After the public disappointment of A Woman of Paris (1923), a dramatic film in which Chaplin appears only briefly, he was anxious to begin work on his first comedy to be distributed by United Artists. Chaplin was determined to top the phenomenal success of The Kid. By any measure, he succeeded. The Gold Rush is his greatest and most ambitious silent film; it also was the longest and most expensive comedy film produced up to that time. The film contains many of Chaplin’s most celebrated comedy sequences, including the boiling and eating of his boot, the dance of the rolls, and the teetering cabin. However, the superb quality of The Gold Rush does not rest solely on its comedy sequences but on these scenes being so fully integrated into a character-driven narrative. Chaplin had no reservations about the finished product. Indeed, in the contemporary publicity for the film, he is quoted as saying, “This is the picture that I want to be remembered by.”
The Gold Rush has an epic quality. The film presents adventures on a grand, heroic scale that are organically united through the central character of the Tramp. The hero-clown survives the cruelty of nature and the villainy of humanity through his luck, pluck, and enterprise. Chaplin’s theme for the film is the quest for basic human needs—food, money, shelter, acceptance, and love—set in the harsh environment of the Gold Rush. It is no coincidence that the film’s setting mirrors the materialistic 1920s. Human beings endure great hardships in their pursuit of riches in The Gold Rush. The Tramp is an outcast in this frozen wasteland of outsiders.
The idea for the film came to Chaplin in late 1923 while looking at some stereograph pictures of the Klondike Gold Rush at Pickfair, the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The image that particularly intrigued him showed a long line of prospectors climbing up the Chilkoot Pass—the gateway to the gold fields—in the Klondike River district of the Yukon. Further inspiration came from reading a book about the Donner Party. (In 1846, George Donner and his group of pioneers became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada range while emigrating to California. The privations were such that many resorted to eating the corpses, cowhides, and moccasins of their fallen comrades). Chaplin was adept at creating comedy from unlikely themes (urban poverty in Easy Street and the First World War in Shoulder Arms); pointing out the humor in tragedy was one of his great gifts. As Chaplin wrote in his autobiography: “In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule; because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature—or go insane.”
One of Chaplin’s most celebrated sequences in The Gold Rush (and in all his films) finds the Tramp, out of desperate hunger, preparing a Thanksgiving dinner in which he boils his boot and eats it, picking the nails as though they were chicken bones, and twirling the bootlaces about a fork and eating them as though they were spaghetti. The delicate hilarity of the boot becoming food is Chaplin’s most outstanding comic transposition gag. The boots and laces used for the scene actually were made of licorice and the nails of hard candy. According to assistant director Eddie Sutherland, Chaplin went through 20 pairs of candy boots during three days and 63 takes to complete the sequence. Lita Grey (Chaplin’s second wife) later recalled that both Chaplin and Mack Swain suffered from the laxative effects of eating too much licorice, and work was suspended when both men became indisposed.
Equally celebrated is the “dance of the rolls” sequence, in which Charlie sticks two forks into bread rolls turning them into a pair of legs with booted feet; Chaplin uses his head and upper body as if they were attached to his fork “legs” and deftly performs a little dance routine. Roscoe Arbuckle had used the gag in his two-reel comedy The Rough House (1917). However, Chaplin made the routine famous. As Michel Hazanavicius, the writer-director of the Oscar-winning The Artist (2011) observed, “Charlie Chaplin was a great clown, a great stuntman, a great acrobat, a great dancer. The sequence with the bread is like the ‘Mona Lisa’ —everybody knows it.”
The Gold Rush—subtitled “A Dramatic Comedy”—was revolutionary in its use of film comedy to depict a dramatic historic event. Chaplin decided to photograph on location on a scale he had never attempted before. In Truckee, in northern California (not far from where the Donner Party had been snowbound), Chaplin’s crew restaged the Chilkoot Pass for the film’s opening panorama with hundreds of men on the trail between snow-capped mountains, struggling to climb to the dangerous pass. This large-scale scene was filmed at Donner Summit; the Truckee ski club had cleared the path for the single-file trudge. Eddie Sutherland had arranged for 600 men to be brought from Sacramento as extras, augmented by every available member of the cast and crew. It was shot entirely in one day and remains one of the most spectacular scenes of silent-film comedy. The Chilkoot Pass opening of The Gold Rush helped give the film the epic quality of the stereograph that first inspired Chaplin at Pickfair.
The Gold Rush was 17 months in the making with 235 days of actual filming. The production was not only elaborate but turbulent; production halted for three months when Lita Grey—the original leading lady—became pregnant and was replaced by Georgia Hale. The entire production cost $923,886.45, making The Gold Rush the most expensive comedy of the silent-film era. More than 230,000 feet of film were exposed (on one camera). In post-production, Chaplin spent nine weeks—from April 20, 1925, to the day of the world premiere in Hollywood on June 26, 1925—editing the film to a length under 10,000 feet.
At its premiere engagements at the Mark Strand Theatre in New York City, the Tivoli Theatre in London (where BBC radio broadcast ten minutes of laughter recorded during a showing of the film), the Salle Marivaux in Paris, and elsewhere throughout the world, The Gold Rush proved to be one of Chaplin’s greatest critical and commercial successes. At the Berlin premiere, the audience gave the “dance of the rolls” scene such a thunderous ovation that the management instructed the projectionist to rewind the scene and present an immediate encore. Similar incidents were reported elsewhere.
Chaplin reissued The Gold Rush in 1942, giving the film a soundtrack of his own musical score and sound effects, with spoken commentary replacing the original intertitles. He also edited the film and inserted a few extra shots to help continuity. Chaplin rearranged some sequences and discarded several scenes, reshaping his 1925 original in an effort to “modernize” the film. The silent version of The Gold Rush was reconstructed (Chaplin did not preserve the film’s original 1925 cut) in 1993 by the film historians and filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill.
Writer and critic Alexander Woollcott famously wrote of Chaplin’s screen persona: “It must be said of Charles Chaplin that he has created only one character, but that one, in his matchless courtesy, in his unfailing gallantry—his preposterous innocent gallantry in a world of gross Goliaths—is the finest gentleman of our time.” The Gold Rush represents the height of Chaplin’s creative powers and popularity as well as the apogee of his creation, the Little Tramp, the most celebrated cinematic character ever created.
© 2014 Jeffrey Vance
Presented at The Little Tramp at 100 event in January 2014 with live music by Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra