Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Favorites - The Gold Rush (#36)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Gold Rush (1925/USA/dir. Charlie Chaplin) appeared at #36 on my original list.

What it is • A lone prospector (Charlie Chaplin) waddles up an icy Yukon path, a polar bear calmly following in his footsteps. The ambitious tramp will be stalked by many more troubles before the film ends: he is buried in snow, challenged to fights by burly rivals, nearly frozen in a little cabin, starved to the point of eating his own shoelaces like spaghetti, almost shot by his hungry, hallucinating compatriot Big Jim (Mack Swain) who envisions him as a giant chicken, trapped in a cabin that has been blown precariously onto the edge of a cliff during the night, and, perhaps worst of all, heartbroken by the mocking flirtations of dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). The little guy meets all these challenges with his usual pluck and imagination, and the film features some of Chaplin's most memorable gags: the aforementioned chicken and shoelaces, of course, but also the frantic balancing act required as the cabin nearly topples over that cliff, and, on a more delicate note, his bread-roll dance number (featured above). The usual mix of pathos and comedy applies, especially in the original, longer cut which Chaplin shortened seventeen years later. Though City Lights and Modern Times provide close competition (and are a bit more complex), this may be Chaplin's most beloved film - it was certainly one of the biggest hits of the silent era.

Why I like it •
I didn't see the re-packaged Gold Rush (which some viewers prefer) until 2012, and had mixed feelings. I love the richer picture painted by the full-on silent version; this was probably my first Chaplin film, viewed on VHS in the late nineties. I had known about Chaplin for what seems like my entire life; a century after the Little Tramp made his screen debut, decades after his creator passed away, the figure with the bowler hat, baggy pants, bent cane, and square mustache (later appropriated by one of the most evil men in history, yet still recognizable as Charlie's own) remains one of cinema's most identifiable icons. He's been borrowed for Saturday morning cartoons, advertisements, and impersonations by generations that weren't even alive in his old age, let alone his golden youth. That said, I always bore a sneaking suspicion (furthered by texts favoring Buster Keaton) that his comedic antics would look dated and unfunny from a later vantage point. When I finally saw clips of him in action (featured on a montage in a "Best of the Oscars" video packaged with On the Waterfront) I was stunned: they still had the ability to make me laugh out loud, repeatedly and uproariously. More than the humorous conceits, I was struck by the graceful timing of Chaplin's movements (he was known to execute endless takes, after copious rehearsal). I proceeded to watch many of his features, but this was the one that always connected with me the most. Genuinely invested in his unrequited romance with Georgia, an unusually headstrong Chaplin woman with vivacious charm, I proceeded to baldly lift one of his famous bits for my own video project (taking a page from Chaplin himself, who said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal"): Georgia makes eye contact with Charlie, squeals with joy and then runs toward him with her arms open...only to rush past as he prepares for an embrace. Turns out she was looking at the man behind him. With that hilariously self-deprecating moment in mind, this is also the Chaplin film that makes me laugh the hardest - and perhaps in the end that's what matters most.

More from me • There are two versions of The Gold Rush available (one from the 1925 release, the other re-edited with Chaplin narrating in 1942) and I compared them in a review several years ago. That's it for this particular film on my blog, though I have discussed several other Chaplin works as well.

How you can see it • Both versions of The Gold Rush are available on Hulu (1925 and 1942) and for DVD rental on Netflix (1925 - on the bonus disc oddly enough - and 1942). A less pristine copy of the film is also on YouTube.

What do you think? • Do you prefer the silent or narrated edition of The Gold Rush? Do you laugh at Chaplin's films, or does the humor leave you cold? Does the pathos add to your enjoyment, or do you find it distracting?

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Yesterday: Snow White (#37)

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