‘The Gold Rush’: Chaplin, before sound, at the top of his game

The Gold Rush. ()
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Simon Abrams

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When Charlie Chaplin made The Gold Rush, he was an artist at the height of his powers, still confident in the medium he was working in at the time. It is a highlight of his career, even though he did make several masterful features later, after the silent era came to an end.

The Gold Rush, which screens at Film Forum for a week starting this Friday, came out in 1925, just three years before Chaplin made The Circus, his influential, last totally silent picture. After The Circus, Chaplin would make sound a significant part of films like City Lights and Modern Times. Later, he focused on making talkies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. When Chaplin the artist made The Gold Rush, he was most like Chaplin the onscreen presence (“The Tramp”): totally happy-go-lucky and unfettered by anything but his playful notions about morality, work and romance.

The Gold Rush is remarkable for a number of reasons, chief among them the way that Chaplin, who wrote, starred in and directed the film, shows himself to be a more accomplished dramatist than at any point previously. It is very much a comedy first and a drama second. While A Woman in Paris, Chaplin’s 1923 silent film, was billed as “A Drama of Fate,” The Gold Rush is described in its opening intertitles as “A Dramatic Comedy.”

But Chaplin’s Lone Prospector is still the most morally ambiguous character in a world defined by black-and-white morality. That’s primarily because he’s funny, in a hapless sense. Take the way that the Lone Prospector interacts with Black Larsen (Tom Murray), an escaped convict, and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a tired Alaskan prospector who begrudgingly shares his cabin with the Lone Prospector and Larsen.

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The Lone Prospector is not altruistic. In one scene, the three men draw playing cards to decide which of them will leave the cabin and forage for food in the bitter cold outside. After drawing the three of spades, the Lone Prospector dons his coat and gets ready to leave. But then Larsen draws the two of spades. And the Lone Prospector does an immediate about-face and puts his coat back on its peg.

»Read Sheila O'Malley on Chaplin's lasting lesson for comedy actors.

Larsen’s a bad guy—with a name like Black Larsen, he could hardly be otherwise. He’s irredeemably selfish: In a later scene, he’s shown lying in wait for McKay, and even tries to steal his claim. But for the Lone Prospector, being a little selfish is OK.

This is because fate plays a big role in guiding The Gold Rush’s plot, as when the three men draw cards, but also later when McKay and the Lone Prospector re-unite. Larsen and McKay have had a falling-out and Larsen winds up being punished by Mother Nature for his greediness (he falls off a precipice after a hunk of ice that he and his horse are poised on dislodges from the side of a cliff).

McKay is confused. He suffers temporary amnesia after Larsen brains him and stumbles into the town where the Lone Prospector has set himself up. When McKay meets the Lone Prospector, the two men are at cross-purposes. McKay wants the Prospector to help him find the cabin they were staying at so that they can retrieve his claim and become millionaires. The Lone Prospector has his mind on his ineffectual wooing of Georgia (Georgia Hale), one of many women in Chaplin’s films who don’t immediately return his affections.

So when McKay bumps into the Lone Prospector, he’s about to tell Georgia for the first time how he feels about her. He tellingly only summons the courage to do this because he mistakenly thinks Georgia’s in love with him. Just after the Prospector declares his love for Georgia, McKay swoops in and drags him out into the bitter cold to search for their old cabin.

It’s heartbreaking, the way McKay pulls the Lone Prospector away just before Georgia can speak and disabuse the Prospector of the notion that she loves him. It’s a very moving scene, and one that demonstrates just how much Chaplin had developed as a story-teller.

Chance provides for the Lone Prospector later in film, where he meets Georgia after becoming very wealthy thanks to McKay’s claim. They meet again on a passenger freighter. And, after the ship’s crew confuses the Prospector for a stowaway, Georgia selflessly tries to protect him from being thrown overboard. He’s touched, and soon after that, the two of them have a tender reunion.

This noticeably leaves the Chaplin character on a much happier note than The Circus’s resolution does. In that film, the Tramp watches as the woman he loves walks away with the man she loves. He chooses to leave them to their happiness, refusing to be a third wheel. It’s fitting.

But the ending of The Gold Rush is perfect in its own charming way. Chaplin gets the girl this time—and all he had to do was wait for her to fall into his arms.