An isolated cabin, a frozen landscape. A man is so hungry he boils his shoe and eats it. This would be horrifying if it weren't funny, on account of the man being Charlie Chaplin. Which raises the question: What if Charlie Chaplin had actually starved nearly to death and had to eat his shoe? Would that have been funny? We'll never know, because Charlie Chaplin was never hungry. But we have another question: Why is The Gold Rush -- a film made 86 years ago -- still cited today as one of the great comedies? Let's stick forks in our dinner rolls and investigate.
The praise: The Gold Rush was the highest-grossing comedy of the Silent Era, and the fifth-highest-grossing movie of any genre in that era. Chaplin himself always said it was the one movie he'd most like to be remembered for. It ranked No. 74 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 best movies of all time (one of only four silents), and rose to No. 58 on the 2007 revised list.
The context: When Charlie Chaplin started shooting The Gold Rush in early 1924, he was already one of the world's biggest movie stars, having earned his fame through dozens of short films starting in 1914. In many of these he played the nameless Little Tramp, a creation that was itself one of the most recognizable characters in all of entertainment. The Tramp's first appearance in a feature-length movie -- and the first non-short directed by Chaplin -- was The Kid (1921). This was followed by a few more shorts and a 59-minute feature (1923's The Pilgrim), and then at last, by The Gold Rush. By this time, movie fans awaited a new Chaplin picture the way viewers of a later generation would clamor for the next Star Wars.
Adding to the excitement was the fact that Chaplin usually took a long time to make a film. He was a perfectionist, yes, but he also tended to start shooting with only a bare outline of ideas, not a completed script. He and his actors would work out the comedy bits -- with the cameras rolling -- until Chaplin liked what they had, then shoot it "for real," if necessary. The story would emerge during this process; sometimes he'd have to go back and re-do an earlier scene in order to accommodate a plot point that he came up with later.
As it happens, none of that is relevant to the matter at hand, because Chaplin actually had a script written when he started shooting The Gold Rush. But the production was delayed anyway for an entirely different reason: Chaplin knocked up his lead actress. Lita Grey was only 16 at the time (Chaplin was 35), so they hastily married to minimize the scandal and avoid potential legal problems. (It has been suggested that this was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. Georgia Hale replaced Grey in the film and reshot the scenes she'd completed. The film had begun shooting in February 1924; it didn't wrap until May 1925.
With all that behind-the-scenes drama, the delays, and the excitement that generally accompanied a new Chaplin movie anyway, you may well imagine how filmgoers reacted when the delightful finished product finally arrived. It performed exceedingly well at the box office, as noted above, and the critics loved it, too. (Said Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times: "Here is a comedy with streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness. It is the outstanding gem of all Chaplin's pictures."
In 1942, long after the Silent Era had given way to talkies and the Little Tramp had appeared on film for the last time, Chaplin made the bold decision to re-release The Gold Rush -- as a sound picture. He wrote narration (and recorded it himself) to replace the intertitles, and commissioned a new musical score. Other sound effects were added as necessary. While he was at it, Chaplin did some tinkering with the editing, tightening a few things here and there, removing a couple of small plot points. Most of the film remained intact, though; the difference in running times -- 96 minutes originally, 72 minutes for the re-release -- is mostly attributable to the new version playing at an established speed of 24 frames per second, whereas silent films tended to run slower. The musical score and sound recording were nominated for Oscars, and the re-release was met with popular success once again.
The movie: During the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, the Little Tramp goes prospecting in the ice and snow. He encounters a fugitive, a soon-to-be-rich prospector, a beautiful saloon girl, and a bear. Starvation, deprivation, and flirtation ensue.
What it influenced: Several scenes from the movie are iconic and have been imitated, homaged, or parodied elsewhere. These include:
- The starving prospector hallucinating that the Little Tramp is a chicken. After this, it became a fairly common gag in animated cartoons to have a hungry character imagine that whoever is nearby is a chicken or some other food item. Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and Tom and Jerry all employed it; so has The Simpsons. In fact, here's a pretty good list of the many instances this device has appeared in TV, movies, and comics. (By the way, would you like to read an article about starvation-themed cartoons? Of course you would.)
- The one-room shack teetering on the edge of a cliff. Based on the movements of the people inside, it either remains stable or starts to tip over. You usually see this device employed with an automobile nowadays, and not usually for laughs. For that matter, it's not likely that The Gold Rush invented it, since it plays on a fairly basic element of physical comedy. Still, it's an iconic image, and there you go.
- The Tramp sticking forks in two dinner rolls and performing a little dance as if the forks were legs and the rolls feet. (This had actually been done before at least once, in the 1917 Fatty Arbuckle short "The Rough House," but The Gold Rush made it famous.) Probably the most familiar homage was Johnny Depp's oddball character (a real departure for Depp) doing it in Benny & Joon (1993), but it's also appeared in movies as diverse as A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), a 1935 Three Stooges short ("Pardon My Scotch"), Band of Outsiders (1964), and Meet the Robinsons (2007).
- The Tramp boiling and eating his shoe. Like the person-as-food hallucination, this became a common gag in starvation-themed cartoons, and indeed a stereotypical image of exaggerated starvation. Adding to its notoriety was the fact that it's actually been known to happen, including among the members of the Donner party, whose story provided some of Chaplin's inspiration for The Gold Rush. The line between tragedy and comedy is very thin.
What to look for: The most readily available DVD release, from 2003, has the 1942 version on Disc 1 and the original silent version as an extra on the bonus disc. Both are terrific, though purists will want to see the original first. On the other hand, Chaplin's estate apparently considers the 1942 version to be the "official" one, since it's the main feature on the DVDs. Anyway, if you get it from Netflix, just be aware that the original is on the bonus disc.
The opening credits describe the film as "a dramatic comedy." The drama doesn't enter until halfway in, when the Tramp falls in love with the saloon girl. Like most Chaplin films, a sweet and melancholy tone develops to underscore the comedy.
You know that thing where a character finally gets a kiss or a date from his dream girl, plays it cool, then goes wild with celebration as soon as she's gone, only to be embarrassed when she comes back and sees his jubilation? It happens in The Gold Rush. Probably not the first time it ever happened in a movie, but certainly one of the earliest instances.
What's the big deal: There wasn't anything particularly revolutionary about The Gold Rush. Chaplin made several great films; this was simply one of them. But its popularity kept Chaplin afloat as the king of silent comedy. If this one had failed, he might not have been able to make City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. Collectively, all of these constitute Chaplin's legacy. He inspired the physical zaniness of the Marx Brothers, who inspired Monty Python, who inspired Saturday Night Live, and so on and so forth. Chaplin is one of the founding fathers of movie comedy, and The Gold Rush is one of his most consistently entertaining works.