Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush

This review is based on the original 1925 version of The Gold Rush with accompanying music provided on the DVD. In 1943 Charles Chaplin personally supervised a re-release version with original musical score and voiceover narration provided by Chaplin himself.

It’s hard enough these days to get easily engrossed in a silent feature film. The classics are worth watching, especially if you’re at all interested in understanding the development of narrative form on screen. It takes a great deal of mental focus and a commitment that you’re going to stick it out through more than an hour of silent viewing. Surely, just as with subtitled films, the more you watch them, the easier it gets. But I find Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush to be, at times, tedious viewing. It has great classic bits, but the story that holds it together is occasionally thrown together in a ramshackle way.

Chaplin’s screenplay was inspired by stories of the hardships of the unwitting prospectors hoping to strike it rich in the Alaska gold rush and the story of the Donner party who got stranded in the Rockies one winter and had to resort to cannibalism. Mining that incident for comedy provided the famous scene where The Lone Prospector (essentially Chaplin’s Tramp in Alaska) and his newfound partner Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has recently made a big gold discovery, enjoy a Thanksgiving feast of the Tramp’s leather shoe.

As usual the Tramp wanders through life – in this case the Alaskan wilderness – almost completely unawares, a fact amusingly illustrated early on by the bear that follows secretly behind him on a mountain ledge, disappearing into a cave just as he turns around. Fate brings him, as well as Big Jim, to the cabin of the wanted criminal Black Larsen (Tom Murray). Then a series of minor adventures brings him to the town where he falls for the beautiful Georgia (Georgia Hale). This film might be one of the earliest examples of that old bit where the nerd or goof thinks the pretty girl is giving him eyes, but really it’s a bigger or more dashing man standing behind him.

The Tramp, as usual, tries to be a perfect gentleman despite his ragged appearance and low station in life. Here he is valiant and noble when he defends Georgia against Jack, a much bigger man harassing poor Georgia. What The Tramp doesn’t realize is that Jack and Georgia are lovers having a quarrel, so he unwittingly accepts her for a damsel in distress and goes back to the modest cabin where he’s staying along with some of her girlfriends. In any romantic situation in film we want to root for the hero getting together with the girl, but when she and her friends make a mockery of him and stand him up on New Year’s Eve after he’s worked hard to earn money to prepare a lovely meal, having also bought small gifts for everyone, why should we care if they wind up together in the end.

A bittersweet fantasy sequence in which The Tramp imagines a beatific scene of frivolity and holiday spirit in his home makes us dislike Georgia all the more, in my opinion. This to me is a major problem with the central plot of the film. To make matters worse, Georgia even goes with her friends to The Tramp’s house to laugh at him. Even when she realizes the error of her ways at seeing the damage she has wrought and then slapping Jack when he gets too fresh is not enough to turn the audience around on her, especially when the next day we see her write a note of apology when Chaplin’s filmmaking leads us to believe is intended for The Tramp until we see it delivered to Jack. Can you guess who’s going to accidentally receive that note and get the wrong impression?

The Gold Rush is not nearly as technically sophisticated as CityLights, which was made 6 years later, and also not as finely crafted as The Kid, Chaplin’s first feature film. The narrative is sometimes sloppily rendered, relying far too heavily on chance encounters and plot contrivances, as when Black Larsen meets his convenient end. The film should be noted for its wonderful effects given the period, many of which still look reasonably convincing today, such as the precariously situated cabin on the edge of a cliff tilting back and forth as The Tramp and Big Jim try to escape without falling to their deaths. It’s a classic that deserves its place, but there are other Chaplin features that I would choose over this one.

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