The Gold Rush Is My Favorite Movie

Note: This is the hundred-and-thirty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1925 film, THE GOLD RUSH, directed by Charlie Chaplin.

THE GOLD RUSH exists in another universe, a comic, sentimental universe that Charlie Chaplin was so gifted at creating. But while inhabiting a world apart, Chaplin was also able to impart compelling humanity and emotion through his clown: the Tramp, the Little Tramp, the Lone Prospector, the Little Fellow. He had many names, but he was romantic existence personified. And the Tramp’s own romanticism is the reason why THE GOLD RUSH is so good. It’s in fact my favorite movie. Ever. For now. Of all time.

The perfect storm of elements to paint THE GOLD RUSH such a magnificent picture starts with waylaid plans. Chaplin’s intention was to film the movie on location; the remnant of this plan stands in THE GOLD RUSH’s incredible opening shots, as homeless extras trudge up a steep mountain face in Truckee, California. But lacking the control he so desperately needed, Chaplin decided to move production back to Hollywood in his own studios, it should be noted, with the added input of Chaplin’s near-career-wide cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh.

THE GOLD RUSH is not where the Hollywood artifice machine was originated or where it reached its peak, but the film represents the incredible ability of the emerging American filmmaking system to present realities warped by symbolic approximations and condensed emotional arcs. Studio filmmaking was nothing new in 1925, obviously. But Chaplin and his team used the studio as an instrument rather than a tool, echoing the dreams 1930s Hollywood would produce and, ironically considering the silence of the movies, the musical philosophies to come from the likes of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.

With flour, miniatures, and facades, Chaplin and Co. created a convincing adventure and romance in the Yukon. But the feel of the artistry is never gone. Although part of the philosophy behind THE GOLD RUSH was to make it as realistic as possible, there was not a forsaking of stylized elements; this was a matter of necessity as well artistic choice. Chaplin was a clown, and his circus big top (forgive the reference to his next film) was comprised of the sets of THE GOLD RUSH, expansive things that nevertheless fold in to create a controlled experience. This story resides in a sealed off land of fantasy, recognizable but presented potently like only the best showman can present it.

Speaking of presentation: as a matter of clarity, there are two versions of THE GOLD RUSH. There is, of course, the original 1925 silent version, clocking in at about 95 minutes. But Chaplin re-released the film in 1942, complete with his score, his own narration that replaced the intertitles (with a bit more flair, I should add), and cut scenes and subplots down to a 72 minute run time. The result is a well-trimmed, magical storybook version of an already incredible movie. Chaplin’s score is beautiful and comfortable and his narration provides goofy gravitas to the tale. I’ll go on record to say the 1942 version of THE GOLD RUSH is the superior version. I don’t know if that’s a hot take or not. I guess it’s certainly a take of any temperature.

The aesthetic of THE GOLD RUSH, augmented by the 1942 version’s music, is a key facet of my enjoyment for the movie. It contributes to an exciting and heartfelt world to escape to. But that world surrounds the hilarious and dramatic moments that truly make THE GOLD RUSH comfort cinema.

Chaplin’s movements on screen have been described as balletic. That is accurate. His movies have also been described as full of pathos. That is also accurate. In no other film leading up to THE GOLD RUSH was that more true. Whether he’s calmly navigating a high cliff or being blown about by vicious Yukon winds, Chaplin is constantly controlling his clumsy, out-of-control character with a pretty much unmatched grace and wit. The two most famous scenes from THE GOLD RUSH, when the Tramp prepares and eats his boot with all the care of a fine chef and when he performs the dinner roll dance, are smaller microcosms of Chaplin’s brand of slapstick comedy. It’s genius and still laugh-out-loud funny.

And in no other film leading up to THE GOLD RUSH did Chaplin so effectively tug at heartstrings. The Tramp’s pining for Georgia, a Yukon dance hall courtesan, is innocent and (at first) unrequited. He doesn’t even realize what Georgia’s presence at the dance hall really means. And yet there’s a feeling that even if he did, he would still love her. When the Tramp prepares a New Year’s Eve party for Georgia and her friends, he performs that aforementioned dinner roll dance to great effect for his small audience. But it is quickly revealed that it is all a dream, and Charlie was stood up by the woman he loves. Perhaps more affecting than this moment is the moody shot of the Tramp looking in through the dance hall window afterwards, and certainly the arrival of Georgia and her friends at the Tramp’s cabin, ready to make mischief, only to realize the great efforts and care the man had put into the night. Georgia is softened by the blow.

She is played by Georgia Hale, an actress with a relatively short yet tremendous career, even if all she did was deliver her distant yet alluring performance in THE GOLD RUSH. But she also starred in Josef von Sternberg’s tremendous, scrappy, and positively un-Hollywood debut THE SALVATION HUNTERS (1925). In any event, Chaplin found in Hale a tremendous leading lady, his first since the career dissolution of his only sustained muse Edna Purviance. But Hale was not his first choice; it is important to mention here that THE GOLD RUSH, as Chaplin’s entire career is really, is mired in the star’s reprehensible behavior.

Chaplin had hired Lita Grey, then 12, to play a mischievous angel in the dream sequence of THE KID (1921). Following that part, Grey went back to school, but auditioned once again for THE GOLD RUSH. At this point she was 16, and Chaplin impregnated her, “forcing” him into a discreet marriage in 1924. He was 35. Her pregnancy and their marriage also forced her out of the film, setting a rocky start to a short marriage that saw Chaplin quickly grow emotionally and physically distant from his new wife. They divorced in 1926.

There is no excuse for these actions; “these actions” being statutory rape. But my feelings for the work and mind of Charlie Chaplin are interesting, more than 90 years removed from these events and over 40 from his death. I suspect time has a lot to do with being able to “separate the art from the artist.” I have no principled point to make here. It is just a facet of interfacing with popular culture that obviously has a lot of relevance today, and I know I’m not the only one able to dissociate older wrongs while condemning and refusing to consume the art of contemporary offenders.

I don’t know. Well, I do know that I love THE GOLD RUSH, that its humor and humanity and artistry create a sense of satisfaction and a resonance that no other film has been able to match for me, lately. It’s my favorite movie. About 1,300 words later, maybe that’s all I needed to say. THE GOLD RUSH, for me, encapsulates every angle that you’d want to see in a good, even great movie, at the highest level. And yes, it’s even (mostly) missing sound.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.