Besides silent movies, what characterized this era – at least in my mind – was cartoons and animated films which emerged in force in the 1930s. And there are many parallels between Chaplin’s brand of humor and that found in the Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. Any comparison of cartoon classics and Chaplin’s early comedies will show beyond any doubt that a lot of the physical and remedial humor of the cartoons can be traced to Chaplin’s work, including very much The Gold Rush, first released in 1925. The gags are flying left and right!
The Gold Rush is quite a complex story, actually. It wouldn’t do to try to explain the comedy (over-analysis tends to kill it), but let me provide a proper summary of the plot.
For reasons we are not made privy to (and which don’t matter, considering that this is comedy), the Tramp decides to become a gold prospector. He joins hundreds of other hopefuls in climbing the snowy Chilkoot Pass in Alaska, trying to dig gold out of the ice-cold mountains. The weather makes this all but impossible, however, so the Tramp finds a cabin to hole up in. The cabin is already occupied by the rather ornery escaped prisoner Black Larsen, who promptly asks the Tramp to leave. However, the snowstorm is blowing so hard that it is impossible to go out the door. In fact, another prospector, Big Jim, is blown into the cabin, having lost his nearby tent to the storm. Big Jim had found a mountain of gold and staked his claim on it. But now they three men have to sit the storm out in the cabin. Days go by, and they have no food. The Tramp is compelled to eat a candle (with salt). Then they decide that the only thing for it is for one of them to brave the storm in order to find food. They draw cards about it, and Black Larsen is the one who has to go. Go he does, and stumbles over Big Jim’s mountain of gold, and starts digging for more.
In the cabin, hunger reigns ever stronger, and they cook one of the Tramp’s boots and eat it. It’s not enough. So Big Jim, otherwise a decent fellow, starts hallucinating about the Tramp as a chicken. He gets over it, however, and when the weather lets up a bit, they decide to leave the cabin. The Tramp gives up his whole plan and goes to the nearest town. Big Jim goes to his mountain of gold, where he confronts Black Larsen. Big Jim gets knocked out with a shovel and gets amnesia! Black Larsen latterly falls off a cliff, and that’s the end of him.
Then the film turns into a love story. In the town the Tramp meets Georgia the saloon girl, and falls in love with her. He finds a slightly torn photograph of her that he keeps under his pillow. She is a high society girl who is wooed by the local rich playboy that treats her rather rudely, which she however tolerates – although she does slap him when he goes too far. Georgia starts dancing with the Tramp, just to annoy the playboy.
Later, the Tramp ingratiates himself with a man living in a cabin in the town and gets a job as a caretaker of the cabin while the owner goes prospecting. When Georgia and her girlfriends are throwing snowballs just outside his door, the Tramp lets them inside to warm themselves. Georgia finds her discarded photo under his pillow, and decides to make fun of the poor tramp by pretending to like him. She asks him to invite them all to a New Year’s Dinner, which the Tramp happily agrees to. She really likes him! He’s deliriously happy. But when New Year’s Eve rolls around, the girls only show up in his dreams. He imagines that he would entertain them by sticking forks in two crusty rolls and do a cute little dance. Awww.
When he goes to the saloon the next day, Big Jim is there. He’s distraught about not being able to find his mountain of gold, but when he sees the Tramp he remembers the cabin they stayed in, and knows that he can find the mountain if only he finds the cabin. So the Tramp must lead him back to the cabin. Once back there, however, another storm makes the cabin slide across the mountain, and it ends up teetering dangerously on the edge of a precipice. Much comedy ensues, as the Tramp and Big Jim must move themselves and the furniture around both carefully and furiously in order not to make the cabin tip over. Once they finally manage to leave the cabin, they find themselves smack-dab in the middle of Big Jim’s gold claim! They’re millionaires!
On a cruise ship back to civilization, the no-longer-so-trampy Tramp, now dressed in several expensive fur coats, meets Georgia once again, and she is very happy to see him. And so the girl is got, and the ending is a happy one.
The new dual format DVD/Blu-Ray version reviewed here contains two versions of the film. The main feature is the 69-minute 1942 release, overseen by Chaplin himself and for which was recorded a new musical score and a voice-over narrative to replace the original intertitles. The version on the extra material is a 96-minute 2003 restoration of the 1925 version as it was originally released, with a piano score and text intertitles.
The restored 1925 version is far superior to Chaplin’s edited 1942 version. The voice-over narration of the drastically shortened 1942 version is a terrible distraction from the classic silent comedy scenes, and the film generally plays much better in the restored 1925 version. The iconically brilliant Tramp does not thrive by being given a voice. The 1942 version, despite being a full half hour shorter than the original, none the less adds scenes of Black Larsen shooting and killing two police-men – a rather severe, violent and aesthetically very unsuitable event to be inserted into a heartrending comedy. The only element of the 1942 version that represents an improvement over the 1925 version is the bit with the letter that Georgia writes. In the 1925 version she (rather strangely) writes to the playboy that she loves him, and the letter is subsequently given to the Tramp to fool him. But in the 1942 version, Georgia actually writes the note to the Tramp, but doesn’t say she loves him; merely asks for an opportunity to talk. This does make much better sense than the original version.
The piano soundtrack for the 1925 version (new but inspired by the original), while occasionally repetitive, tends to be very fitting, consisting of all sorts of classic, folk and show tunes designed to fit whatever mood is on the screen. The Flight of the Bumble-Bee is always effective for scenes containing chaos and confusion. A tune from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado is used for the New Year’s Eve party in the saloon (along with Auld Lang Syne), and snippets of Irish folk tunes also make appearances. If you have to decide between watching the 1925 version and the 1942 version, I’d definitely recommend the 1925 version.
This DVD/Blu-Ray, released by Park Circus, also has a very nice package of extras, including a half-hour documentary, an introduction by David Robinson, and a trailer reel and a photo gallery.
Chaplin himself apparently loved The Gold Rush best of all his work, but I don’t think it quite measures up to super-classics like Modern Times and The Great Dictator. But it is certainly magnificent and unforgettable.
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, and others
Run time: 96 minutes (207 min. incl. extras)