The Gold Rush
Director: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale
When I first started watching classic film and had it in my head to start delving seriously into silent films, I figured the best place to start would be Chaplin. Comedy is universal, and Chaplin is immortal. Starting off my journey through silent film with Charlie Chaplin was a very good idea, and The Gold Rush proved to me that a movie made more than eighty years ago can still make people laugh.
The Lone Prospector (Chaplin as his Little Tramp) heads to into the wilderness and meets up with another prospector, Big Jim (Swain). The two hungrily sweat out a Yukon snowstorm in a small cabin, where Chaplin immediately shows off some tremendously famous comic set pieces. After the storm, the prospector heads into a town where he falls in love with the local dance hall girl Georgia (Hale), despite her indifference to him. Later, he meets up with Big Jim again, but this time, he feels the urgency to find gold, as he is convinced that if he strikes it rich, he can win Georgia’s heart.
I feel like I have to say this right off the bat: I greatly prefer City Lights and Modern Times to The Gold Rush. In both of those other movies, I see a more mature Chaplin, a Chaplin who imbues more tragic soul into his films, much more so than what he did in this particular film. While the set pieces in The Gold Rush are extraordinary, and I can certainly see Chaplin starting to flirt with the concept of tragicomedy, mostly through the plight of the prospectors and in a few scenes of romantic tension between Georgia and the Tramp, ultimately, it feels like an unfulfilled promise to me. If anything, I want more. Chaplin *thinks* about breaking my heart in The Gold Rush, and there are moments of semi-poignancy, but he doesn’t go far enough. He would push the emotional core over the edge in those later works, which is precisely why I prefer them. There. Getting that off my chest right now. Do not expect me to gush giddily over The Gold Rush. I can’t.
Having said all that, the comedy in The Gold Rush is pretty damn spectacular. When you say “Chaplin,” odds are that you’ll think of one of the classic comedy pieces from this movie. The opening half hour is essentially the Little Tramp hungry in a cabin with Big Jim, and we get all kinds of comedy gold from that. Big Jim visualizes the Tramp as a chicken, the door of the cabin blows open and the Tramp has to literally walk against the wind (funnier than it sounds, trust me), and the absolutely iconic “Tramp eating the boot” scene. Trivia tidbit: the boot that Chaplin eats was made of black licorice, and they did so many takes on that scene that Chaplin actually had to be taken to the hospital for insulin shock. Later in the film, there’s the fork-and-roll dance, performed when the Tramp is trying to entertain Georgia and some of her lady friends. Finally, we end with the fantastic cabin-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff sequence, which believably pulls off some 1920s camera trickery in addition to having some very funny stuff. The Gold Rush has some of Chaplin’s greatest comedy sequences.
But for me, that’s the most praise that I can really heap on it. Most of the reason why I didn’t feel nearly as emotionally connected to The Gold Rush as I have in other Chaplin films is because of the character of Georgia. I really hate Georgia. She is completely and utterly unworthy of the Tramp’s affection, and therefore the ending royally pissed me off. She’s cruel. She’s a dance hall girl (read: prostitute) – which I have zero problems with – and has developed a chip on her shoulder about men – which I also have zero problems with. Where I run into issues with her is when she openly mocks the Tramp. She plays a cruel and heartless joke on him. When she “apologizes” to him, it’s actually by mistake. For this, she’s awarded in the film with a happy life of wealth and riches. What a ripoff. She’s a downright bully, and she’s the heroine. I call bullshit. She deserves that prick Jack that she’s supposedly engaged to; and that’s another thing! She has one scene with big bully Jack where he’s kind of a dick to her and she’s very standoffish. In a later scene, she’s all lovey dovey with Jack, cooing over him and saying she loves him. What the hell! Bitch don’t deserve the Tramp. Bitch should die out in the cold. The few tiny shows of moral redemption she has don’t even begin to make up for the cruel bullying she did over the course of the rest of the movie. Is this a personal problem of mine? Probably. But it’s a major stumbling block for my enjoyment of this movie.
Empirically, I can appreciate the hell out of The Gold Rush. It’s really amazing, in terms of sets, scenery, and special effects, and Chaplin mines comedy gold. However, I don’t love it, and I don’t think I ever can. The film wound up feeling a little emotionally unfulfilling, and I actively wanted to punch Georgia in the face. Ah well.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10. If I allowed my emotions to win out, it would be lower. I have to keep reminding myself of just how great the comedy is. Yes, that is how much I hated Georgia. Comedy and Chaplin’s performance: 10/10. Plot and all the other characters: 4/10. 7 out of 10 is a good compromise between the two.