#14 – The Gold Rush
Santa came through. I got the projector, though I would have to wait for my February birthday to get the screen because “Santa was not made of money.” In the meantime, I hung a bed sheet in the basement. I lived down there for the next seven years, screening films I had checked out of the library. My two favorites were Nosferatu and The Gold Rush. I would say conservatively that I have seen those two films three or four hundred times apiece. Such was my devotion to this hobby that I still remember the distinctive aroma that came from running celluloid past that impossibly hot projector bulb.
It was the musky, pervasive, plastic-y smell of happiness.
I think that The Gold Rush is Chaplin’s best film. Sure, there are plenty of nominees for that position. In a previous lifetime, I taught a high-school Film Studies class and felt it was my duty to introduce students to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Like many silent-film-loving teachers, I would assign a compare/contrast paper inviting students to discuss the two filmmakers.
The Gold Rush is Chaplin’s best film because it most effectively integrates everything he did best: incorporating pathos into an otherwise comic narrative, focusing on Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character without sacrificing the larger narrative, and showcasing Chaplin’s astounding skill as a physical comedian. The love story is integral to the plot and does not seem an afterthought. The comic sequences and gags emerge organically from the story. The happy ending does not seem like a dream or a cheat or a mere shrug of Chaplin’s shoulders.
The quality of The Gold Rush that first attracted me—and keeps me riveted more than forty years after my first viewing—is simply Chaplin’s comedy. Laboriously worked out in multiple takes, these scenes are without peer in the world of silent comedy. Such was Chaplin’s obsession with getting it right that, when filming the famous Thanksgiving Banquet scene—during which the Prospector and McKay are trapped in a snowbound shack and resort to eating a leather shoe—Chaplin filmed take after take after take. The fake shoes that Chaplin and Swain ate over and over again were made of black licorice; unfortunately, no one on set realized that licorice is a laxative. The production had to shut down for a few days while Chaplin and Swain “worked it out.”
The Lone Prospector and McKay have been drinking, but awaken the next morning to observe a curious phenomenon. The floor under their feet feels funny. Unbeknownst to them, the cabin has been transported while they slept by a windstorm, depositing them on the brink of a huge crevasse. The cabin teeters precariously, held in place by a single rope, anchoring it to a rock. What follows is one of the funniest and most exciting sequences in all of silent cinema. Every time one of them moves, the cabin shudders closer to its doom. Then Charlie gets the hiccups. (This sequence is also a handy metaphor for what every day of our lives seems like here in the early 21st century.)
In nomine Chaplin, et Charlie, y spiritu little tramp, Amen.