Saturday, April 16, 2016

Charles Chaplin | The Gold Rush

surviving without prospects
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Chaplin (writer and director) The Gold Rush / 1925

The other day, when I had determined to revisit Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush for the first time since childhood, I poked into my favorite movie guide, Time Out, to discover what I presume was a younger reviewer arguing that it was “hard to see it was ever taken for a masterpiece.” So I somewhat feared what my reviewing of the film might actually reveal. Would I love the film as much as I remembered I had?

In fact, I had even more affection for it that I can imagine I had in my youth. Chaplin’s film was not only loveable, but it was brilliantly shifting in its representations of cinematic presentation. Certainly, at moments it is a bit maudlin, clearly sentimental throughout (that is, after all an important element of Chaplin’s appeal), but also—and importantly—witty and, at moments, even a bit cynical. The first moments of the film—supposedly at the Yukon’s Chilkoot Pass, filmed in California’s Truckee near the original Donner Pass, in which 600 extras climb up over the trail to Sugar Bowl—represent significant filmmaking, with the long lines of would-be gold prospectors shuffling off into their near-certain death from cold and starvation. That scene alone should reveal that this was no ordinary comedy.
      It is hardly surprising, however, that soon after Chaplin retreated to his Los Angeles studios to portray the rest of the work with a mixture of flour and yeast to represent the snowy landscape of his cinema. The icy reality would surely have frozen Chaplin’s balletic movements in its tracks, delimiting the frantic comedic enactments of the little tramp.
      The first amazing and highly comedic element of this film concerns the derby-topped, cane-bearing fool, Chaplin’s persona, in a world we cannot even imagine that he possibly might survive, a completely alien planet where cane and hat are totally out of place. As he slips and slides around impossible mountain vistas, a bear follows him, luck alone allowing him from sliding to the abyss or being immediately consumed by the beast. A following snowstorm allows Chaplin to play against nature the way Buster Keaton would time and again a few years later. Again luck is with the tramp as he stumbles into the villain’s cabin, the evil Black Larsen (Tim Murray) who has just been seen busily burning his own wanted posters. Larsen orders him out, but nature will not even permit the Lone Prospector’s—as Chaplin’s character is defined—exit, as he is continually blown back in and out of the ramshackle wooden construct. The preposterousness of these scenes is resolved with the sudden appearance of yet other prospector seeking shelter, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has just discovered a mountain of gold.
     After a battle between the two heavyweights, with the Chaplin figure rushing in an out of range of the loaded rifle over which they are battling, a kind of ménage-a-trois is established, the three of them desperately living together—but without anything left to eat. A draw of the cards sends Larsen into the cold to seek out food, while the two others are left behind to eat the Lone Prospector’s left shoe, their Thanksgiving dinner, during which, in a nearly peerless pantomime of the extremes of starvation and one of Chaplin’s most brilliant set-pieces, he sucks the leathery meat off the nails of his shoe. 
      Meanwhile—a period of time which one might describe defines this episodic movie—Larsen has discovered the hole-up of two other would-be prospectors, killing them for their foodstuffs and, soon after, discovering McKay’s claim, with no intentions of returning to his former cabin.
      If the following scenes, in which Chaplin is seen by the starving McKay as a larger-than-life chicken, is a piece right out of burlesque, while nonetheless entertaining, allows Chaplin to present his usual British disdain as he hides his compatriot’s knife and buries his gun—while still about to be attacked for the meat his puny body might contain. He survives only because a bear enters their domain and, upon killing it, they now have other things to consume. 
      The now-partners split up, with McKay discovering Black Larsen having usurped his claim. Once again Larsen attacks, attempting to murder the other. Larsen again escapes, but “cruel” nature takes care of him, as he falls into a chasm after an avalanche. 
       Meanwhile again….back in town the little tramp dares to enter the local bar, where he encounters the beautiful dance hall girl, Georgia. This entire scene, however, represents an entirely other kind of genre, which is what perhaps so confused some Chaplin admirers. The New Yorker, for example, found Chaplin’s 1925 film out of character:

                 One might be given to expect wonders of Gold Rush 
                 burlesque with the old Chaplin at the receiving end 
                 of the Klondike equivalent of custard. But one 
                 is doomed to disappoint, for Chaplin has seen fit to 
                 turn on his onion juices in a Pierrot's endeavor to 
                 draw your tears.... Instead of the rush of tears called 
                 for, one reaches for his glycerine bottle.... We do not 
                 wish to deride Chaplin. He is as deft as ever and 
                 far and away a brilliant screen master. He has 
                 made a serviceable picture in "The Gold Rush" but it 
                 seems that he is not as funny as he once was.

     In fact, the scenes that follow are not as comedic as Chaplin might once have appeared to be. The women in the bar are clearly tough prostitutes, ready to take on any frontiersman they might meet; they drink, lure in the men, and even suggest somewhat more than intimate female relationships. If previously the Lone Prospector was ludicrous, in this wild-west saloon he is completely absurd. Suddenly in love with the mocking Carmen of the bar, the Chaplin figure is surely no longer funny, despite the fact that he (accidently) defeats the dangerous ladies’ man, Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite). To toy with Cameron’s affections, Georgia determines to dance with the tramp in one of the most wonderfully comic dance numbers in all of film history (a scene I describe in my essay on film dance in My Year 2000). 
      And it is here that the film stops even attempting to be a comic film, bringing Chaplin into a far more dramatic context, as the bar-women visit him in his new cabin, mocking him at the very moment they pretend their love and admiration. The outlandish jubilation he expresses after they pretend to plan a meeting with him early on New Year’s night, which he celebrates by showering himself with pillow feathers—a symbol obviously of his own cuckolding—is no longer funny; and Georgia, witnessing it when she returns to retrieve her gloves, is obviously appalled. The director has moved into other territory, and some of his former admirers clearly did not know what to make of it; yet it would define many of the shifts he would take in his later works. The clown had indeed become a kind of comedic prophet—a fool who, nonetheless, had something to say about the world in which he lived.
       Sure, the Pierrot he often represented might still play out the “Dance of the Potatoes,” but, as the film itself predicted, this fool was soon to be very rich—after a moment back at the cabin (a symbol throughout the film as uncomfortable home) where the two “heroes” find themselves at the edge of another abyss, this time balancing their bodies and even the household furniture against the inevitable disastrous fall into eternity. They escape “home” only because they are now rich and can endlessly travel—an ability during the decade which, we should recall, the Fitzgerald’s, the Hemingway’s, the Porter’s and, yes, the Chaplin’s much admired.   
     The final scenes of The Gold Rush, which reveal the little tramp as now a multi-millionaire represent a Chaplin whom we had not yet met on screen—a character basically freed of the truly maudlin and sentimental elements of his earlier, and often, his later films. Finally, the tramp is a true survivor—even without the prospects he had never truly been expected to achieve. Even if he is required to dress up again like the tramp, he is no longer the same foolish being. 
      Yes, The Gold Rush has elements of that former actor-director, but it represents something different, far more experimental, and resulting in a much more masterful work than any film comedian before had achieved. To dismiss The Gold Rush is to ignore film history.
      Too bad Chaplin himself seemed to want to revise that very history when in 1946 he issued another version, with 20 minutes cut, excising the original’s misunderstanding between Georgia and the Lone Prospector when she sends a love letter to Jack, who vengefully passes it on to the Chaplin character—some of the elements which defined his 1925 version as so original, and so much more naturalistic—as opposed to the sentimental figures to whom Chaplin was so devoted. In fact, the Monte Carlo bar represents Chaplin’s own version of what later became Rick’s American Café—a far more complex world than the little tramp had ever conceived. 
      At least the music of his later version was better. The VHS I saw, clearly a cheap Canadian knock-off which featured a completely baroque organ score that had nothing all to do with what was happening on the screen, made me want to turn off the sound and truly see it as the silent film as it was originally was conceived. Yet Chaplin’s vision still came through, which says a great deal about its true power.

Los Angeles, April 13, 2016

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