Monday, March 28, 2011

The Gold Rush

Year: 1925
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 58
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain

Ah, Charlie, why’d you have to go muck up a good thing? This review comes after a viewing of Chaplin’s 1942 re-tinkering of his 1925 “The Gold Rush,” leaving it, I suspect, much shorter, meeker and just a little annoying. In addition to losing every title card and adding a completely unnecessary, annoying narration, Chaplin also uses the narration to convince us that Georgia, the film’s love interest and a nasty woman, is actually a kind-hearted dame. All of this is conjecture, of course, since I have never seen the original. If I’m wrong, please tell me.

The films tells a story concerning (unsurprisingly) the Klondike gold rush. We first see Chaplin’s Tramp character adrift in the snow, searching for gold and trying to keep track of his location with a paper compass. Yes, you read that right, a paper compass. He finds a cabin, falls in with a wanted murderer and a Prospector (Mark Swain), and the three try to outlast the storm…and each other.

Basically, as long as the Tramp remains in the cabin the film is near-perfect. Despite the heinous narration (which I muted at certain points), the ingenuity of the humor here remains amazing viable today. Yes, Chaplin eating his shoe and appearing like a chicken to the Prospector have lost some of their spark since they’ve been ripped-off so many times in lesser films, but there is so much more to love. The climax of the film, which has the house literally blown away, left teetering on the edge of a cliff, ranks up there with the tightrope walk in “The Circus,” the boxing match in “City Lights” and getting lost in the gears in “Modern Times” as one of the very best comedy routines of all time, not just within the Chaplin canon. The audience knows before the two characters that the house is halfway off a cliff, so their movement within becomes a fantastic ballet of suspense and laughs. Finally the house begins tipping and the men desperately try to find a way to climb over each other to get out of the house before it falls. Moments like that are film magic, plain and simple.

I’m surprised the film gets so much mileage out of its concept. The sight of the iconic Tramp character, who we always expect to see on city streets or wandering on the waterfront, making his way through snowdrifts, is hilarious. But then we wonder how many more laughs we can get from that gag. Ten minutes in, we realize how easily the Tramp has become part of this world, and how Chaplin hadn’t even changed the style of his humor, but instead made the really odd locations work for him.

Which makes the appearance of that damn Georgia (Georgia Hale) all the more annoying. She’s a barmaid at the local pub, and the Tramp is smitten with her the moment he sees her. This is a shame because she only dances with him because she’s trying to make another man jealous. And she and her friends only treat him nicely because they are playing a game with him. She’s kind of a witch, all things considered, and she doesn’t deserve The Tramp. The Blind Girl and the Gamin saw the Tramp’s heart and so there was a real attraction there. Here the romance is forced at best, disgusting at worst.

To make matters worse, Chaplin’s narration seems to be trying to make excuses for her. When Georgia and her friends come to taunt the Tramp at a house he is taking care of, the narrator insists it’s not her fault she is that way, it’s because of where she works. Sorry, Mr. Chaplin, but a douchebag is a douchebag, no matter how many excuses you make for that person.

Because of this, the closing passages to “The Gold Rush” feel…odd. In the first place, the Tramp and his friend become rich and famous, which feels a bit at odds with the character we’ve come to know in all his other work. In “City Lights” and “The Kid,” Chaplin really worked to attain his happy ending (neither of which involved money), but here all he does is wander around in the snow with a dude who may or may not want to eat him until they come upon gold. The way Chaplin goes about “redeeming” Georgia is fine, I suppose, but doesn’t make up for the way she treated him all throughout the film.

When the film moves its focus from the Tramp’s love interest, it works in all the right ways. We always remember the big moments in Chaplin’s films, but it’s really the subtleties that make the movies work as a cohesive whole between those big moments. Look here at a small scene when the Tramp, cold and hungry, lies down outside a cabin door and pretends to be frozen solid in order to gain entrance and partake in the cabin owner’s coffee and beans. It’s a funny bit, but what really makes it work is that Chaplin asks for sugar cubes before drinking his coffee and salt for his beans. There’s another moment, earlier in the film, where the Tramp is trapped in that cabin with the Prospector, who is at this point almost delirious with hunger. The dog in the cabin walks outside and the Prospector follows…and he’s the only one who returns. Chaplin doesn’t mug for the camera or put a huge emphasis on this, instead letting the scene breathe just long enough to create the laughs of recognition.

By the way, the dog wasn’t dead.

This is the third Chaplin film on the AFI Top 100, and it doesn’t reach either the emotional or comedic highs “City Lights” or “Modern Times” do. But then again, there are probably only a dozen or so films that do reach that pinnacle. I discovered Chaplin through writing these articles and, in an odd way, silent cinema. I remember watching some silents as a child, but hadn’t revisited that part of cinema in over a decade. Now I’m ecstatic that I have most of Buster Keaton and all of Harold Lloyd to discover for myself…not to mention all the fantastic dramas that I was so unconsciously dismissive of before. And as for Chaplin, he has yet to disappoint. I’ve already taken in the greatness of “The Kid,” “The Circus” and “Limelight” but have so much more to look forward to. I’ve already ordered “Monsieur Verdoux” and “A Woman of Paris” and eagerly anticipate the Criterion release of “The Great Dictator.”

That’s part of what this list is about, after all. Sure, it’s “ranking” great movies, but it also strives to open up new avenues of film for those who might otherwise miss out on it. I can’t imagine my life without Chaplin now, and even though “The Gold Rush” isn’t my favorite of his films, it might be yours.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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