Film #45 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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They say to truly gauge an artist’s impact on their medium, look at their imitators. The Chaplin vs Keaton debate has lasted almost as long as cinema itself but if we were to crown a victor based solely on their copy cats, Chaplin would win hands down. The reason is quite simple: it’s easier to imitate Chaplin’s look than Keaton’s skill.
Since Keaton was more of an acrobat who focused on stunts, he tends to inspire death defying action stars like Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan, while Chaplin has an iconic look that anyone can emulate. I’m no expert but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that risking your life is harder than dressing like a hobo with a Hitler mustache but while the look made him iconic, it was Chaplin’s heart that made him a star.
As technically flawless as Keaton was as a performer, his films lack that emotion that Chaplin’s do. Chaplin was first and foremost a comedian but when he wanted to make you cry, he did so better than anyone else. He was once quoted as saying “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.” But to make a tragedy? The recipe has but one ingredient, the face of a broken hearted clown.
Chaplin’s contributions to cinema are incalculable and his filmography is filled with almost nothing but masterpieces but I’d argue is absolute masterwork is The Gold Rush. This was the film he wanted to be known for and it shows. It was the first (and only silent comedy) film he made with a script and he made damn sure it was filled with his funniest gags and most emotional moments.
Taking inspiration from photos of the Klondike Gold Rush as well as from the story of the infamous Donner Party incident, The Gold Rush sees Chaplin’s Little Tramp (credited in the film as the “Lone Prospector”) in the role of a young miner during the gold rush. Caught in a blizzard, he seeks refuge in a cabin that happens to belong to a wanted criminal by the name of Black Larsen. Being the unscrupulous criminal that he is, immediately tries to throw him out to fend for himself in the harsh climate but before he can do that, another prospector named Big Jim barges in and demands shelter. More often than not, the nickname of “Big” is usually ironic but in the case of Big Jim, it isn’t. So Black Larsen decides to let them stay.
The cabin is essentially the first act and is by far the funniest. Their uneasy alliance, as well as their increasing hunger, make for a wealth of comedic fodder and Chaplin milks as much comedy as he can from this setup. The two best bits are the shoe eating scene and the giant, hallucinatory chicken.
The Tramp and Big Jim are left alone when Larson goes off to face the storm looking for food (having drawn the lowest card in another amusing scene), and with resources depleted, the two are driven to the brink of madness by their hunger. The Tramp decides to boil and eat his shoe, while Big Jim imagines The Tramp as a big, delicious chicken.
Each scene showcases Chaplin’s cleverness and playful ingenuity. He was, first and foremost, a physical comedian but he was also a genius at creating gags and these are two of the best that don’t rely on pratfalls.
Fun fact: Chaplin ate so much fake shoe (which was made of licorice), he had to be taken to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. He did so many takes of the scene, he got physically sick and even after they pumped his stomach, he reshot the scene a couple more times.
The second act is the love story. After the storm subsides, the two men go there separate ways. Jim heads off to his gold deposit and the Tramp takes off for town. After arriving at the deposit, Jim is knocked unconscious by Black Larsen. While trying to leave with his ill gotten loot, Larsen gets swept away by an avalanche and is quickly killed.
Chaplin don’t fuck around.
While in town, the Tramp encounters Georgia, a dance hall girl and is immediately smitten. She decides to use the Tramp to irritate a bar patron who won’t stop pestering her. She turns down his advancements by declaring that she’ll only dance with “the most deplorable looking tramp in the dance hall”, which is obviously the Little Tramp.
After the dance (and a bit of comedic business involving the jealous bar patron and a dog), the Tramp invites her to a New Year’s Eve dinner and she accepts but not having taken the invitation seriously, quickly forgets about it.
The scene where the Tramp imagines how the scenario will play out while waiting for her to arrive, is equal parts iconic and heartbreaking. If this is the film that Chaplin wanted to be remembered for, its because of this moment. It’s as emotional as anything in City Lights and is arguably as iconic as the best bits in Modern Times.
When you think of Buster Keaton, you most likely think of the collapsing house scene from Steamboat Bill, Jr. It’s been parodied and homaged a million times because it’s an amazing stunt. Chaplin had his fair share of stunts but his most imitated moment is the “the Oceania roll dance” or as it’s more commonly known, “dinner roll dance.”
In his mind, he’s charming the hell out of her with this delightful dance but the sad reality is that he’s all alone. There is no one else there. Once he realizes he’s spent hours entertaining imagined ghosts, he leaves to walk the town in an attempt at some amount of solace.
At that moment, Georgia remembers her invitation and decides to visit him. Finding his cabin empty save for the lavishly made dinner and a present he intended on giving her, she leaves him a note with the intent on meeting him again.
Because Chaplin is a fan of dramatic irony, once the Tramp receives the note, a now amnesiac Big Jim drags him away from his quest to meet his true love, to go back to Black Larsen’s cabin in the hopes of finding his stolen gold.
Will they find the gold? Will the Tramp ever see Georgia again? Will they, too, be victims of the avalanche that killed Larsen? I ain’t telling but I will say the third act is one of the best constructed set pieces Chaplin ever created. It’s a brilliant bit of comedy that, like the “dinner role dance”, has been imitated ad nauseam.
The Gold Rush is Chaplin’s Star Wars. He was constantly working on trying to improve upon his masterpiece and even completed an alternate cut. The 1942 re-release came with a recorded musical score, narration in replace of title cards and a new edit. He removed certain scenes and showed the film in a faster pace than normal silent films.
These additions amount to little more than a curio piece for fans of Chaplin. Much like Spielberg’s director’s cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the additions don’t harm the original film but don’t improve it either.
Because you can’t improve upon perfection. The Gold Rush may not be the film he’s remembered for but re-release proves that not even Chaplin himself could make a better film.