“The Gold Rush” - Charlie Chaplin (1925)

Charlie Chaplin, whose own life reflected the classic story of the underprivileged underdog succeeding in a disdainful world, went on to make a string of classic silent-films that presented that narrative in comic form.  In these films he always played the role of “The Little Tramp”, who mischievously managed to get around the imposing bullies blocking his path.  One of his most famous works along these lines was The Gold Rush (1925), which was an immediate hit at the box office and was ranked on the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of international film directors as the 91st greatest film of all time [1]. 

The story of the film is set during the famous Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon, Canada (1896-99), during which some 100,000 eager prospectors were drawn to the region hoping to make their fortune [2].  Conditions in that far north region were cold and bleak, and lone prospectors faced the threat of death due to starvation and exposure to the elements.   Mindful of these conditions, Chaplin originally chose to shoot the film entirely on location in Truckee, California, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which was the site of the famous Donner Party tragedy (1846-47), where early stranded migrants were reduced to cannibalism.    

Chaplin’s shooting style was leisurely – for creative purposes, he shot his films in sequence and often made things up as he went along [3].  So the production of The Gold Rush took fifteen months to shoot [4].  He originally cast his own 15-year-old mistress and soon-to-be wife, Lita Grey, in the role of the female lead, Gloria.  However Lita’s increasingly evident pregnancy proved to be incompatible with the slow pace of production in Truckee, and Chaplin chose to replace her in the film with Georgia Hale and reshoot everything back in the Hollywood studio [5].  So the final, released version of the film had very little of the original location footage.

What most people recall when they comment about the film, though, are several slapstick comedy scenes, which have been carefully choreographed for maximum effect.  But what makes The Gold Rush, along with Chaplin’s even greater City Lights (1931), truly outstanding works is the balance between humor and pathos that courses throughout the story [3].  In both those films there is a wistful romance that is treated with surprising delicacy and subtlety.  This is brought about by making the female lead more than just a simpering beauty; she is a person whose own nontrivial emotions are an important element in the story.  So Gloria Hale’s expressive performance turned out to be an important component in the film’s success.

In Chaplin’s narrative world, there are basically two separate and contrasting arenas in which a struggle takes place:
  • Survival in the World  
    This is a man’s world, and The Little Tramp is a lone, penniless waif whose only resource is his cheeky spirit.  He is surrounded by oversized bullies who dismiss him as a no-account.  The Little Tramp is innocent and a seemingly hopeless underdog, so the viewer’s sympathies are with him.
  • Love    
    This is a world seeking a woman’s love, and The Little Tramp’s innocent naivety seems even more hopeless in this arena.  He doesn’t offer manly virtues but only undying gentlemanly tenderness and affection. 
In The Gold Rush we switch back and forth between these two separate arenas as the story proceeds through five unequally-lengthed acts. 

1.  Surviving the Storm
The film opens by introducing the Klondike Gold Rush and showing The Lone Prospector (played by Charlie Chaplin and whom I will refer to as The Tramp) wandering alone in the snowy mountains.  Chaplin is shown, of course, with his signature cane, derby hat, and shabby vest.  Here we are in the Survival arena and The Tramp faces two oversized brutes who are also lone prospectors – Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain).  Black Larsen is a murderous outlaw wanted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Big Jim McKay is a burly prospector who at the film’s outset is shown discovering a fabulously rich lode of gold ore for which he is ready to stake his claim.

Just then, though, a furious snowstorm comes up, and The Tramp and Big Jim separately stumble for shelter into a lone cabin occupied by Black Larsen, who wants to get rid of the two intruders.  There are several slapstick scenes in this act that people remember (in fact most of this act consists of slapstick struggles).  One involves Larsen and Jim struggling over possession of a rifle which, despite the constant movement and chaos, is always pointed at The Tramp, no matter what he does to get out of the way.  Things finally settle down between the men, but since the blizzard continues unabated, the men run out of food and begin to starve.  In this connection there is a memorable scene showing The Tramp cooking and serving one of his boots to eat.  To Jim’s astonishment, the starving Tramp seems to relish the cooked boot sole as if it were a fine epistolary delicacy. 

Later the starving Jim becomes delusional and has hallucinations of The Tramp turning into a tasty human-sized chicken.  He is just about to shoot The Tramp with his rifle and eat him when he finally returns to his senses for a moment.  Their continuing struggles are finally interrupted by an intruding grizzly bear, which The Tramp manages to shoot with the rifle, thereby solving their food shortage. 

By this time, Larsen, who had gone off alone to find food, comes across Jim’s gold-ore lode. Meanwhile Jim and The Tramp, now fortified with food, leave the cabin and part company.  Jim heads back to his claim site, while The Tramp heads towards the local mining town.  When Jim gets to his claim site, Larsen hits on the head with a shovel and knocks him out cold.  However, the murderous Larsen soon falls off a cliff to his death. So now of our three original lone prospectors, two of them are out of commission, and only our Tramp seems to have survived.

2.  Meeting Gloria
The Tramp makes his way to a mining area boom town and wanders into the local dance hall there.  Now the narrative enters the Love arena, and again there are three principal figures:
  • Jack, a tall (6'4"), self-confident ladies’ man admired by all the dance hall girls,
  • Gloria, the most beautiful dance hall girl,
  • The Tramp, the modest little guy (5'5").
Gloria is attracted to Jack, but chafes at his rude possessiveness of her.  To spite Jack, she chooses the nearby and unassuming Tramp to dance with her.  The Tramp is immediately smitten and doesn’t realize that he is just a pawn in Gloria’s game with Jack.

Later the still-impoverished Tramp is asked to look after a miner’s near-to-town cabin while he is away.  Gloria and a group of her dance-hall girlfriends having a friendly snowball fight pass by and are invited inside by The Tramp.  Remembering the occasion when she danced with the gentlemanly Tramp, Gloria shows warm cordiality towards him.  When he shyly invites them all for dinner on New Year’s Eve, Gloria accepts his invitation for all of them, and The Tramp is thrilled.  After the girls depart, he leaps about for joy, almost trashing the cabin, in an acrobatic slapstick scene.

On New Years Eve, The Tramp has made elaborate preparations for dinner, but the girls don’t show up, and he falls asleep and dreams.  In the dream the dinner party goes ahead, and Gloria shows some affection for The Tramp.  The dream scene is highlighted by The Tramp’s puppet-show dance performance of “Oceana Roll” with a pair of forks poked into baked buns.

Meanwhile the New Year’s festivities are proceeding at the dance hall, and the partying dance hall girls have forgotten all about The Tramp and his dinner invitation.  After midnight, though, Gloria remembers, and she invites her girlfriends to go over to the foolish Tramp’s cabin for a little more “fun”.  On the way there, Jack asks Gloria if she loves him, and she says yes.  When they arrive at the empty cabin (The Tramp has gone to town looking for the girls) and Gloria sees The Tramp’s elaborate preparations for a dinner party, she feels remorseful and is not in the mood for  Jack’s horseplay.  When Jack arrogantly tries to forcefully kiss her, she slaps him in the face.

3. The Next Day
Big Jim McKay is shown finally having come to and found his way back to town.  But he is still suffering from memory loss and cannot remember where his claim site is. 

At the dance hall Gloria, upstairs, writes a love note to be passed to Jack, sitting downstairs, apologizing for what she did last night and swearing her love for him.  But when Jack reads the note, he laughs it off and shows it to the other girls (he always has his retinue of girls around him). Then, as a mocking joke, he has the waiter pass the intimate note to The Tramp, who is standing nearby.  Gloria looks down on this disdainful behavior in horror.  The Tramp, thinking the note was intended for him, is thrilled to read it and rushes about looking for Gloria. 

But just then, Big Jim shows up in the dance hall and upon seeing The Tramp realizes that the little man can lead him back to his claim site, which was near Black Larsen’s cabin.  So, promising to share his future wealth with the little man, he grabs The Tramp and starts to forcefully drag him away.  Just before they depart, The Tramp sees Gloria and promises to her that he will make his fortune and return to her.

4. The Cabin (Again)  
Jim and The Tramp make it to the cabin and there are more shenanigans, as the Survival scenario resumes.  Another big blizzard hits, and the cabin is blown down a hillside and finally stops teetering on the edge of cliff.  There is more slapstick as Jim and The Tramp struggle to keep the teetering and rocking cabin from plunging off the cliff.  But after some breathtaking moments, they finally get to safety, and Jim finds his claim.

5. Millionaires on the Way Home
The scene now shifts to a ship on the way back to the States.  Big Jim and The Tramp are now both millionaires decked out in fancy clothes and attended to by servants.  But it turns out that Gloria is alone and on that ship, too, down in the lower third-class deck.  And happenstance leads them to meet and establish their happy union at last.

There is no coverage in the film as to why The Tramp had not met up with Gloria after he and Big Jim had returned from the cliff to stake their claim and become fabulously wealthy.  We just have to assume that circumstances had kept The Tramp and Gloria apart until their later meeting on the ship to the States.  Some people might feel this absence of account to be a narrative flaw in the telling.  But in the context of the Love scenario, this temporal jump forward works well, and Chaplin made the right choice to tell the story this way.

As already mentioned, the numerous slapstick comedy bits, mostly inside the cabin, are what people cite when praising “The Gold Rush”, but it is the intermingling of the Love with the slapstick Survival scenario that makes all these scenes poignant.  The Love scenario is especially interesting because of its presentation of Gloria.  There is no denying that Gloria is, for a time, in love with two men at the same time.  And this is something that occurs more often than most people care to admit. But it does sometimes happen in the ever-shifting course of human relationships.  People can love two people at the same time.

Gloria loves the alpha male Jack, whose manly virtues and swagger are evidently attractive to her.  We know this, because she has explicitly confirmed to him that she loves him, and she doesn’t look like the kind of person who would make such avowals lightly.  But early on she bemoans the fact that she has been unable to find a man who truly stirs her heart.  There seems to be no real depth to her relationship with Jack.  When she encounters The Tramp, his sincerity and innocence offer a different and more authentic kind of relationship to her, and she apparently finally comes to realize this.  She doesn’t articulate these gradually changing feelings in words, but she expresses them in her gestures and emotive facial expressions.  This is what help makes the film an expressive work of art.  And it offers a lesson as to what can be accomplished even in the purely visual domain of silent film.

  1. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  2. Even today Yukon’s population is only a fraction of that figure.
  3. Alan Vanneman, “Looking at Charlie — The Gold Rush: An Occasional Series on the Art and Life of Charlie Chaplin”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 November 2007).     
  4. Tim Dirks. "The Gold Rush (1925)", Filmsite, (retrieved 24 April  2018).        
  5. Dan Harper, “The Gold Rush”, Senses of Cinema, (October 2002).    

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