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He’s beloved by many, but Charlie Chaplin is underappreciated in some circles due to Buster Keaton’s more easily gleaned formalism. One need only look at “The Gold Rush,” however, to see Chaplin’s mastery of space, his abilities as a special-effects innovator, and his unparalleled skill of marrying sentiment to comedy. Inspired by the story of the Donner Party – the pioneers who resorted to cannibalism after becoming snowbound – Chaplin created one of cinema’s greatest films about poverty, loneliness and longing, and he managed to make it one of his funniest and most enduring pictures to boot.
As a prospector seeking his fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush, Chaplin is characteristically hopeful, but he’s still poor and isolated. Chaplin crafts a number of memorable comic set-pieces, from a dinner party dream where he entertains women by turning rolls into dancing feet to a less appetizing meal of a boot (actually made of licorice). But the story around these moments is a sad one, the first a dream where Chaplin’s prospector isn’t alone in his cabin on New Year’s Eve, the second a sign of how bleak the winter has become. A scene where the prospector wanders the streets alone as townspeople sing “Auld Lang Syne” is the emotional peak, with a shot of Chaplin’s dejected face a serious rival for “City Lights'” pure emotional power and further proof that the director knew the power of the closeup as well as any director.
That said, “The Gold Rush” is an ultimately light, hilarious film, with dozens of memorable gags. Chaplin’s use of the licorice boot is a convincing special effect, but there’s an even better one when a dissolve turns the Tramp into a giant chicken in the eyes of his partner. And those who doubt Chaplin’s genius should give another look to how he utilizes space in the film’s climax, in which the mens’ cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff. Chaplin’s emphasis on bodies above all else might owe a lot to vaudeville (though the perfect timing makes one question why this is a bad thing), but the tipping set and the careful edits that brings us closer to the men or, when one of the men fall, outside the cabin, is all cinema. It’s impossible to imagine later comic masters, from Jacques Tati to Billy Wilder, without him.
More thoughts from the web:
Jaime N. Christley, Slant Magazine
Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period, and as much as I prefer Keaton, the Great Stoneface would never have gone for anything like it. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Read more.
Dan Harper, Senses of Cinema
The scene, the little man’s dream and sad awakening, is the centerpiece of Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” and evokes, in only a few short minutes, the breadth of his genius – the inimitable quality of laughter in the face of pain, the whole bittersweet invention of how and why this peerless film artist could have made a pathetic tramp into a figure of fun. Chaplin admitted in his autobiography (which he titled, with – for once – unintentional humor, “My Autobiography”) that no matter how famous or prosperous he had become, he could never forget the poverty, the want and the humiliation, of his childhood. Read more.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
I love “The Gold Rush,” if not as much as “City Lights,” but it’s still wonderfully indicative of Chaplin’s unique physicality and calculated, emotionally satisfying storytelling techniques. Both movies involve romantic confusion, and end (at least in the original “Gold Rush,” rather than the inferior sound version that Chaplin released in the forties) with the Tramp in a close-up facing his newfound female companion. Chaplin knew bittersweet better than anyone; he practically invented it. Read more.
Luc Sante, Criterion
Who doesn’t feel an empathetic blush when Charlie’s pants start to fall down as he dances with the girl of his dreams? Or breathe a sigh of relief when he finds a convenient rope and manages to slip it around his waist without her noticing? It takes only a beat, however, for everyone to see that a large, hapless dog is tied to the end of that rope and is being swung around the dance floor. And then everyone involuntarily braces for Charlie’s inevitable tumble. The sequence occupies only a minute, but in that time, the audience has experienced with near physical intensity a fall, a rise, and another fall—with a wildly unexpected gag planted right in the middle. That combination is Chaplin’s basic comedic formula, the DNA of his pictures. Read more.
Bill Weber, Slant Magazine
Removed from his usual urban setting’s ornery cops and curbside struggles, the transplanted Tramp’s life still revolves around food and its scarcity, when his stranded fellow cabin-mate (Mack Swain) mistakes him for a super-sized chicken, or the indelible sequence where Chaplin fussily seasons, serves, and munches on his boiled shoe for Thanksgiving dinner. Food only becomes an object of joy, rather than crisis, in the dream scene where the Prospector entertains the dance-hall girls with a sublime dance of dinner rolls. And in then cutting from an awakened Prospector facing the reality of an empty table, and a New Years sing-along of “Auld Lang Syne” that presents an affecting montage of sentiment-choked and keenly vulnerable faces, Chaplin presents a generous vision of human longing that endures as fully as the comic cliffhanger of a teetering cabin that serves as “The Gold Rush’s” climax. Read more.