conquers everything, that the poor will win in the end because of their moral virtue. The Prospector gets the girl because he deserves her. As said, Chaplin’s later films are more ambiguous on this point (although they still have their tendencies towards sentimentality). And if you want to condemn a funny film for having a happy ending, you’re even more stone hearted than I am.
POST SCRIPT: watching the film tonight took me back to one of the first articles I wrote on film – this piece on Chaplin I wrote in 2014 with my friend Madlen Mühlpfordt. I still think it holds up pretty well.