Chaplin Diary, Part 12: The Gold Rush

As I chronologically move through Charlie Chaplin’s work as a director, I now come to his first feature-length masterpiece, The Gold Rush. His 1925 epic belongs on any list of great films – including mine.

I’ve already written two articles on The Gold Rush: a report on a screening with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and a Blu-ray review. What else can I say about the movie?

A few things. I can briefly explain why this is a masterpiece. And I can discuss its position in Chaplin’s life and work.

In The Gold Rush, Chaplin places his alter ego, Charlie, into the Alaskan Gold Rush – relatively recent history in 1925. It’s a setting filled with violent men in an even more violent climate. A man drops from exhaustion. Two men are violently shot down. Another dies when a glacier splits. Starvation is always a real threat.

And yet there’s Charlie, funny as ever, in the middle of all this. He performs some of his funniest routines in The Gold Rush, including eating his shoe as if he was dining in the best restaurant. And even in the rough world of America’s last wild-west frontier, he’s an outcast. The first dancehall scene says everything one needs to say about being lonely in a crowd.

For his first new leading lady in nearly a decade, Chaplin picked the not-quite-16-year-old Lita Grey (born Lillita Louise MacMurray). They became lovers, and she became pregnant. To avoid a stiff prison sentence, he married her. This was the second time Chaplin impregnated a minor and picked matrimony over jail. Neither marriage lasted.

A pregnant leading lady is always a problem when making a movie, and especially with Chaplin’s slow working methods. He didn’t want to shoot around a growing belly. So he fired his wife and hired 19-year-old Georgia Hale to take her place. By the end of the shoot, they were lovers.

Hale gives a very good performance as the dancehall girl who uses and teases the tramp before she falls in love with him. The character may have been inspired by Chaplin’s mother, who worked as a prostitute in the South African gold rush and came home pregnant. In Hollywood movies, dancehall girl is a euphemism for prostitute.

Chaplin’s former Keystone co-star Mack Swain plays Charlie’s friend with a strange combination of subtle humor and over-the-top mugging. But Swain’s “Big Jim” can be a dangerous friend to have around – especially when hunger makes him mistake Charlie for a giant chicken. Chaplin regular Henry Bergman plays a small and forgettable role. (You know you’ve seen a lot of Chaplin films when you can recognize Bergman.)

Chaplin was always an intimate filmmaker. He wasn’t interested in huge crowds or impressive scenery – he wanted the camera focused on him. Yet he starts The Gold Rush with a spectacular sequence of men trudging up the dangerously high and snowy Chilkoot Pass in their search for gold (the location was actually near Truckee, CA). But when Charlie first appears, he hikes on a mountain path that was clearly built in the studio. He didn’t really like working in snow; he couldn’t control it.

Every famous, extended comic sequence in the movie, and there are plenty, are set indoors – mostly in small cabins. Chaplin was using spectacle to create a context for his small, intimate, and extremely funny comedy.

Happy endings are rare in Chaplin’s work. His films often ended with Charlie alone and hopeful. But The Gold Rush gives us the happiest ending of any Chaplin feature.

In 1942, Chaplin recut The Gold Rush, removed the intertitles, and replaced them with a truly awful narration. Chaplin’s estate still insists that the sound version is the definitive Gold Rush. I beg to differ. (And no, I’m not going to write a separate diary entry on the narrated version. If you want my opinion on it, see my Blu-ray review.)

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