1 Year, 100 Movies #58 The Gold Rush (1925)

by Trey Hock on November 24, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

The Gold Rush” is the second Charlie Chaplin film on AFI’s list. Made in 1925, it marks what many consider to be the beginning of the high-water period of Chaplin’s career. Spanning from “The Gold Rush” to “Modern Times” in 1936, these few years would produce Chaplin’s most enduring films.

I invited my friend, Keith DeCristo, a filmmaker in New York, to join me for “The Gold Rush.” He was skeptical that a film consisting of static framed shots would appeal to his current, fast-paced visual sensibilities. Keith hadn’t seen a Chaplin film in years. His mother took him to see “The Great Dictator” at the New Art on Pico in LA when he was a little kid. Back then he couldn’t understand why anyone would waste time with an old boring black and white movie. Oh how a few years can change the way you look at a film.

“The Gold Rush” is a really fast cut. An hour and eight minutes that feels like twenty. I thought I was going to sit and look at a whole bunch of locked off shots that take twenty minutes per take, and I didn’t get that. –Keith

The story in “The Gold Rush” is very simple. An inexperienced Prospector (Charlie Chaplin) heads off to the mountains of Alaska in search of his fortunes. Through a series of misadventures, he encounters other prospectors, both good and ill, as well as Georgia (Georgia Hale), a local dance hall girl. He falls on hard times, but comes out on top. In the end, he even ends up with the girl.

As with many of his other films, Chaplin took on almost all primary creative roles for “The Gold Rush.”

Every time I watch a Chaplin film, it always shocks me when I go through the credits, because it’s written, directed, produced, scored and acted in by Charlie Chaplin. Part of the meticulousness, part of the attention to detail is due to this control freak mad genius at the helm. –Trey

This meticulous control comes across in the cinematography as well as the story. Many of the scenes, both on location and in the studio, are of snow-covered landscapes. This broad spectrum of lights and darks can be tricky, but each of the shots looks great.

The opening sequence is a perfect example of this.

I love all of the silver in the emulsion, even in the standard def transfer it’s really special, and I appreciate that who ever did the transfer made sure we saw the full frame as it was intended.

The snow shots are great. There’s detail in the highlights and details in the blacks. That’s very impressive. It’s a hard shot to get. –Keith

Though many of the shots have static frames, it is often to the advantage of the film. The Prospector seeks shelter from a snowstorm in the nefarious Black Larsen’s (Tom Murray) cabin. Black Larsen attempts to throw the Prospector out into the cold, but with hilarious results.

During this windy sequence, it’s an advantage to have the camera frame locked down. That way the viewer can see that it is just Chaplin performing. There are no tricks here, it is just Chaplin doing his stunts and selling them perfectly. There may be a treadmill or some device, but Chaplin must interact with it physically and within a single locked down frame. There’s no cutting around a missed take. –Trey

Chaplin has a great knack for little details. These tiny embellishments sell the jokes, and add depth to the world within the film. When the Prospector and Big Jim (Mack Swain) are stuck in the cabin, Big Jim, delirious with hunger, starts to see the Prospector as a chicken. Watch for the moment just after the Prospector buries the gun.

That little chicken kick that Chaplin does brings the hallucination into reality, and makes for a subtle and funny visual punch line.

For 1925, there are a number of impressive special effects shots in “The Gold Rush.” Black Larsen has stolen from Big Jim, but karma can be rough sometimes. Black Larsen meets his end moments later on an unstable part of the mountain.

For a film that’s 85 years old, this sequence looks pretty good. At the moments that the film’s special effects do start to show their age, it is often in such a way that makes them charming. Regardless of their age, the shots still work to further the story without distracting the viewer.
The Prospector wanders into town looking for work and an escape from the cold. He finds himself in the local dance hall, where Georgia’s beauty overwhelms him. (Music starts at 8 seconds.)

This scene also shows how Chaplin pushes his cinematographer to help him tell his story, and help direct the viewer’s attention to the important visual elements.

The lighting in the dance sequence is a little vaudevillian, a little stage like. I like it. We go a little dark in the background and they bump it up in the foreground. It looks like a stage.

Most of the main characters get a nice little highlight, which is great and something that I didn’t realize went that far back in cinematography. I expected everything to be more flat, but the light was motivated really well. Successful painters will use light and shadow in the same way to direct our eye to what’s important. –Keith

Having just recently watched “Duck Soup,” which is a wonderful example of cinematic physical comedy, it is apparent that “The Gold Rush” doesn’t sacrifice story or character to get a bit or some physical comedy on screen. Instead because Chaplin was writer, director, and performer, he could figure out a way to insert bits of physical comedy in such a way that it would further the story. A perfect example is the roll scene, which everyone has watched, but it’s always excerpted. (Music starts at 10 seconds.)

If you watch the whole scene, it takes place in his dream. He’s just been stood up, so this scene which is very cute, whimsical, and exceptionally well executed, now becomes poignant and important to the story. –Trey

As the disappointed Prospector wanders into the dance hall, Big Jim returns having lost his way to his claim. He finds the Prospector, and offers him half of the fortune if he can lead Big Jim to the cabin. They make it to the cabin, but once again they are trapped by a blizzard. This time with even more striking results.

The Prospector and Big Jim just make it out of the cabin, find the claim, secure their fortune, and all is soon set right.

In today’s standards, if I were to tell you that a current film was only 68 minutes long, you’d probably be skeptical. I know I would be, and yet at just over an hour, “The Gold Rush” is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Chaplin took only the time necessary to tell the story he wanted to tell. If you’re looking for a surprising film from the early days of cinema, “The Gold Rush” is well worth watching.

Or as Keith put it:

I can now revisit it as an adult, without saying, “Aww it’s in black and white. It’s too slow. It’s archaic.” It really moves fast. It’s really impressive.

Next up #57 “Rocky” (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #59 Nashville (1975)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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