It’s hard to argue with the ghost of a true film legend, and I’m not even about to try today!
Charlie Chaplin declared THE GOLD RUSH was his best overall film (in addition to starring, he directed, wrote and edited it), and the one he was most proud of. It is indeed a splendid work from the silent era: effectively blending slapstick humor, one startlingly powerful outdoor scene of epic proportions, drama, romance and heart.
Chaplin is (as usual) the Little Tramp Character–basically honest (though a touch roguish) and likable, a bit of a bumbler who often gets the short end of the proverbial stick but wins out in the end. This time, the Alaskan Gold Rush at the very end of the 19th Century is in full force and he decides to seek his fortune as a lone prospector.
He’s just one of thousands, as evidenced by an impressively shot scene showing legions of prospectors struggling single file up the snowbound mountain pass leading to ‘gold country.’ Most will fail to realize their “get rich quick” ambitions and many won’t even survive the ordeal. At times, it looks certain that Charlie will be among these.
While that opening scene is replete with an epic feel, the frequent blinding snowstorms and howling winds that follow occasion numerous hysterically funny scenes of slapstick humor as poor little Charlie (and even his two, far more muscular male co-stars) are blown back and forth, in and out of a cabin where they’ve taken shelter.
One is Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a gruff and burly fellow prospector who, after early suspicion, eventually gets to like Charlie and will in the end be his partner. Big Jim is one of the extremely rare/extremely lucky ones–having found a rich gold deposit.
Unfortunately, the other denizen of that blizzard-wracked mountain cabin is a murderous thug, a wanted criminal known as Black Larsen (Tim Murray). Food running short, Larsen supposedly goes for help–but in reality just wants to grab Big Jim’s gold for himself and leave the other two to starve.
This occasions a couple scenes of comical genius–the most famous being the time where Charlie cooks, cuts up and eats one of his boots–fastidiously cutting it up with knife and fork and sharing it with the disbelieving/bug-eyed McKay.
The lesser known image comes later, as a desperate McKay imagines Charlie as a gigantic (and very tasty looking) chicken. Seizing an axe, he chases Charlie around the cabin in one of the most unlikely scenes of uproarious humor in film history. Would-be cannibal humor, anyone?
This will remind any dedicated fan of classic Bugs Bunny cartoons about the one where a shipwrecked Bugs begins to picture his Penguin buddy as his next meal. Now we know where they got THAT idea!
As with the later cartoon, the hunger-crazed individual finally restrains himself and in remorse becomes his would-be victim’s fast friend.
Meanwhile, Larsen finds the mine site. He murders two police who have come to arrest him and when the storm breaks enough for Big Jim to venture out to his claim, he attacks the prospector and leaves him for dead.
The side of the mountain gives way, sending this evil man to his just end. But Big Jim, while surviving, has lost his memory and wanders away.
Alone, Charlie finds a town where Georgia Hale is a dance hall girl. He takes an immediate liking to her and doesn’t realize she’s making fun of him. Later, she’ll feel bad about it and even feel attracted to the odd little guy–but by then it seems too late.
Meanwhile, memory-impared Big Jim wanders into the same town. Charlie helps him find his way back to the mine and for that becomes Big Jim’s partner. Both become VERY RICH and head back to the Lower 48 States by ship. Unknowing Georgia is on the same ship, heading home in disgrace. A last round of comic misadventures develop when she mistakes the now-wealthy Charlie for a hopeless stowaway and tries to save him from hostile crewmen.
Of course, in the end, the truth is revealed and Charlie ends up saving her–and making her his wife. So by the end of THE GOLD RUSH, the ever-downtrodden Little Tramp has his happiest ending of all–now a man of wealth, with the girl of his dreams.
A really enjoyable, occasionally dramatic and touching film. Highly recommended!