The second of Chaplin’s feature films (after 1921’s 'The Kid') loses nothing over time, easily gliding past all technical innovations (sound, colour, widescreen, 3D). And with Chaplin’s natural gifts as a filmmaker and performer, he crafts a hilarious adventure epic with heartbreaking emotional sentimentality.
The Gold Rush (1925) dir. Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale
By Alan Bacchus
In this adventure the Tramp finds himself traversing the Rocky Mountains to join the throngs of treasure seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush. The first set piece occurs when the Tramp seeks shelter from a storm in a small shack along with a fellow prospector and a wanted fugitive. The physical hijinks include the famous storm sequence, which has the Tramp being blown throughout the cabin. The sequence ends with the fugitive killed and the prospector knocked unconscious without any memory of the location of his gold cache.
The next stop on Chaplin’s journey is the prospecting town, where he has given up prospecting and instead tries to find any kind of work. His next gig has him house sitting a cabin, where he falls in love with a local comely gal. The miscommunication of affection between the two is agonizing for us. At one point the Tramp gets a date with the gal on New Year's Eve, but he gets stood up when she attends a local dance instead. The result is earth-shatteringly emotional and heartbreaking.
As perfect and effective as his performance is, Chaplin the director tantalizes us with some bravura cinematic sequences and stunning visual compositions. The Tramp’s entrance into the dance hall for instance, looking at the hundreds of frolicking youth dancing in the barn, is stunningly composed with Chaplin in the centre framed underneath the support beams of the building (see still above).
The dancing sequence features some of Chaplin’s best physical comedy, which can overshadow his directorial skills in choreographing scenes of a massive scale, specifically the final tilting house sequence that shows Chaplin’s panache with spectacle and grandeur.
Three of the most famous scenes in all of cinema include; the dancing of the buns, wherein Chaplin entertains his female guests by sticking his two forks in pieces of bread and dancing a jig to entertain them; Tramp serving and eating his boots for dinner; and the rambunctious frozen Tramp sequence, which has the fugitive throwing a frozen solid Tramp around the room like a pole.
But it’s Chaplin's innate precision with his emotions that makes him a genius. His remarkable simplicity of movement and performance, moving us from extremes of laughter to heartbreaking pity and lasering in on his own core emotions, is a gift only a handful of filmmakers could ever match.
The Gold Rush is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.