Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is another film I’m not going to describe the action for. However, in this case it’s because whether you know it or not, you’ve already seen a lot of this film.
The plot is a comparatively gentle adventure story, with Chaplin as a novice prospector (and one woefully underdressed for Alaska’s winter). At the start of the film he’s bumbling his way through the tundra, gets caught in a storm and takes shelter in another prospector’s cabin. His host is “Black Larsen,” a criminal who tries to throw him out into the storm; but another prospector, “Big Jim,” also stops by seeking shelter and teams up with our hero to get Black Larsen to let them stay. When food runs out, they draw lots to choose a hunter for the group; Black Larsen is chosen, but instead of finding food he finds Big Jim’s claim, and decides to lie in wait there. Fortunately the others manage to save themselves by shooting and cooking a bear.
After the storm, the pair part ways; Big Jim returns to his claim, where Black Larsen tries to kill him and steal the loot. Larsen falls off a cliff in the process, but Jim has still gotten a nasty enough blow that he develops amnesia.
Meanwhile, our little Prospector has abandoned gold prospecting and drifts into a frontier town, trying to figure out what to do with himself. He quickly falls in love with Georgia, a dance hall girl there, spending most of the second act trying to woo her; she writes him off in favor of Jack, a flashier guy in town, and she and her buddies tease him by stringing him along. But gradually, his gentlemanly ways start to win her over.
But before our hero can declare his intentions, Big Jim runs into him – and his memory is jogged enough that he remembers he’d had a sizeable claim, at a spot near the cabin where he’d stayed with our hero. He drags our hero away to help him find the cabin, promising they’ll split the proceeds. After a daring expedition, they find the gold.
The last scene sees our hero and Big Jim triumphantly sailing back to the continental US, newly rich. Our hero still misses Georgia, however. But conveniently, she is on the same ship, regretting her treatment of our hero. They run into each other, she’s swept off her feet by his charm and riches and they live happily ever after.
But that’s the plot. What you’re going to remember instead, what Chaplin was best known for, is the schtick. In fact, if you were to make a list of Chaplin’s best-known “bits”, most of them are actually in this one film.
Cooking a boot? It’s in here.
Trying to stay upright in a tilting house? It’s in here.
A hungry companion hallucinating that he’s a chicken? It’s in here.
The roll dance? Yup.
…Watching these films was my first real encounter with both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, even though I’ve been hearing about them both all my life. I also kind of got the sense that there was a sort of rivalry between them; just like how you’re either a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person, or you’re either a fan of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Or you’re Team Edward or Team Jacob.
Similarly, you were either a Charlie Chaplin person, or you were a Buster Keaton person. And having finally watched them both, I think I’m Team Keaton. I appreciated Chaplin’s schtick, and it was fun to watch, but his comedy seems more…sweet, rather than zany. There’s a layer of sentiment that kept me from losing myself in a full-out belly laugh the way Keaton did.
That said, though, there was a bit midway through the film that I actually watched twice simply for the picture it made. It’s a scene when Chaplin first comes upon the dance hall; a song strikes up and everyone else in the room starts dancing, but Chaplin is left alone. And for several seconds he is simply standing in the foreground, watching the dancers all alone, his back to us.
I couldn’t tell you why, but I found this moment strikingly and hauntingly beautiful.