Friday, June 20, 2014

The Gold Rush (1925)

Director: Charlie Chaplin                                  Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Film Score: Charlie Chaplin                             Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale and Tom Murray

After cranking out dozens of short comedies in the teens and early twenties, once Chaplin moved into features his output slowed to a crawl, making only nine films after this one, his second feature. The Gold Rush was an inspired bit of filmmaking, but it was expensive, time consuming, and very nearly a disaster. He wanted to shoot the whole thing on location in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and so he took the whole crew up to Truckee, California. But quickly he realized that the expense was going to be prohibitive, especially if he wanted to make back his costs, so with the independence of running his own production company he simply moved back to Hollywood, constructed sets in his studio, and resumed shooting. One thing that had happened in the meantime, however, is his marriage to Lita Gray, who had starred with him in The Kid, had dissolved and he brought in a new leading lady to replace her, both on camera and off, Georgia Hale. Ultimately the studio sets are very well done and the viewer doesn’t really miss the lack of real locations.

The film begins with the shots from Truckee, the long line of prospectors walking through the pass. Chaplin appears skirting a cliff with his hopping turn, followed by a bear and eventually running into a storm. The only shelter is a cabin harboring fugitive Tom Murray as Chaplin enters. Mack Swain, also trying to escape the weather, finds his way there too. After several days the men are starving and they draw to see who will go for food. Murray loses and leaves, while Chaplin prepares a “Thanksgiving dinner” for Swain consisting of a boiled shoe. It’s the first of the classic bits from the film that have become iconic in cinematic history. When the storm is over Swain finds that Murray has moved in on his claim. The two battle and Murray gets away with the gold . . . but not for long. Meanwhile Chaplin sells his equipment in town and meets Georgia Hale at a dance hall, where he tries to protect her from the unwanted advances of lady’s man Malcolm Waite. But while Hale dances with Chaplin, she and her girlfriends are simply toying with him and don’t show up to the dinner he makes for them. That doesn’t stop him from imagining what it would be like, and here we have the other iconic moment from the film, the dance of the rolls.

If there’s one downside to the film it’s the lack of a story, at least the kind of story that was evident in The Kid from four years earlier. By comparison, this film feels more like a string of gags that revolve around a central theme. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but next to the sustained artistry of the previous film this is something of a let down. Nevertheless, it was one of the top grossing films of its day and still remains a silent comedy classic. Chaplin’s gift with gags is evident right from the start, and he wrings a lot of humor from the situation inside the cabin. Though not all of the comedy hits with the same strength, the overall effect is powerful. Watching the film it’s not difficult to imagine a real give and take between Chaplin and Keaton, as gags seem to be borrowed from one another. The wind that whips through the door of the cabin and won’t allow Chaplin to leave is clearly something that inspired Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. after he changed his disaster from a flood to a cyclone. And when Chaplin is desperately trying to avoid the business end of the gun that Swain and Murray are fighting over it vividly brings to mind Keaton trying to avoid the cannon that is tied to his foot in The Navigator from the previous year.

One thing that sets the film apart is the use of special effects, far more sophisticated that the simple stop-motion that Keaton used on Three Ages. In addition to the matte shot that opens the picture, there is a dissolve with Chaplin becoming a chicken that Swain wants to eat. The most impressive effects, however, are when the cabin is about to fall off the cliff. Miniatures, stop-motion animation, and both of them combined with matte shots are used. The modern reconstruction of the film is outstanding and is really the only version worth owning. This also includes the 1942 version that Chaplin revised with sound effects and narration for modern audiences. It definitely has its own charm, but has nothing like the authority of the 1925 restoration. That restoration also contains the music Charlie Chaplin composed for the reissue, re-recorded and extended to fit, which really makes it the definitive version. The Gold Rush was Chaplin’s favorite film and it does exude a lot of confidence. It may not be my favorite, but there’s no denying its artistry.

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