The Gold Rush (1925) by matthew c. hoffman


“It must be said of Charles Chaplin that he has created only one character, but that one, in his matchless courtesy, in his unfailing gallantry– his preposterous innocent gallantry in a world of gross Goliaths– is the finest gentleman of our time.” ~ critic Alexander Woolcott

This entry is about the process of programming… Determining which films to play in a series is only part of the challenge. The other is which version of it to play. I recently watched The Gold Rush– one of the Chaplin films I’m considering showing in the Park Ridge Public Library’s 2011 “Legends of Laughter” series. However, the mk2 edition of the Chaplin dvd collection features two versions of this film: the 1942 re-release (straight from the Chaplin family vault) and the original, 96 min. silent version from 1925.

When Chaplin re-released The Gold Rush in 1942 it was at a time when few silent films were revived. It was thus a somewhat daring venture for him. In order to “modernize” the film for current ’40s tastes, he added narration. I expected to hear his voice only in the opening prologue in a manner not unlike his introduction to The Chaplin Revue. But no, his voice is heard throughout. This periodic, intrusive narration replaces the quaint intertitles, giving voice to the other characters in the story. If Chaplin could’ve played every role in his films, I’m sure he would have tried as it is well-known he acted out everything for his performers. So in this fashion, he is able to play these other roles, if only in voice.

A fine voice it is, but as a purist of the medium, I found his narration as the overall storyteller distracting. In addition, the film is shortened from its original release; these edits do affect the subtlety of the film. I think my audiences would prefer seeing the film as it was originally screened– not as how he later re-edited it. If our patrons have issues reading those few title cards Chaplin had cut out in ’42, well, they probably shouldn’t be coming to a silent film festival in the first place. But for those who have never seen this film, start with disc 2!

The Gold Rush was Chaplin’s lucky strike, becoming the most successful film comedy of the 1920s. It contains some of his most immortal sequences, such as the eating of the shoe and the dance of the bread rolls. It’s a comedy epic of great artistic worth. It’s a film whose magic has transcended time and culture. In the “Chaplin Today” documentary, it begins with the African filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo speaking of this film’s impact on his life. We see the African children in his village watching and reacting favorably to the 80+ year old images on their little television. Indeed, the film’s feelings are universal– and laughter spans the continents. Chaplin always saw himself as a “citizen of the world,” and his films have that unique ability to reach out to all nations.

Closer to home, I think his films can awaken the jaded youth of Park Ridge. Chaplin’s films are universal and have the ability to transfix. It’s only a matter of getting audiences to them, of convincing kids to put down their iPads and iPhones, and to disregard their Playstations long enough to be taken in. There is a great potential power within this series to connect with the new generation. Unfortunately, so much of modern comedy is about the immediate laugh with no time for a moment or gag to develop. It’s all about the now. If we can change that mentality, we can can bring audiences back to these films.

All these years later, it can be hard to appreciate a film’s ingenuity and originality it first exhibited. Take for instance the scene of Mack Swain’s hunger-induced hallucination in which he imagines Charlie to be a chicken, (which in fact he becomes thanks to an innovative camera dissolve). How many times have similar onscreen gags been done, most notably in Chuck Jones cartoons for Warner Brothers.


My intent here is not to give a detailed overview of the film or it’s production history– that will come in due time should we play it– but having seen it recently, I wanted to jot down some immediate observations about it. Aside from the film’s famous scenes I alluded to earlier, what stands out in my memory is the film’s theme of loneliness. For anyone who’s been on the outside looking in and felt like they couldn’t fit in, like a sad wallflower disconnected from the life around them, then the little fellow’s first appearance in the Yukon dance hall is especially heartbreaking. Chaplin’s Little Tramp is the outsider with a desire to be seen, noticed and loved, but it is only in his dreams where all that seems possible. The film has other themes to be sure, but this one affected me the most. It’s not a momentary shot where the little fellow is isolated from the crowd, but a well-developed theme throughout the movie that adds great depth to his charaterization. The Gold Rush is one of his finest examples of pathos on-screen. It’s a film that brilliantly balances the sentiment with comedy and tragedy.


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