Friday, November 4, 2011

The Gold Rush (1925)

After a month of nothing but horror movies, it was finally time for a change of pace.  But what to watch?  I had been enjoying film noir, some vintage British movies, and was starting to get into some French classics before I detoured into blood, guts, and gore.  Why not start off with a palette cleanser?  I've only finished one silent film to date (Nosferatu), so I thought a silent comedy would be different enough to not remind me of slasher flicks.  I've had The Gold Rush in my Instant Queue for months; an easy choice was made.

The Gold Rush begins with Charlie Chaplin's iconic Tramp character heading to the Yukon to mine for gold.  He's fairly ill-equipped; he has his ill-fitting suit, hat, bendy cane, and what appears to be a sleeping bag, but that's about it.  Inclement weather forces him to share a cabin with a fugitive (Tom Murray) and a successful prospector, Big Jim (Mack Swain).  And there ends the Tramp's adventures in prospecting.  As soon as the storm is over, he heads to the nearest gold rush-built town and meets a girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale).  The rest of the film focuses on the Tramp's attempts to impress Georgia, with occasional hijinks ensuing from his time as a prospector.
Is she doing "The Dougie"?  She's fresh!

I wasn't really sure what to expect from The Gold Rush, but I apparently had some preconceived notions about Chaplin.  I was surprised to find that his character is not credited as "The Tramp" in the opening credits, but as "The Lone Prospector."  I had never really put much thought into it before, but I guess this falls into that category of storytelling where the main character is basically the same across many tales, but there is no chronology or continuity for the character, like many myths, folk tales, and Marx Brothers films.
I wonder if he's poor in this one?
Another thing I was surprised with was the quantity of slapstick comedy.  I suppose it makes sense, since it is hard to enjoy a drama when you have to wait for dialogue cards to appear on the screen and explain what just happened; slapstick is visual and easy to understand.  What was more surprising was just how familiar most of this slapstick was.  I grew up watching Looney Tunes, so seeing many of the same basic gags used fifteen years earlier was kind of weird.
Shouldn't the other guy turn into a hot dog at some point?
My biggest surprise came when the Tramp busted out the dinner roll dance:

I had always assumed that that scene, which Johnny Depp imitates in Benny & Joon, was from a Buster Keaton movie (probably because Depp's character was a Keaton nut).  Apparently not.  That's a pretty awesome little scene, and Chaplin's smile is simply adorable.

Now that I've finished pointing out how uncultured I am in silent films, on to the meat and potatoes.  The acting in this movie is of two varieties: Charlie Chaplin and everybody else.  It's probably unfair to compare the supporting cast to the star, but they merely feel like set pieces, with no memorable moments.  The sole exception is Mack Swain, who played around with Chaplin in the cabin.  Swain wasn't bad, but he suffered from big gestures and heavy makeup.  Chaplin, on the other hand, was pretty impressive.  Most of what he does is basic physical comedy, but his movements made the film more believable.  Whether he is fighting a strong wind or falling through a tilted cabin, Chaplin makes you believe that there is a comically strong wind, or that the cabin really is teetering on a cliff.  Of course, it helps that Chaplin directed himself.  As a director, it looks like Chaplin used some cutting edge technology to edit some characters into (and out of) dangerous situations, as well as some respectable use of scale models.  The Gold Rush was filmed at a lower frame-per-second ration than is used today, so some of the action looks intentionally fast; that normally bothers me a bit in talkies (like the early James Bond movies), but it adds to the comic element here.
Get it?  Shoes aren't food!

Despite all the appreciation I have for The Gold Rush, I didn't enjoy it much.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again, comedies are period pieces.  What was funny then isn't necessarily funny now.  While I acknowledge that this film originated (or at least popularized) many sight gags that I enjoyed as a child, they have become so omnipresent that I am numb to them now.  That's not the fault of The Gold Rush, which appears to be a technically well-made movie for the time, with some vintage physical comedy by a pro.  I feel bad knocking this movie for the impact it had on popular culture, but the fact of the matter is that I was bored because I have seen these same gags many, many, many times before.  I did love the dinner roll dance and do appreciate Chaplin from a historical perspective, but that wasn't enough to keep me interested in the entire movie.

I should note that the version I watched was the original 1925 silent film.  Chaplin re-released it in 1942, adding his own narration, a musical score (instead of ragtime-y piano), and with a twenty-three minute shorter running time.  While I probably would have preferred a shorter movie, I think seeing the original version was more educational.


  1. I have been tempted by the Keaton and Chaplin films, but have been hesitent for the reasons you confirmed in the review. I mean, my time is very valuable and I certainly do not have an hour a change to waste on anything.

    For a new kick, check out the Fellini films. Nights of Cambiria and 8 1/2 are both on instant play right now (one or both expire on 11/11/11), the latter of which is my favorite foreign film of all time (but the prior is a better Fellini primer).

  2. Chaplin is a legend but I agree, they date badly. Still have their moments though and it's easy to see how the guy has been so influential.

  3. @NB: I have been sitting on 8 1/2 for a while now. Maybe I'll give those a shot.

    @PT: I'm still not completely turned off of Chaplin. From what I understand, City Lights is supposed to be better and actually have a bit of soul to the story. Plus, Modern Times and The Great Dictator aren't silent, so I imagine they're a little less slapstick. I probably won't be watching them anytime soon, but I'll probably test the Chaplin waters again.