Thursday, June 18, 2015

AFI Top 100: #58 "The Gold Rush"

Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925)

Nearing the halfway point of our AFI Top 100 journey, we've reached the second of three classic films starring Charlie Chaplin featured on the list. Coming in at #58, The Gold Rush is unique in Chaplin's filmography in that it was the first film the writer/actor/producer/director extraordinaire made that had a completed script before filming even began. Known for his improvisations on set, the scope of this massive project forced him to plan out everything in great detaileven though his aspirations to shoot on site in the frozen Alaskan wilderness were never [for the most part] realized.

Chaplin once again embodies his iconic "Little Tramp" character, this time portraying a Lone Prospector who travels to the Alaskan Klondike during the mad gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, hoping to strike it rich. Wholly unequipped to brave the dangerous winter, our patch-suit dressed tramp stumbles upon a couple of burly, brazen men with similar goals, both of whom have a better handle on navigating this harsh landscape. Well, sort of. Comically leeching onto their less-than-enthusiastic help, the men attempt to survive the elements, the wildlife, and the cold. Throughout his journey and after experiencing more than enough failure for a lifetime, the Prospector falls in love with vibrant chorus girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale), and attempts to woo her in his naive, but hopefully determined way.

The story is simple, as are most of Chaplin's films, but this one possesses an otherworldly quality that his more popular movies (Modern Times, City Lights) don'tThe Little Tramp is quite literally a fish out of water, a man with the exact hopes and dreams of his counterparts, but limited in his abilities to achieve them. Sure, that might sound like every other story in the Tramp oeuvre, but the location alone places the characters, who are all at similar disadvantages, on a more equal playing field. The Tramp isn't alone in his foolhardiness, and that sympathy allows for the audience to fall in love with him in a way that none of his other stories allowed. This stands as my favorite of Chaplin's films for that very reason.

The comedy in The Gold Rush is a prime example of Chaplin's deranged genius. The film is broken up into two basic parts: the Prospector braving the elements in a dilapidated log cabin, and the Prospector finding warmth (and a bit of discomfort) in the only slightly less rugged gold-running town nearby. Each section possesses countless memorable moments that arguably surpass the others, many of which stand alone even today as examples of comedic gold. One of the clearest assessments about this film is that it highlights Chaplin as a straight-man... not a comedy fool. He generates laughs, but they come from a much more high-brow place, even when everything turns physical. While we may all laugh, the Tramp isn't laughing with us. Instead, he's naive in his seriousness, oblivious to the dangers that make us gasp and immune to the pitfalls that make us laugh.

That is special, because an undercurrent of drama is created as a result. Even a bit of tragedy, since the Tramp comes from clearly tragic circumstances, despite any successes he might find. When Chaplin and his prospecting companion Big Jim (Mack Swain), desperate from hunger, cook up one of Chaplin's boots to eat, it's filmed to elicit laughs but at its core, it's impossible not to feel sadness and pity. Moments like these are frequent, but Chaplin never allows it to go to a dark place. The famous shoe-eating scene is followed moments later by a deliriously deranged Big Jim envisioning the Little Tramp as a giant chicken (Chaplin in an incredible chicken suit, even by today's standards!), and it brings it all back to a light and airy space, despite the suggested danger Jim poses to the Tramp's life.

The cabin set is beautifully created in its cracked and necessary starkness, icicles crowding the windows and wind seeping through the sideboards. Considering what we're shown of the outside, it looks like paradise, and Chaplin doesn't let any corner of it go to waste. Even when we're separated from the cabin during the film's second act, Chaplin brings that same desperation and loneliness to the Tramp's new surroundings. Georgia Hale (who went on to have an affair with Chaplin during the filming) casts a spell over the Tramp that is both delightful and reprehensible. He's like a child, and that's never been more perfectly portrayed than when he invites her and her friends to his home for a New Year's Eve dinner. It is the saddest scene, but it is my absolute favorite in the movie. The Tramp is no fool, but his heart might just be a bit too big for the world he inhabits.

I adored everything about this movie. It's a bit long for a silent picture of this sort, but enough happens that you don't really notice. There is constant action and the energy is crackling. Writing the script in advance of filming does wonders for a story, and this is one of Chaplin's most fully-realized comedies. His eye for details is inherent in the sets, from the log cabin to the tavern to the mountain side being scaled by hundreds of prospectors (fun fact: the only shot actually filmed on location, probably inspired by this photograph).

It's my opinion that this is Charlie Chaplin's greatest, most compelling film. While City Lights sits significantly higher on the list (at #11), The Gold Rush is a far better combination of exciting drama, hysterical comedy, and hopeful romance. The comedy bits are memorable while still relating to the plot, and that's not always the case with his other films. I'd love to see a future AFI Top 100 list where this movie makes a big jump up the countdown. I'm ecstatic that I can finally cross this one off my list.

Rating:  ★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next week for #57 on the list, Rocky — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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