05 January 2012

The Gold Rush

In recent years, I've found myself spending Christmas afternoon at the movies. This time round, I went to Film Forum to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin passed away on Christmas day in 1977 so it only seemed fitting that they chose to show the film for which he wished to be remembered.

The film takes place in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Chaplin’s Tramp (introduced as the lone prospector) is looking for gold when he runs into Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a man who’s just discovered a huge gold deposit at his claim, and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a man wanted by the authorities. The Tramp and Big Jim end up snowbound in a cabin with no food and a hallucinating Big Jim begins to see the tramp as an enormous chicken. Later, having giving up on prospecting, the Tramp ventures into town where he meets and falls head over heels in love with a dance hall girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale), who he mistakenly believes loves him back. Big Jim, now suffering from amnesia, reappears and demands that the Tramp help him locate his claim. The Tramp ends up finding gold at last.

The film was, as usual with most Chaplin projects, written and directed by the great man. Inspired by actual photos of the Klondike Gold Rush and the story of the doomed Donner Party, Chaplin filmed the opening sequence of a seemingly endless line of prospectors climbing a snow-covered mountain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains while the rest of the film was shot on elaborate sets back in Hollywood.

Two of the most iconic scenes in film history appear in The Gold Rush. The first occurs when in desperation for food, the Tramp boils one of his shoes for dinner. Chaplin makes an elaborate show of carving the shoe (the nails are swiftly gathered up) and includes a nice twirl of the laces as if they were pasta (in reality the shoe was made of black licorice).

The second scene is when the Tramp, who is waiting for Georgia and her friends to arrive for a New Year's Eve party he's prepared, dreams that he is entertaining them with a pair of dancing dinner rolls. Many people have imitated the trick, two rolls stuck on forks, but in Chaplin's hands there is a certain magic to their movement back and forth across the table. Film goers in 1925 were so enchanted with the scene that some cinemas would actually stop the film to replay it. 

Chaplin's films always include a mix of comedy, romance, and sentiment while never forgetting the plight of the common man, and The Gold Rush is no different. With the humorous moments come heartbreaking ones like when the Tramp wakes from the dancing rolls scene to realize that Georgia and her friends have forgotten about the party. Or when the Tramp believes he’s received a note declaring Georgia’s love for him when it's really meant for someone else. All of this elevates The Gold Rush to more than just a comedy.

In 1942, Chaplin released a new version of the film for which he recorded a new score, replaced the intertitles with a narration (done by him of course), trimmed some of the scenes, and changed the ending. At the Film Forum screening a restored version of the original 1925 film that includes the original ending was shown instead. I thought this version was absolutely wonderful (especially the ending) and by the audience's response, so did they. 

If you've never seen The Gold Rush, please try to find a copy of the 1925 version. It will make your day.

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