Extracting Melancholy Comedy Out of Dire Human Tragedy: ‘The Gold Rush’

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush appeared in 1925, the same year Theodore Dreiser published An American Tragedy and F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. Calvin Coolidge’s America was itself a kind of Gold Rush for at least some, a bubble waiting to burst catastrophically just four years after the film’s release. For others, poverty’s shadow stalked them already, and they never got to be a flapper or to drink bathtub gin.

Chaplin’s masterpiece managed to bundle all of these themes together, along with elements of his own background. The man who made the world laugh also knew how to make it cry. His ability to make falling down look like it was ballet came from some of the darkest parts of his past. The man who hilariously cooks and eats a shoe in Gold Rush had watched his mother almost starve to death in the east London slums. Then he watched her go utterly mad from the experience.

In the early ’20s, Chaplin developed a fascination with the Klondike rush of the 1890s. Prospecting had already been fodder for adventure tales such as Buster Keaton might appear in. But Chaplin’s sometimes macabre sense of the absurd led him to read about the Donner party and, as commentator and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance says, to imagine how cannibalism could be funny.

Charlie Chaplin made a career out of extracting melancholy comedy out of dire human tragedy. He turned the “little tramp,” a symbol of desolation and despair into an equally powerful symbol of unwarranted optimism and humor. Indeed, no one but Chaplin could take the story of the Donner party and make it funny. But essentially that’s what Gold Rush manages to do.

Gold Rush has become, along with City Lights and Modern Times, one of the best known of Chaplin’s films. It’s probably the most accessible to modern audiences. My experience as a college classroom teacher, by the way, has been that even Generation Y’s, gorged on high-def, high res, highly interactive entertainment, find Chaplin hilarious and almost always want more. The previously mentioned boot eating sequence from Gold Rush or the “dancing dinner rolls” from later in the film, always confirm for contemporary audiences that Charlie Chaplin truly was the incarnation of universal comedy, a laugh a minute who will simply never stop being funny.

The Criterion release of The Gold Rush comes as two discs in the DVD set (it is also available in Blu-ray). The first disc contains both the original 1925 theatrical release and a 1942 director’s cut that includes narration by Chaplin, his effort to reconnect with an audience that expected “talkies”. Watching the director’s cut is a pleasure all its own, though I suspect that many long-time Chaplin fans will find that they prefer the original. Georgia Hale’s character is softened in the 1942 cut, taking away at least some of the film’s pathos. But the 1942 version is also Chaplin’s favored cut and will probably leave new fans a bit more entranced than the original.

The commentary track is excellent. It’s really impossible to imagine a better guide to Chaplin than Jeffrey Vance who has spent a lifetime writing about him and has enormous access to his subject’s professional and family archives.

Vance’s discussion of “the little tramp” as essentially an abstract figure, one that more or less anyone could identify with is especially interesting. Beleaguered by circumstances, essentially alone, Chaplin made his “little tramp” as much a figure for philosophical contemplation as a sympathetic character.

Vance notes that in one shot, standing with his back to the audience in a Klondike dance hall, we see the little tramp convinced that he caught the eye of the Georgia Hale. But she’s waving at a handsome man behind him, leaving his the outsider balanced on his cane, limping along on a bandaged foot. Its palpably sad but funny in the way the sad world is funny, rather than maudlin and sentimental.

Speaking of being sentimental, a lot of you will be delighted as I was to learn from the commentary and that Gip, the dog that appears in the empty cabin early in the film, had been rescued from the pound to play the part. That lucky dog lived at Chaplin studios for the rest of his life, a prince among canines.

The second disc comes with a number of worthwhile featurettes, pretty standard practice for a Criterion release. Many fans will have already seen the 2002 documentary Chaplin Today that explores his international influence. Another featurette gives the full story of the restoration of the 1925 version, once only available in a grimy, gimpy barely watchable edition. An enclosed booklet contains two special treats, an essay by critic Luc Sante about the 1925 release and another by author James Agee ( Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) on the 1942 version.

Chaplin once described his most well known creation as “a gentleman, a dreamer, a poet and a lonely fellow.” If you haven’t spent time in the little tramp’s company for a while, Criterion’s new release will have you laughing ’till you cry and crying ’till you laugh all over again. And if you’ve never gotten into Chaplin, this is a great opportunity to make your life just a little bit better.

RATING 10 / 10