Hats off, dudes! A masterpiece!
The Gold Rush is Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece — the one film in which his desire to make the audience laugh and the desire to make the audience love him are held in perfect balance. It was a near-superhuman feat, and it’s no surprise that even Chaplin only achieved it once.1 In later films, Chaplin’s neediness, his desire for the audience’s approval, to make people realize how special he was, could get the better of him.2 But in The Gold Rush, no matter how pathetic Charlie is, we’re always laughing at him. The proper comedic distance is always maintained.
Chaplin said that he got the idea for The Gold Rush by seeing pictures of the gigantic line of prospectors that stretched before the mountainous Chilkoot Pass leading to the Alaskan gold fields. But he also had a surprising source for Gold Rush lore in the form of Sid Grauman, founder of the Hollywood landmark, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where the “walk of fame” is located. Grauman was one of Chaplin’s oldest friends in LA — Chaplin had played in a vaudeville theater owned by Grauman when he was still touring with the Karno music hall troupe. Sid’s father ran a tent show in Dawson’s Creek during the Gold Rush days, and Sid grew up seeing the prospectors and listening to their stories. Joyce Milton, in Tramp, her biography of Chaplin, suggests that Grauman may even have supplied Charlie with a script of sorts. If so, Charlie quickly absorbed all the credit himself, as he always did.
When Chaplin started putting The Gold Rush together, he found himself without a heroine for the first time in ten years. Chaplin could never resist the idea of a “new face,” a fresh, unspoiled girl that would allow him to fall in love all over again, and he ran a modest ad calling for applicants. He may or may not have been surprised to encounter a fresh, but familiar face, that of Lita Grey, whom Charlie had cast as the “naughty angel” at age 12 back in 1920 in the dream sequence that concludes The Kid. Lita also appeared briefly in The Idle Class (1921), along with her mother, Lillian McMurray, who was surely keeping a sharp watch on both Charlie and Lita. By 1924, when Chaplin began casting for The Gold Rush, Lita was 15, old enough, in the eyes of both Lillian and Chaplin. Despite her lack of acting skills, Charlie took the bait and cast Lita as his star.3
Chaplin took his cast on location at Summit, California, near the Donner Pass, named for the famously ill-fated Donner Party, a group of 19th-century settlers led by two brothers named Donner, who resorted to cannibalism to get them through a severe Rocky Mountain winter. Chaplin hired hundreds of skid row bums to create the famous shots of the miners toiling over the Chilkoot pass that open the film.4
Aside from opening shots, Chaplin used little footage from Summit. His leisurely approach to filming didn’t work on location. The snowy landscape kept changing — melting during the warm spells and then accumulating during overnight blizzards. Aside from the early sequence that shows the Tramp sliding down a mountainside, everything in The Gold Rush was shot at the studio.
Back in LA, Chaplin continued to work on a relaxed schedule, leaving himself plenty of time to complicate his life even further. He started dating a famous beauty, Thelma Morgan, whose twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was the mother of “Little Gloria,”5 the Vanderbilt Jeans Vanderbilt. Chaplin loved being around beautiful women, and he sometimes brought Lita along when he went out with Thelma.
But two girlfriends weren’t enough for Chaplin. He also got involved with Marion Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst. This ultimately led to Chaplin’s involvement in a famous Hollywood scandal, in which it was widely rumored that Hearst shot and killed director Thomas Ince.6
While all this was going on, filming of The Gold Rush was proceeding slowly, and Milton suggests that Chaplin may have been thinking of replacing the untrained Lita with Marion. Whether Charlie actually had the nerve to put himself on a collision course with Hearst was never determined, because, while he hadn’t been filming Lita, he had been screwing her, and now she was pregnant. His suggestions for disposing of the matter — either an abortion or marriage to some suitable young chap not named Chaplin — did not interest Mama Lillian. For the second time in his life, Charlie ended up marrying a young woman because he believed that he had gotten her pregnant. The fact that, unlike his first wife Mildred Harris, Lita actually was pregnant did not improve Chaplin’s state of mind.
Lita, no doubt to her displeasure, discovered that being Charlie’s wife meant that she couldn’t be his leading lady.7 He replaced her with Georgia Hale, a virtual unknown who had appeared in only one picture.8 Fortunately for us, no amount of sexual intrigue and scandal, not even murder, could disrupt Chaplin’s comedic genius. In his slow, self-indulgent, self-absorbed way, he put together his masterpiece.9
In his shorts, particularly the Mutuals, Chaplin relied very heavily on a basic “little man versus big man” plot, colliding over and over again with the monstrous and mountainous Eric Campbell.10 He laid this plot aside in The Kid, where the focus is on the relationship between Charlie and Jackie.11 He returned to it in The Gold Rush, but in a more sophisticated manner.
Charlie has three big men to contend with in The Gold Rush, Tom Murray as “Black Larsen,” Mack Swain12 as “Big Jim,” and Malcolm Waite as “Jack Cameron.” Wolf Larsen scarcely has a personality. He is merely a symbol of the savagery of nature. He murders two Mounties and leaves Big Jim for dead, before Nature herself, reclaiming her own, sends him plunging to his death in an avalanche.13
It would be difficult for Charlie to confront Wolf directly — there just aren’t a lot of laughs involved in putting down a homicidal maniac — so Big Jim has to rescue him. Chaplin used Swain both as Big Jim and as Swain differently than he had used his supporting cast in the past. In The Gold Rush, Swain’s simple, naïve acting style is part and parcel of the character he plays, and makes an explicit contrast with Chaplin’s sophistication. This is most striking in the famous “chicken” scene. Swain’s goggle-eyed amazement at the sight of Chicken Charlie — so earnest and so absurd — is matched by the sight of the giant chicken he sees, so absurd, and yet so real. There it is, right before our eyes. The delightful, childlike pleasure in illusion for its own sake has rarely been so well captured.14
Life becomes more complex for Charlie when he discards the primitive verities of “the Cabin.” Making his way to civilization, he enters the town’s leading saloon as the timid and trembling outsider. He quickly encounters “Georgia,”15 the queen of the dance hall girls. But life is not simple in the big city, even for a dance hall queen. Georgia hears time’s winged chariot hurrying near. Jack Cameron wants her as his steady girl, but should she say yes? Jack’s a man of the world who knows how to get what he wants. As Jack’s girl she’ll be safe, as long as she does what Jack wants, and as long as Jack wants her. But suppose he loses interest? What then?
In The Kid, Chaplin created a floridly melodramatic role for Edna Purviance as an unwed mother. A Woman of Paris was scarcely more subtle, casting Edna as a simple country girl who becomes the toast of all Paris and then gives it all up, for the kids! But in Georgia he created a far more nuanced character, with more depth than any of his other heroines.
In contrast to the “cabin” scenes, in which one gag seemed to follow another almost at random — did Charlie eat his shoe before he turned into a chicken or afterwards? — Charlie’s first encounter with Georgia is ingeniously arranged so that, not only will Charlie fall in love with her — that’s a given — but he will, against all odds, have reason to believe that she’s in love with him.
A previous scene in town lets us know that Gloria has had some pictures taken, and when she spurns a ride in a sleigh from mustachioed Jack — a sleigh filled with all the other “Monte Carlo” dancing girls — we know she’s different from the rest. She’s proud and independent.
That night she receives her photos, and Jack snatches the best as proof that she’s his girl. She snatches it back, tearing it, and tosses it disdainfully on the floor. She walks off with her hands on her hips in a bad-girl swagger, letting Jack know exactly what he’s missing.
The first shot of Charlie entering the saloon — the pathetic little figure16 so separate from all the warmth and life that fills the room17 — has more than a hint of mawkishness, but the mood changes quickly. As he stares helplessly at the vibrant tableau of life before his eyes, the prettiest girl in the room suddenly turns and smiles — at him! An unbelieving grin of delight plays at his lips — very similar to the famous half-smile that ends City Lights — as Georgia walks towards him, and then past him, to the man she was really meeting. Poor Charlie!
But Chaplin doesn’t dwell on the Tramp’s suffering. He’s quickly up to his old tricks, snatching a drink from an unsuspecting waiter and then averting his suspicious glances with an elegantly indifferent eye.
His mood changes again when he spots the torn picture of Georgia on the floor. He picks it up and starts to gaze on it longingly when he realizes that he’s being watched by a grizzled old prospector. Charlie feigns nonchalance, but whenever he tries to get a little face time with Georgia’s photo he finds the old geezer still staring at him. Exasperated, he gives up and saunters off.
The camera shifts, and we see Jack trying to force Georgia to dance with him. To express her contempt, she chooses another partner — Charlie! Charlie leads her through an elegant waltz, despite his enormous right foot. He takes her past the old prospector and throws him a triumphant look. Who needs a picture, old-timer, when you’ve got the real thing!
Georgia thanks Charlie for a lovely dance and leaves to let him sort things out with Jack. In the ensuing fight, Charlie, with his hat jammed down over his eyes, lashes out with his fist and strikes a post, which causes a clock to fall off the wall, knocking Jack cold, a gag that isn’t too clever. But what is clever is Charlie’s conviction, once he gets his hat off, that it was the mighty blow of his now-aching fist that put Jack down. Sic semper tyrannis, dude!
The next day, Charlie finds a home thanks to a kindly prospector, played by Henry Bergman, in a much more sympathetic role than the snobbish, bullying waiter he played in A Woman of Paris. Bergman, who waited hand and foot on Chaplin in real life, here is waited on by Charlie, a switch that he probably enjoyed. Bergman conveniently disappears on a trip, leaving Charlie to take care of the cabin by himself.
A few days later, Gloria and the rest of the Monte Carlo girls, clad in furs and tossing snowballs,18 make their way to Charlie’s cabin. Charlie takes a couple of direct hits right in the eye, but it’s a small price indeed for the pleasure of being Georgia’s host. While Charlie is out getting firewood, Georgia accidentally overturns Charlie’s pillow, finding her torn picture and a rose he gave her the night of their dance together. Mischievously, if not maliciously, she lets the girls in on the secret. When Charlie gets back, Georgia suggests that he should have them over for dinner some time. Barely concealing his delight, Charlie sets a date with the girls for New Year’s Eve. The girls leave, and, in a classic bit, Charlie explodes with delight, practically destroying the cabin in his joy and filling the air with feathers. Unfortunately, Georgia’s forgot her gloves, and so she returns to see Charlie covered with feathers. Embarrassment City? I’ll bet!
In a fairly predictable sequence, by the standards of the film, Charlie earns money for the New Year’s Eve bash by shoveling snow — from one shop owner’s sidewalk onto another’s — a gag similar to the window-breaking routine in The Kid. But when the evening itself arrives, Chaplin’s invention reaches a new level — the finest of all of his fantasy sequences. Charlie prepares an elegant dinner for the girls and, while waiting for them to arrive, falls into a reverie, imagining a perfect evening of gaiety, with Gloria by his side, his girl and proud of it. And when they ask him to speak, he performs perhaps his most famous bit, the Oceana Roll.
He awakens, of course, to discover that it was all a dream, and only a dream. But only we know how far from reality his fantasies are. Instead of pining for him, Georgia’s reconciled with Jack. Proud and independent, yeah, that’s fine, but it don’t pay the rental. Georgia’s Jack’s girl, and Charlie is awakened by the sound of Georgia’s six guns, celebrating the arrival of the New Year.
Charlie goes to the door and opens it, listening to the happiness far away. Alone and defeated, he closes the door, his face a picture of despair.
Chaplin cuts back and forth between Charlie’s misery and the crowd at the Monte Carlo. He pans around the room to show the miners and the girls linking hands to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Surprisingly, the camera stops on a fat, older woman, a bitter look of sadness on her face, and then shifts to a couple of old men, equally grim. A New Year? What does that mean but another year away from youth, another year away from the only happiness they will ever know, another step closer to the grave?
The song ends, and the mood shifts again. A couple of snow-haired geezers link arms and dance. Yeah they’re old, but they ain’t dead, not yet! As the party progresses, Georgia remembers Charlie’s invitation. Let’s go see how the little fellow is doing!
When they reach the cabin it’s empty. Charlie’s gone to the saloon, lurking outside the window and staring at the joy that excludes him. Back at the cabin, Georgia discovers Charlie’s elaborate preparations and his declaration of love to her. “The joke’s gone too far,” she tells the girls. But Jack isn’t listening. He wants a kiss from his girl. Georgia pushes him away. Maybe there’s something better than just being Jack’s possession.
Chaplin, having jerked our chain with Georgia’s double shift of sympathy on New Year’s Eve, jerks it again in the next scene. We see Georgia, seated on the mezzanine at the Monte Carlo overlooking the dance floor, writing a letter that apologizes for her behavior the night before and concluding with the all-powerful phrase “I love you.” But who is the recipient?
Chaplin won’t show us to whom she’s addressing the envelope, but we find out soon enough. Georgia summons a waiter to deliver the note to Jack, the cock of the walk as usual, sitting at a table on the dance floor surrounded by the Monte Carlo girls. Georgia watches surreptitiously from above as Jack reads the note and chuckles. They all come around in the end. Even more pleased with himself than usual, he shows the note to the girls. Miss High and Mighty has just dismounted!
Georgia’s incensed, her worst fears not merely realized but exceeded. Before she can let Jack know she’s onto him, Charlie enters. Jack, feeling particularly nasty, has the note sent to Charlie, without the envelope. Charlie, of course, falls for the bait. He searches frantically for Georgia, but instead finds Big Jim, still dizzy from the wallop with a shovel he received from Black Larsen. He’s found a mountain of gold but forgotten the location. If only he could get back to the cabin! Then he could find it. He spots Charlie. “The cabin!” he shouts. “The cabin!” “Take me to the cabin and I’ll make you a millionaire in a month.” “Georgia!” shouts Charlie. He swarms up the mezzanine to swear his love before Big Jim drags him out of the saloon.
Charlie and Jim reach the cabin, and, after a hair-raising encounter with a precipice, emerge as millionaires. But for some reason, which Chaplin doesn’t bother to explain, when we rejoin Charlie and Jim, swaggering aboard a steamship bound for the States in top hats and spats, Charlie seems to have forgotten all about Georgia.19 Fortuitously, a newspaper reporter, seeking some dramatic photos, asks Charlie to put on his tramp outfit for some photos. Charlie obliges. Then we discover that Georgia, looking a little worn, and a little desperate, is on board as well. She overhears the crew discussing a stowaway. Charlie, posing in his old outfit, stumbles off the upper deck and lands in a coil of rope. Georgia, seeing him emerge, mistakes him for the stowaway. When the crew arrives, she frantically offers to pay his fare. She loves him! She loves him as a poor man!
Charlie and Georgia, now engaged, pose for the camera, but Charlie can’t wait for the honeymoon to begin. He kisses Georgia passionately, and for once the Tramp, the Little Fellow, disappears. Charlie isn’t a tramp any more. He’s a millionaire, a big man, a bigger man than Jack ever dreamed of being. He has what he wants, and he’s going to keep it.Afterwords
“Oh, you’ve spoilt the picture,” exclaims the cameraman when Charlie and Georgia kiss, an inside joke based on the cliché that in Chaplin’s pictures he never got the girl. When Chaplin re-released The Gold Rush with a soundtrack in 1942, he cut out the kissing scene for some reason, although it’s still clear that Charlie and Georgia are going to get married.20 Both versions are available on a two-disc set, nicely restored, from Warner Home Video’s Chaplin Collection. An older DVD, from Image, has the 1942 version only.21
The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material, compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is available on DVD and is well worth buying or renting.
Chaplin’s My Early Years, out of print but available second hand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema(2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten used at a reduced price.
- Fellini praised the “unextorted humor” of Laurel and Hardy. They didn’t try to make you feel sorry for them. They could take it. [↩]
- This is an intriguingly common failing among comedians — Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Jim Carey all feel that we don’t appreciate the depth of their souls, while Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Dennis Miller, et al. can’t stop lecturing our sorry asses. Lighten up, guys! You’re funny, not smart! Funny, not smart! [↩]
- In Tramp, Joyce Milton describes Lita as “big-boned.” Somehow, I’m betting that Joyce is bigger-boned than Lita ever was. [↩]
- The first time I saw The Gold Rush, back in 1962, the film was in such poor shape that I thought I was looking at actual Gold Rush footage. [↩]
- As a teenager, “Little Gloria” hung out with a café society crowd that included Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who would become Chaplin’s fourth wife. [↩]
- In The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (2001), David Nasaw ridicules the idea there was anything suspicious about Ince’s death, although there was plenty that was suspicious. Virtually all of the principals involved told bizarre, conflicting, and inaccurate cover stories, as Milton demonstrates. Peter Bogdanovich made an insufferable film — at least, I refused to suffer it — on the subject called The Cat’s Meow. (From the first twenty minutes of this film, one can conclude that Bogdanovich wishes he were a shrewd, well-bred, middle-aged Englishwoman. I sincerely wish he were one too, with an anchor around her neck and at the bottom of the sea.) Pauline Kael, that starry-eyed romantic, insisted that Hearst and Davies had “an extraordinary romance — one that lasted for thirty-four years.” Infidelity? Deceit? Murder? La La La La La! I Can’t Hear You! [↩]
- Of course, the fact that he immediately lost all interest in her once she became pregnant made things a lot worse. [↩]
- The Gold Rush made Hale a star and she played Myrtle Wilson in the 1926 production of The Great Gatsby, a famous “lost” film. She worked steadily in the last few years of silent films but apparently failed to impress the studios. She made only one talkie before disappearing from the scene. [↩]
- There were other, more mundane delays as well. Mack Swain, exhausted from running around in a fur coat in the middle of summer, walked off the set and Chaplin told Mack he was fired. Then Charlie cooled off and, realizing how much footage would have to be reshot, asked Swain to come back. But Mack had already shaved off his “Big Jim” beard, and production was further delayed until the whiskers grew back. [↩]
- Campbell killed himself in a car accident shortly after Chaplin finished the Mutuals. One wonders how Chaplin’s career would have differed if Campbell had survived. [↩]
- There are, of course, numerous antagonists for Charlie in The Kid — policemen, orphanage officials, and even an Irish bully — but the antagonism here is never personal. The authority figures are simply enforcing the law, and the bully is simply standing up for his right to be a bully. [↩]
- Swain, one of the original Keystone Kops, worked with Chaplin at Keystone and returned as the “heavy” in the First National shorts that Chaplin filmed after finishing The Kid. In none of these films did Chaplin and Swain clash as Chaplin clashed with Eric Campbell in the Mutuals. Swain worked steadily in pictures until 1932, dying in 1935. [↩]
- Larsen’s death is quite spectacular, an excellent special effect, which makes the famously inept shots of the cabin teetering on the edge of cliff near the end of the film even more of a puzzle. Chaplin shot his films in sequence because he didn’t know what was going to happen next, and he may have felt that he was running out of both time and money when he did the final cabin scenes. [↩]
- When I showed The Gold Rush to my niece, she cried out “He totally looks like a chicken.” [↩]
- I don’t know if Chaplin named the character after actress Georgia Hale. Chaplin re-released The Gold Rush in 1942 with a soundtrack and a florid narration supplied by himself. Every time Hale appears on the screen Chaplin cries ecstatically “Georgia!” According to Joyce Milton, Chaplin never got Hale into bed, which may account for the lingering fascination. [↩]
- Chaplin varied his tramp getup depending on just how down and out he wanted the Tramp to be. Here his pants are particularly voluminous, and his right foot, wrapped in layers of burlap that replace the eaten shoe, is clownishly large. [↩]
- This scene is quite similar, though much more polished and much funnier, to the scene in A Dog’s Life, where Charlie meets another dance hall girl, played by Edna Purviance. [↩]
- This sequence was probably intended to remind 1925 audiences of the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, who often turned up in incongruous settings, a gag that was much parodied, often by the girls themselves. [↩]
- Charlie still has Georgia’s picture, and he still pines for her, but there’s no explanation of why they aren’t together. Chaplin was no doubt correct in assuming that trying to “explain” things would have left him hopelessly bogged down in exposition. The conclusion works dramatically, and that’s what counts. [↩]
- Even more bizarrely, he dedicated the 1942 version to Alexander Woollcott, whom I wrote about, more in anger than in sorrow, here. [↩]
- The running time for the silent version is about twenty minutes longer than the 1942 re-release, but that’s almost entirely due to the elimination of the dialogue cards. Chaplin also cut a brief, not very funny gag showing Charlie, arriving in the city (never named in the film) and pawning his pick and shovel. I prefer the 1925 version, as released by Warner, which has a nice piano accompaniment based on the original score, but Chaplin’s impassioned narration of the 1942 re-release is a must for Chaplin fans as well. [↩]