Blog Directory CineVerse: There's gold in them thar Hollywood hills

There's gold in them thar Hollywood hills

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Last night, our CineVerse group reconvened online for its very first videoconference meeting to discuss Charles Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (the 1925 original version). Despite this being a 95-year-old silent film, there was plenty to talk about (to hear our group discussion, click here). Here's a recap of our talking points:

What is it about the Little Tramp character that we identify with and enjoy? What’s the secret behind this character’s appeal?

  • The Little Tramp is kind of an everyman—a surrogate for the audience on a journey, quest, adventure, or experience.
  • He’s a likable underdog by virtue of being diminutive, often surrounded by bigger and stronger but not always smarter men.
  • Because the humor is often self-deprecating, making the Tramp the butt of jokes and a subject of humiliation, he makes us feel sympathy and empathy amidst the comedy. Indeed, he evokes a range of emotions from the viewer, which makes Chaplin a powerful and effective filmmaker and his Little Tramp so memorable. Some argue that Chaplin’s sensibilities are overly sentimentalized, that there’s too much pathos and maudlin mushiness in his movies—especially compared to his contemporary filmmaker/performer Buster Keaton. Others feel Chaplin hits the perfect emotional chords to leave us feeling satisfied by the end of the picture.
  • The key to appreciating the Little Tramp, however, is to realize that the inherent charm and humor comes from presenting a cartoonish character who always tries to maintain dignity, pride, normalcy, and virtue despite repeatedly being embarrassed, belittled, overlooked, mistreated, and not taken seriously and despite his impoverished look and condition.
  • He also expresses a gallantry, civility, sincerity, and romantic sensibility that make you root for him. DVD Savant writer Glenn Erickson wrote: “His depiction of romantic innocence is one of the highlights of the silent cinema.”

What’s significant about The Gold Rush and Chaplin at this time (1925)?

  • Some accounts have this as the highest-grossing silent comedy of all time.
  • In 1925, Chaplin was the world’s most famous person, recognized and beloved across the globe, and the highest-paid employee on the planet.
  • This was considered a major, epic film and production. Walter Kerr, author of “The Silent Clowns,” said only two comedies from the silent era earned the right to be called an epic: This film, and Buster Keaton’s “The General.”
  • What’s notable about “The Gold Rush” in Chaplin’s oeuvre and for comedies of the 1920s is that it’s kind of a stark and dark black comedy that traffics in death as well as laughs. Consider how we see other prospectors meet their demise throughout the story, such as Black Larsen and the unidentified man who collapses in the snow during the first scene up the mountain pass. We view the Tramp walked past a grave, see how hunger can drive a man to consider cannibalism, and watch as our heroes come perilously close to death as their cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff.
  • There are numerous unforgettable scenes and set pieces here, including the dinner roll dance, shoe-eating sequence, the fighting-the-wind scene, the dance with the tethered dog, the snow shoveling bit, and the harrowing sequence depicting the cabin hanging from the cliff’s edge.

What themes rise to the top after examining “The Gold Rush”?

  • Greed, luck, and resourcefulness. All of these qualities come back to reward or punish the prospector characters we follow. Some also see this film as an allegory for the untapped potential of Hollywood at the time—where gold of another kind was waiting to be mined by intrepid prospectors, many of whom would suffer in defeat while others struck it rich in the young boomtown.
  • Inner warmth can keep you alive in a cold world. The Tramp survives in large part because he demonstrates courage in the face of Mother Nature, courtesy and chivalry to Georgia and her friends, loyalty to Big Jim, and inventiveness making a meal out of whatever he can find.
  • The virtues of humility. At the story’s conclusion, we see that the Tramp is willing to shed his fur coats and put his hobo outfit back on upon request, suggesting that he won’t forget where he came from or how he got to his place of success.

Other films that remind us of The Gold Rush

  • The Call of the Wild
  • White Fang
  • North to Alaska
  • Alive

Other masterpieces by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight

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