The Gold Rush
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Charlie Chaplin's lovable, luckless Tramp waddles humorously in derby hat and cane across the icy cliffs of the Sierra Nevadas in the prospecting comedy The Gold Rush (1925).
Followed by a grizzly bear and surrounded by signs marking the graves of dead prospectors, the Tramp stumbles across a cabin inhabited by the dangerous criminal Black Larson (played by former vaudevillian Tom Murray). The pair hole up in the midst of a blizzard, starving for food of any kind. When another prospector, the kindly Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) -- who has discovered an enormous gold nugget in the mountains -- joins the snowbound pair, the trio cuts cards to determine which one will head out into the wilderness in search of food.
One of the typically inventive, whimsical films of Charlie Chaplin's long, prolific career in Hollywood, The Gold Rush wrests comedy from the struggles of this often helpless waif in the brutal American wilds. The Tramp is so slight, each time Larson opens the door to his cabin a chilly blast blows him across the room, and out the back door. In one hilarious vignette, the starving Tramp and McKay boil a shoe (which was actually made of licorice for the scene) for dinner, consuming the shoelaces like spaghetti, and licking each tack clean like a scrumptious bone. The scene reportedly took three shooting days and 63 takes, and the licorice prop's laxative effect momentarily incapacitated Chaplin and Swain. Just as amusing as that brilliant gag was its comic echo in the film - for the rest of the film the Tramp wears a burlap cloth wrapped around his shoeless right foot to reiterate his pathetic predicament.
There are also scenes of surprising tenderness in The Gold Rush, like the Tramp's infatuation with a lovely dance hall girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale), who offers a beautiful respite from the hardships of the cold and hunger. Hardened by her work, Georgia first mocks the Tramp's affection, then finds her own heart melted by his boyish ardor.
The Gold Rush was altered by Chaplin in 1941 during the sound era to include a new orchestral score composed by Chaplin, and the deadpan wit of Chaplin's voice-over narration adds another element of comedy to this revised version.
The Gold Rush was Chaplin's first starring role as a collaborator in the United Artists company, formed six years previously with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. The inspiration for The Gold Rush was said to be twofold. Breakfasting with husband and wife Fairbanks and Pickford, Chaplin was intrigued by stereograph photos owned by the pair which depicted the Klondike gold rush. Chaplin was also fascinated by the tragic events of the Donner party, who in 1846, while traversing the United States in the snow, had to resort to cannibalism to keep from starving to death (reportedly the survivors ate the flesh of their dead companions). Part of the filming for The Gold Rush, in fact, took place close to where the Donner party camped.
A perfectionist always striving for the perfect end result, Chaplin made The Gold Rush at the enormous cost of over $900,000 and filmed under often physically brutal, rustic conditions in the Nevada town of Truckee. Testifying to the primitive working conditions, the film's first leading lady, Lita Grey, complained her hotel room featured a chamber pot and three cuspidors.
Chaplin had initially planned to feature Grey, the child star of his 1921 film The Kid, in the role of the dance hall girl at $75 dollars a week. But Chaplin found himself forced to change direction when he impregnated the 16-year-old Grey and her belly began to betray evidence of her condition. In a dramatic about-face, Chaplin averted a potential charge of statutory rape by marrying Grey and casting Georgia Hale in the role. A former Miss America contestant who used her beauty contest money to move to Hollywood, Hale was cast in the role of Georgia after auditions that had pitted her against such other talented beauties as Carole Lombard (then Jean Peters).
The Gold Rush has been cited by the International Film Jury as the second greatest film of all time (after Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and Chaplin said it was the film he would most like to be remembered by. Today The Gold Rush remains one of cinema's enduring comedy classics, starring, written and directed by the twentieth century's first media superstar.
Producer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Music: Charles Chaplin
Principal Cast: Charles Chaplin (Lone Prospector), Georgia Hale (Georgia), Mack Swain (Big Jim McKay), Tom Murray (Black Larson).
by Felicia Feaster