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November 14, 2015

The Gold Rush

by Franz Patrick


Gold Rush, The (1925)
★★★ / ★★★★

The 1898 Gold Rush in Alaska has attracted all sorts of chaps from across the globe with hopes of becoming a multimillionaire. The Lone Prospector (Charles Chaplin) is one of these hopefuls, but, like his fellow searchers, he proves unprepared for the ferocious and bone-chilling weather of the land. The Lone Prospector ends up in a cabin with Black Larsen (Tom Murrary), a wanted criminal, and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), with an equally bad reputation because of his build. Eventually, the unlikely trio run out of food. Drawing the lowest card, Black Larsen is forced to search outside while Big Jim McKay eyes The Lone Prospector as a potential meal.

About three-quarters through “The Gold Rush,” written and directed by Charles Chaplin, I noticed a lack of feeling in my cheeks. It guess it turned out that up until that point, I had been smiling my ear to ear, in complete rapture of the images on screen. Creativity pulses through its veins with many scenes that are short but each packing a punch.

In silent films, it is a requirement that we feel a certain level of energy behind the performances. In here, although the characters get into unlikely situations like a two-hundred-pound person being blown away by a blizzard, they are rooted in the universe’s reality through believable body languages and facial expressions. For example, communicating fear is not restricted to bulging eyes, eyebrows in the heavens, or mouth wide open. The camera shows the quivering of the body or a certain reluctance to embrace a course of action. The title cards are utilized not to tell a story but to fill in the gaps relative to what is not or cannot be expressed through faces and body movements.

Absurdist humor is one of its strengths and they almost always come from left field. I was especially entertained by the scene where The Lone Prospector and Big Jim McKay decide to eat a shoe over Thanksgiving dinner. The way the camera lingers on the characters examining the shoe and eventually putting various parts onto their tongues is as funny as it is uncomfortable. I almost felt the taste and texture of the rubber against my palate. Of course, no one can eat that much amount of rubber and live to tell the tale but the idea is executed so well that we buy into it completely.

Less engrossing is the would-be romantic relationship between The Lone Prospector and Georgia (Georgia Hale). Perhaps because genuine affection is played too one-sidedly. Right from the moment they share a frame in a dance hall, it is difficult to believe that they can or will share something meaningful. Georgia is a bit of a snob. She consistently fails to notice The Lone Prospector, looking at everything and everyone else but him. But how can one miss someone with that mustache while sporting very strange shoes? If that is meant to be funny in an ironic way, it just did not work for me.

As the fun-loving woman and the tramp spend more time together, the experience of watching them does not get any better. She is always making fun of him and pulling practical jokes with her girlfriends that are not at all amusing. So what makes her worth his time and attention? If it is solely because she is beautiful, then perhaps the conceit has become a product of its time. Considering that the picture is a comedy, all signs point to the man and the woman being together in the end. I disliked them as a couple so much, I wished for the words “The End” before that happened.

Despite its cripplingly poor romantic subplot, “The Gold Rush” is rich with pathos coupled with memorable images, from the captivating bread dance to The Lone Prospector shoveling snow in order to earn some cash for New Year’s Eve dinner (with hilarious results). Its use of animals, too, is inspired. Each time the giant chicken makes an appearance, my mind jumped back to childhood as my eyes transfixed on Big Bird with each episode of “Sesame Street.”

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