Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #176
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Georgia Hale
My wireless connection has been acting up at home, so I'm doing two posts today to make up for skipping yesterday. By either coincidence or divine circumstance, the two films I'm writing on – Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – happen to be indelibly linked. Both examine the tremendous weight that the hunt for gold places on the human soul and the consequences it holds for relationships and mental stability. While The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I'll discuss in more depth in my next post, won a screenplay Oscar for its very serious treatment of the subject, The Gold Rush offers a more comedic approach. But that's not to say it's a wholly lighthearted affair. Like most of Chaplin's best work, the film is anchored by its most serious moments, and there are plenty.
The Gold Rush has two scenes in particular that have become canonized as shining examples of Charlie Chaplin's greatness as a performer, but taking them out of context belies their depressing nature. In one scene, Chaplin's tramp and his hirsute companion Big Jim are sitting at the dinner table in their windswept cabin in the Klondike region. They haven't eaten in days, and their friend is lost outside in a blizzard. Chaplin saunters to the stove, and we see that he's preparing one of his boots in a boiling pot of water. He carves it like a Christmas goose, and he and Big Jim manage to choke it down. It's comical that they are eating a shoe, and that's all that seems to be remembered about the scene. But it's totally spirit-crushing that they're eating a shoe because they're starving to death on the Alaskan frontier, trapped in a shack because the blizzard outside is too strong for them to leave. In the other iconic scene, Chaplin entertains his dinner guests – including his love interest, the beautiful Georgia – by stabbing two rolls with forks to make them look like legs and doing a soft shoe dance routine on the table with them. We learn shortly after this that he had only dreamed this, and that he fell asleep waiting for dinner guests that never came. The dance routine is brilliantly executed and very funny, but it only happens because Chaplin was stood up by the only person he cares about in the Great White North while she was too busy partying with a burly, handsome jerk. Taken as a whole, the movie is only as funny as it is bleak.
Now, of course, there's a happy ending. Chaplin and Big Jim find their mountain of gold and become millionaires, and Chaplin gets the girl. This is a classic comedy, and nothing different should be expected. The somewhat contrived ending is hardly the point; the hour that leads up to it is. The Gold Rush is Chaplin at his bipolar best, and both the silent version and the 1942 version with narration by the star and director himself are worth watching.
The Good: The comedy is almost always born out of agony, and for having as much slapstick as it does, it's a very serious movie.
The Bad: Typical 1920s continuity and tape issues. Only distracting if you let them be.
The Skinny: Very deserving of its place.