“A sort of Adam from whom we are all descended.” – Federico Fellini on Charlie Chaplin
With The Artist and Hugo both released last year, it appeared that there may be a sudden return of interest in cinema's silent era. But, now that the novelty of these new releases has worn off, it seems we're back where we were with a vast majority of audiences placing little to no significance on films made prior to 1927 (if not prior to 1970!). However, there has always been somewhat of an exception to this. There is one holdover from the silent period that still warrants attention, admiration, and unadulterated joy, and one that undoubtedly still stands the test of time. That is the work of Charlie Chaplin.
There's still something about Chaplin's endearing and enduring little Tramp that maintains a special place in the hearts and minds of movie lovers of all ages. Taking a walk down Hollywood Boulevard, there are people dressed as superheroes, as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character, as Marilyn Monroe, and as Darth Vader; but there amongst these popular, rather contemporary movie figures is another, the lone representative of the silent era – it's Charlie … and everyone still knows who he is.
What better way to celebrate this legendary film comedian than to watch one of his best, The Gold Rush, from 1925? On the heels of their recent releases of The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), the Criterion Collection's remastered Blu-ray edition of The Gold Rush hits shelves June 12.
With the possible exception of The Kid (1921), one could easily make the case for The Gold Rush as being Chaplin's best film until the 1930s, and this counts his shorts (he has more than 50 to his credit, the first of which were released in 1914). It also stands as a sort of preview of what was to be an enormously accomplished string of films to follow: City Lights (1931), Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and, later, Limelight (1952), where he shared the screen with fellow cinematic legend Buster Keaton.
Chaplin conceived of the idea for The Gold Rush based, in part, on some streoscopic slides he viewed at "Pickfair," the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. These were images of the Klondike and of lines of hopeful prospectors anxiously seeking to stake their claim. The other part of Chaplin's inspiration came from a more unlikely source: the tragic Donner party and its gruesome conclusion.
The Gold Rush, certainly by comparison to the films Chaplin made previously, was a massive undertaking, with hundreds of extras and its fair share of behind the scenes drama, namely the relationship trouble Charlie had with his original leading lady in the film, Lita Grey. Just as filming was underway, the 16-year-old Grey got pregnant … by Chaplin. Much to Chaplin's chagrin, the two were forced to marry. Grey would be replaced by Georgia Hale, with whom, so it has been reported, Chaplin subsequently began having an affair with. (In a tantalizing Hollywood case of what could have been, the stunning Carole Lombard tested for the temporarily vacant role).
Scandalous anecdotes aside, there can be no denying the comic genius at play in The Gold Rush. It is a veritable clip-show in and of itself of classic silent comedy. There's the stalking bear that won't leave the hapless Tramp alone; there's Charlie dangling from the cabin as it too teeters on the edges of a cliff; there's Big Jim McKay, played by Mack Swain, hungrily imagining Chaplin to be a man-sized chicken, and Chaplin consequently donning a chicken suit strutting and flapping about; and then there are the two most famous dining scenes: In one, Charlie, after having cooked his shoe, twirls the laces as if they were spaghetti, then he delicately licks the nails of his shoes clean, as if they were bones. Later, there is the hilarious, if not totally original, dance of the rolls, a bit so popular that some exhibitors, at the request of the audience, would actually run the reel again just so they could see this sequence a second time.
In the film, The Tramp treks off to the Yukon to test his luck and stamina during the Klondike gold rush. His efforts are thwarted by harsh weather conditions and his life threatened by the burly and surly Big Jim, a perfect physical contrast to the meek Chaplin. In a neighboring town, The Tramp meets and falls for a dancehall girl, who does not (at first, of course) share his adoration. Eventually, he joins back up the Big Jim, who, due to amnesia, has forgotten where he had hidden away his riches. The Tramp and Big Jim finally retrieve the gold and, in the end, become wealthy men. All that’s left is for Charlie to get the girl….
The Gold Rush, one of Chaplin's rare productions planned with a fully developed script, would be the film he himself hoped to be most remembered for. It was successful enough upon its initial release, but Chaplin chose to re-release the picture in 1942, now with sound effects and a new musical score, which Chaplin helped to compose, and a narration, which was spoken by Chaplin. In what must be a singular instance, the re-release would actually be nominated for two Oscars for its sound work.
Chaplin’s life was chock full of fascinating personal stories and artistic endeavors, some not always successful. There was his troubled childhood, his miraculously successful start with Keystone and Essanay, his achievement of phenomenal global stardom, and his reluctance to make the transition to sound. And then there were his politics. Perhaps the saddest chapter in Chaplin’s story was when, in 1952, he was returning from England and his reentry permit was revoked by the FBI, a result of his supposed “un-American activities.” Eventually, all was seemingly forgiven and he was allowed to return to America in 1972 to accept an honorary Academy Award. He passed away five years later.
Today, Chaplin is one of the preeminent figures of motion picture history. He’s an icon for the movies themselves. It’s arguable that The Gold Rush is his finest achievement, and that’s saying something.
“The only genius to come out of the movie industry.” - George Bernard Shaw on Charlie Chaplin