One thing I sometimes rail against when it comes to actors is how there are those who are type-casted, or seem to repeatedly play the same kind of character. Having said that, who am I, really? Those who find themselves in such roles are clearly doing something right that continues to bring them work. Meanwhile, I struggle for free bringing you these reviews, so who am I do criticize somebody who for getting paid well for doing something, no matter how redundant. Charlie Chaplin is the ultimate argument against my desire for variety from those who work in the film industry. Despite being dead for nearly half a century, and not making any movies for a little longer, he is still arguably one of the most recognizable performers of all time. With that, I give you number fifty-eight on the American Film Industry’s (AFI) Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, The Gold Rush (1925).
As the previous paragraph might suggest, Charlie Chaplin is once more a tramp in The Gold Rush, though in the credits he is listed as The Lone Prospector. That nom de scene is misleading because the film begins with hundreds of gold seekers heading north into Alaska. Still, he is the one that is focused on the most, even though early on we are also introduced to Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). He is another miner, and he has found what he terms as a “mountain of gold.” Nearby is another person, but of a shiftier disposition. This is evident because Black Larsen (Tom Murray) burns a wanted poster of himself in the stove warming his solitary cabin. It is this domicile that the Lone Prospector comes upon as a storm is beginning to set in. Larsen does everything he can to kick the Lone Prospector out of the dwelling, but such is the wind that it keeps pressing the diminutive figure back inside. The blizzard also brings Big Jim, who immediately takes the side of the Lone Prospector, and the three are now committed to bearing the weather together. The problem, though, is that they have no food. They draw cards in order to see who will go out to find supplies, and Larsen earns the dubious honor. Unsurprisingly, he has no intention of returning. Instead, he happens upon two officers of the law who are hunting for him, murdering them. He next finds Big Jim’s claim. Meanwhile, hunger sets in for Big Jim and the Lone Prospector. Eating one of the Lone Prospector’s shoes does nothing to settle their appetite, and soon he is appearing to Big Jim as a giant chicken. Before cannibalism can occur, a bear stumbles into the cabin and they are able to fell it and eat it. Thus restored, they part ways. The Lone Prospector heads for a nearby town, while Big Jim returns to his campsite. There, he is knocked on the head by Larsen. Big Jim is spared death, though, when the cliff underneath Larsen gives way and he falls to his doom. In the town, the Lone Prospector enters a dance hall. This is where he meets Georgia (Georgia Hale), a woman of some repute. I say this because he first finds a picture of her on the floor. So taken is he by it that he picks it up as a keepsake, not realizing he will eventually meet the genuine article. They encounter one another after she fends off Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite), who is introduced as a ladies’ man. At the end of the night, the Lone Prospector is wandering alone and falls flat in the snow, seemingly frozen to death. He is taken in by Hank Curtis (Henry Bergman), a kindly man who gives the Lone Prospector the use of his cabin as he leaves to travel elsewhere. This is where Georgia and her friends find the Lone Prospector. He invites them in and while he looks to their needs, Georgia finds her picture under his pillow. Seeing that he is smitten with her, they tell him that they will return on New Year’s Eve to have a party with him. He eagerly agrees and goes out to shovel snow sway from businesses in order to bring in the money he will need to entertain guests. On the appointed evening, with everything prepared just so, the time for their soiree comes and goes and he falls asleep. While under, he dreams of Georgia and her friends having a grand time with him. This is where you get the famous scene of him dancing with the two bread rolls. He is awakened at midnight by the sound of gunshots being fired from the dance hall to ring in the new year. He goes out to see what the commotion is about while Georgia and company go to his place to play a joke on him. This is when she sees the effort he made and is genuinely touched, though they do not find one another that night. What we do see is Big Jim stumbling into town the next day, the blow to his head causing him to forget the location of his gold lode. Serendipitously, he finds the Lone Prospector, asking him to come with him back to where they first met because he feels he will be able to find the gold from that location. They get there, but yet another snow front blows through the area. This one is even stronger, knocking the entire structure off its foundation. When they awaken the next morning, they discover the cabin is hanging off the side of a mountain, the only thing keeping them from death is a rope wedged between two rocks. There proceeds a comedic balancing act before they are able to leap to safety. By chance, it is on the spot of Big Jim’s mine. They are now millionaires and are leaving Alaska to return to the rest of the United States. On the outbound ship, too, is Georgia. She recognizes the Lone Prospector, and they share a kiss as they pose for a picture.
The Gold Rush is one of the more famous silent films, though it is for a reason that might seem puzzling to modern audiences. Had I been living in the 1920s, I am not sure I would have understood it then, either. Yet, the scene when the Lone Prospector sticks forks into two dinner rolls and dances with them is an iconic one, and one that has been parodied or referenced in other films since. What it, and the rest of the movie underscore, is the simple sweetness of Chaplin’s craft. This is something I have covered in other examples of his work, and it once more shines in this one. What I appreciate about his characters is that they do not put on airs. In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus talks about the Pharisees. Talk about a group that wanted others to know their status. What we are called to do is to rely on God, not on the honors that others give us. This can take many forms, and it is not something denied to the wealthy. I know many Catholics quite well off whose relationship with God is that of an openness to whatever God brings them. Though the Lone Prospector may not be thinking about what he does in the same terms, he approaches each situation with the humble expectation that a solution will provide itself. He has the same attitude after he is rich. Dressed in finery aboard the ship, he still stoops to pick up a half-smoked cigar for himself, thinking it a gift. He is only reminded of his new station by Big Jim, who hands him a fresh stogie. I may not like smoking in any form, but there is something to be learned by such a disposition in terms of how we view God.
When I watch movies like The Gold Rush, I sometimes wonder what a modern remake would be like, you know, because nobody enjoys silent films. One thing seems clear: they would likely take the elements of it and turn up the sex and violence. It would probably be turned into something unwatchable, in other words. Who wants to see a shy tramp try to woo a beautiful dancer? Well, I do, and I think you should, too.
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