Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Gold Rush (1925) * * *

Preface with historical background:

"During the Great Gold Rush to Alaska, men in thousands came from all parts of the world. Many of them were ignorant of the hardships before them: the intense cold, the lack of food and a journey through regions of ice and snow were the problems that awaited them."

In the spectacular opening scene, there is a view of an endless trail of hundreds of prospectors in the Klondike of Alaska in 1898, in the days of the Klondike Gold Rush. They are winding their way along to seek their fortunes, climbing up a mountain through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass in search of the gold fields: "The Chilkoot Pass. A test of man's endurance. At this point, many turned back discouraged, while others went naively on." This brief documentary-style introduction is very convincing, since Charlie Chaplin and his crew brought in thousands of extras to the location in northern California near Truckee.

Then "Three days from anywhere--a Lone Prospector", a Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) appears. With his cane, he is making his own trail on a snow-covered path along a cliff, unaware that he is being followed by a bear. He escapes the bear and staggers into the cabin of violent Black Larson (Tom Murray), who is wanted for murder. In our first introduction to him, Black Larson has taken a wanted poster with his own picture on it and thrown it into the fire.

Another fortune-hunter is Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has just made a lucky strike fortune of gold. He exclaims with outstretched arms: "I've found it! I've found it! A Mountain of Gold." Lost and in a blizzard, Big Jim's tent is blown away in the storm. Meanwhile in the cabin, Black Larsen notices the Tramp warming himself and orders him out. In a well-designed sight gag, the strong wind makes it appear that he is on a treadmill. The fierce wind blows him in and out of the doors of the cabin and also blows in Big Jim. Both men need refuge in Black Larsen's cabin.

Black Larsen orders both of them out. He and Jim wrestle with a shot gun, always aiming the muzzle of the gun at the Tramp during their struggle. Thanks to Big Jim's strength, Black Larsen is overpowered with a blow to the head and congratulated by the Tramp, and they are allowed to stay. When their food gives out, Jim experiences hunger hallucinations. The three draw cards in a lottery and Larsen is sent out into the wilderness to brave the storm and search for help, food and provisions. Out in the wilds, he encounters two lawmen who are looking for him. Following a struggle, he shoots both law officers and kills them.

Inside the cabin, hungry and desperate, the Tramp and Big Jim celebrate "Thanksgiving Dinner" in a famous classic feast scene. The Tramp and Big Jim are reduced to starvation, so the Tramp resorts to boiling and cooking a tasty dinner for them. He chooses one of his boots (made of black licorice) as the object of their Thanksgiving dinner, behaving as a gourmet at a feast. He watches it cooking on the stove until perfectly simmered. Then he carves the boot, cutting it like a fillet, and offers the upper part to Big Jim. He pours water over it like gravy and chews on the lower sole part, treating it like a delicacy, then twirls the laces like spaghetti. Daintily he sucks the nails, as if eating the succulent meat from a chicken bone.

Big Jim and the Lone Prospector go weeks more without food. Because they have eaten his boot, the Lone Prospector's foot is wrapped in rags. Big Jim begins to hallucinate that the Lone Prospector is a five-foot-tall chicken. Chaplin masterfully morphs between a man making chicken-like gestures and impersonating an actual chicken by wearing a suit. Eventually the two men part. Big Jim returns to his claim, only to find that Black Larson has stolen it. In a struggle, Black Larson hits Big Jim over the head, then falls off a cliff in an avalanche to his death.

The Lone Prospector goes to a gold rush town where he decides to give up prospecting. At the Monte Carlo dance hall, he sees a beautiful dance hall girl (Georgia Hale). The title card that introduces her says only one word: "Georgia". He immediately adores her. She dances with the Lone Prospector in order to spite her boyfriend Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite). The Tramp has hitched up his pants with a dog's leash and so the dog follows them along the dance floor, with the Lone Prospector oblivious to the reason why. Even with a dog tied to his pants, Chaplin moves with astonishing grace, which caused W.C. Fields to call him, whether disparagingly or affectionately, "that goddamn ballet dancer."

Hank Curtis (Henry Bergman), takes pity on the Lone Prospector and allows him to tend to his cabin while he goes to mine for gold. The Tramp soon finds himself waylaid by the prospector he met earlier, who has developed amnesia and needs the Tramp to help him find his claim by leading him to the cabin. After being conked on the head by a snowball, the Lone Prospector invites Georgia and her girlfriends to dinner at his cabin on New Year's Eve. Next comes one of the most famous comedic sequences in all of silent cinema, the dance of the rolls. The Lone Prospector places forks in two dinner rolls and holds them below his neck so that they look like a miniature person dancing with delicate grace. Seeing the sequence out of context, it is easy to forget the sadness of this scene, which occurs within a dream sequence in which the Lone Prospector imagines a wonderful New Year's Eve dinner with the girls, who have stood him up.

Soon Big Jim finds the Lone Prospector and agrees to give him half of his fortune if the Lone Prospector will help him find his claim. They return to the cabin, but a storm blows it away, leaving it perched on on the edge of a cliff. In another wonderful comedic sequence, the two men scramble toward safety, as the cabin lurches closer to the cliff with each step. Fortunately, the Tramp and Big Jim manage to scramble out. This scene is a nod to the "thrill comedies" of the era, which got laughs from putting their stars in danger.

The ending of the film is filled with symbolism. Big Jim and the Lone Prospector are now millionaires, occupying a suite on an ocean liner returning home. Both wear fine evening clothes and smoke cigars. Georgia is also on the boat, returning home disappointed. A press photographer asks the Lone Prospector to pose for photos in his old mining clothes. Georgia discovers him when he falls from the top deck onto the steerage area below. She tries to hide him from the staff, who are looking for a stowaway. They tell her that the Lone Prospector is now a millionaire. He orders: "James. Make arrangements for another guest." He takes Georgia in his arms, inviting the photographers to take an engagement picture of them. The couple move their lips together to kiss and the photographer shouts at them: "Oh! You've spoilt the picture."

In THE GOLD RUSH Charlie Chaplin succeeded brilliantly in making a very funny comedy whose subject matter includes cannibalism, greed, and murder, as well as the mercenary nature of love. It 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 Chaplin only achieved it once. It is the quintessential Little Tramp film, with a balance of slapstick comedy and pantomime, social satire, and emotional and dramatic moments of tenderness. This was Chaplin's own personal favorite film. It showcases the classic Tramp character, referred to as "The Little Fellow" in the re-release version, as a romantic idealist and lone gold prospector at the turn of the century, with his cane, derby, distinctive walk, tight shabby suit, and mustache. Chaplin blends comedy and pathos with a dream-like simplicity.

By the time Charles Chaplin made THE GOLD RUSH, he had already been the most famous man in the world for more than 10 years and the Little Tramp he created was the world's most famous fictional character. He had grown bored with the formula nature of two-reel comedies and consciously set out to make a masterpiece that would intertwine comedy and pathos, so that the comedic scenes were also sad and the dramatic scenes also funny and neither could exist without the other.

Chaplin was obsesses with perfectionism. He never used a script, he worked out the plot and the comedic bits of his films through repeating the same scenes over and over until inspiration came. He owned his own studio, so he could shut down production while he spent days working at a fever pitch, trying to come up with a solution. Plots are stripped down to the utmost simplicity, and like a poem or a dream they seem to have been taken directly from the subconscious. The characters often don't have names: they're usually referred to as the Lone Prospector, the Tramp, the Millionaire, the Dance Hall Girl, or the Blind Girl. No one knows where they came from or where they belong.

The cast also includes: Jack Adams, Frank Aderias, Leona Aderias, Lillian Adrian, Sam Allen, Claude Anderson, Harry Arras, Albert Austin, Marta Belfort, William Bell, Francis Bernhardt, F.J. Beuaregard, E. Blumenthal, William Bradford, George Brock, Pete Brogan, William Butler, Cecile Cameron, R. Campbell, Leland Carr, H.C. Chisholm, Harry Coleman, Heinie Conklin, Rebecca Conroy, Dorothy Crane, James Darby, Kay De Lay, Harry De Mors, Kay Deslys, James Dime, W.S. Dobson, John Eagown, Aaron Edward, E. Espinosa, Leon Farey, M. Farrell, Richard Foley, Charles Force, J.C. Fowler, Al Ernest Garcia, Inez Gomez, Sid Grauman, Lita Grey, Ray Grey, William Hackett, Mildred Hall, James Hammer, Ben Hart, Gypsy Hart, R. Hausner, Tom Hawley, Helen Hayward, Jack Herrick, Jack Hoefer, Tom Hawley, Helen Hayward, Jack Herrick, Jack Hoefer, George Holt, Josie Howard, Jean Huntley, Tom Hutchinson, Carl Jensen, Gladys Johnston, Harry Jones, Fred Karno Jr., Helen Kassler, Bob Kelly, John King, Freddie Lansit, Elias Lazaroff, Bob Leonard, George Lesley, Geraldine Leslie, Francis Lowell, Joan Lowell, Chris-Pin Martin, and many others. The music score for the 1942 version was composed by Charles Chaplin and Carli Elinor. Written, produced, and directed by Charles Chaplin.

THE GOLD RUSH is pure gold. It was Charlie Chaplin's third feature-length film, and marked his comeback of sorts following A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923). THE GOLD RUSH was a huge success in the US and worldwide. It is the fifth highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more than $4,250,001 at the box office in 1926. It is in fact the highest grossing silent comedy film. Chaplin proclaimed at the time of its release that this was the film for which he wanted to be remembered.

In its original 1925 release, THE GOLD RUSH was generally praised by critics. Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times: "Here is a comedy with streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness. It is the outstanding gem of all Chaplin's pictures, as it has more thought and originality than even such masterpieces of mirth as The Kid and Shoulder Arms."

His method of directing actors was to play out their parts for them and have the actors imitate his performance. In Chaplin's best features, THE GOLD RUSH and CITY LIGHTS (1931), the actors convey their emotions economically, through the use of subtle gesture. Chaplin avoided the broad histrionics that sometimes occur in other silent films, often telling his actors that the audience is "peeking at you." He also used few title cards for dialogue, using action to convey the interrelationships between the characters and using cards mostly to set the scene or advance the plot.

Georgia Hale fell in love with Chaplin during the making of THE GOLD RUSH. She had had a crush on him since she had first seen him on the screen, ten years earlier. In her memoirs she refers to Chaplin as if he were two people: Charlie, who was kind and generous, and Mr. Chaplin, who was cold and imperious.

Chaplin reissued the film in 1942, adding an original music score and replacing the titles with his own spoken narration. He also recut the film, changing the ending to delete the final lingering kiss. The sound version ends before this scene. Another sequence was altered in the re-release so that instead of the Tramp finding a note from Georgia which he mistakenly believes is for him, he actually receives the note from her. All the changes reduced the film's run time from 96 minutes to 82 minutes. Various versions have different run times: 30, 69, 71, 72, 74, 82, 85, 92, 95, 96, and 120 minutes. Probably many of the time discrepancies are due to the frame rates used by the projector. THE GOLD RUSH was supposedly shot using 22 frames per second. Prior to the 1930s, the standard frame rate for film was 18 fps, with variations from 16 to 23 frames per second. The new music score by Max Terr and the sound recording by James L. Fields were nominated for Academy Awards in 1943.

The original 1925 version of THE GOLD RUSH was registered in the U.S. Copyright Office at the time of its release in 1925. Because the copyright was not renewed when the first term of copyright ended in 1953, the film fell into the public domain in the United States at that time. An article on CopyrightData.com argues that the 1925 version of THE GOLD RUSH remains in the public domain in the United States. However, that is probably incorrect. Since 1996 the 1925 version of the film is probably no longer in the public domain for very complicated reasons. Outside the U.S., copyright protection continues in most countries until 2047, and in Canada until 2027. Chaplin jealously guarded the copyright on his films, but the silent version of THE GOLD RUSH supposedly went into the public domain and has been reissued by a number of companies, with varying print quality and choice of musical score. Some versions are elaborately tinted, as was the practice in the silent era to denote day or night, while others are strictly black and white.

In the 2003 DVD release, it is revealed that the reissue of THE GOLD RUSH also served to preserve most of the footage from the original film, as even the DVD-restored print of the 1925 original shows noticeable degradation of image and missing frames, deficiencies not in in the 1942 version. In 1992, THE GOLD RUSH was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Blog Archive