The Gold Rush (1925)

I'd seen conflicting reports on whether or not Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush was a Christmas movie, so I decided to check for myself. I've seen several of Chapman's other films over the past year, and consider him one of the most consistently entertaining filmmakers of his era (possibly the most entertaining, in fact). While The Gold Rush might be my least favorite of his movies I've seen to date, it's still quite good, and it technically meets our definition for a Christmas movie, which you probably guessed from the fact you're reading this at all.

I want to stress that the word "technically" is doing some heavy lifting. The movie doesn't mention or acknowledge Christmas itself, though both Thanksgiving and New Year's are significant dates in the narrative, making it easy to confirm the bulk of screen time is spent on or between these holidays. In fact, only the first and last fifteen minutes fall outside this range.

I should mention there are a couple versions of this movie in circulation: I watched and am reviewing the original 1925 silent version, not the 1942 re-release where Chaplin added narration, music, sped up the footage, and cut a few scenes. Just pay attention to which version you're watching if you track this down.

Let's talk premise and plot. The movie follows Chapman's iconic Tramp (here called the "Lone Prospector") as he deals with the titular Alaskan gold rush in a series of comedic vignettes loosely strung together. This is typical of the Chaplin films I've seen: the larger story exists primarily as a framing device and theme. Meanwhile, individual segments almost work as short films. There's a justification for their inclusion, but most don't move the story further so much as provide amusing bits.

After a jaw-dropping sequence depicting a long line of climbers contending with a snowy mountain, we find Chaplin wandering along cliffs, blissfully unaware of a nearby bear. Separately, a wanted criminal hides out in an isolated cabin, and a third prospector named Jim locates a mountain full of gold. A storm brings them all together at the cabin, where the criminal attempts to throw the others back into the cold. Jim gets the upper hand, however, and the three accept an uneasy truce until hunger convinces them someone will need to brave the elements in search of food. The criminal loses a game of cards and goes out, but he comes across a couple lawmen, who he murders. He takes their belongings, decides to abandon Jim and the Tramp, then stumbles on Jim's mine, which he starts pillaging.

Meanwhile, back at the cabin Jim and the Tramp are dealing with starvation. For Thanksgiving dinner, they cook and eat one of the Tramp's shoes - the first of several famous moments in this thing. Another comes later when Jim starts hallucinating the Tramp is a giant chicken. I assume this is the origin of that gag, but of course, I could be mistaken. Anyone know for sure if this is the first time this was done in film (or any medium, for that matter)? Regardless, the effect here is really fantastic. The chicken costume Chaplin is wearing looks great, and his physicality - both in shots with him wearing it and those establishing the "real world" alternate poses - is nothing short of phenomenal.

There are hijinks, eventually resolving in them shooting and eating a bear before parting ways. Jim returns to his mine, where he's hit on the head with a shovel by the criminal, who then dies in an avalanche. Honestly, the way it's shot I originally assumed Jim also died from the shovel or subsequent exposure, but he comes back later in the film.

Meanwhile, the Tramp finds his way to a nearby town, where he falls in love with a woman named Georgia and fights a local bully. Georgia seems to have mixed feelings about him - she initially finds him endearing but doesn't seem to have any interest in pursuing a relationship. She strings him along for a while as a prank, but things get complicated when she jokingly agrees to come to a house he's looking after on New Year's. Unbeknownst to her, he spends a large amount of time earning money to buy food for the dinner. When she doesn't show, he's heartbroken, though first there's a dream sequence justifying the inclusion of the movie's other iconic moment in which Chaplin mimes a dance using two dinner rolls on forks.

Around this time Jim reemerges, having forgotten the location of his mine due to getting hit in the head earlier. He believes he could find it again, but only if he starts from the cabin he shared with the Tramp. But of course, he doesn't know where that is, either. Fortunately, he wanders into town on New Year's and runs into the Tramp, who he promises to make his partner in exchange for helping him find his way back.

There's some more confusion around Georgia's feelings towards the Tramp that's best ignored (Chaplin agreed - this was one of the sections he cut from the rerelease), and the two prospectors head back to the cabin. When they arrive, there's another storm, which blows the cabin to the edge of a cliff while they sleep. This of course leads to an extended comedic sequence with them trying to figure out why the cabin tilts when one of them moves to one side, then another sequence where they barely survive its inevitable fall.

But shenanigans aside, they conveniently find themselves at the mine they were looking for, so they get to work. Soon we cut to them on a large boat heading back to California as millionaires. As luck would have it, Georgia is on the same boat, and she and the Tramp are reunited in time for a happy ending.

Before I even touch on the quality of the film, I should at least mention the behind-the-scenes drama involving Chaplin's love life. Georgia was originally supposed to be played by Chaplin's then-wife, Lita Grey, who had to drop out due to pregnancy. The role instead went to Georgia Hale, who Chaplin started a relationship with. Which would all be bad enough even if Grey weren't 16 years old at the time (they got married because of her pregnancy).

So... yeah. He had an affair with a minor (which, for the record, was illegal then, too), got her pregnant, then married her to sidestep legal issues. I love his movies and respect his contributions, but his actions were horrific and inexcusable, and that's not even touching on the fact this was a pattern for Chaplin - Hale wasn't the first underage woman he married to cover up a pregnancy.

Back to the movie....

It's good, though I wouldn't rank it as highly as Chaplin's best work. If you're only planning on watching one of his films, I'd recommend either The Kid or Modern Times above this. That's not to say this isn't impressive, but The Kid juggles tonal shifts better, while the effects work in Modern Times is breathtaking. I bring those aspects up because they're the two that stand out beyond the straightforward comedic value of individual segments in The Gold Rush.

While The Gold Rush is fundamentally a comedy, the movie acknowledges the real danger and tragedy of the era depicted (which was of course far more recent relative to when it was made than it is now). But while the movie touches on this topic, I don't find it particularly impactful. The central relationship in The Kid, on the other hand, still resonates. I admire the fact he was experimenting with contrasting tones in The Gold Rush, but in hindsight, it mostly feels uneven. This is most obvious in the sequence where the criminal murders a couple lawmen: it feels very out of place in an otherwise relatively lighthearted comedy. To be fair, audiences of the time had a much more positive reaction to the tone.

Same goes with the effects and cinematography. There's some phenomenal miniature and staging work here, particularly around the cliff and cabin at the end. Likewise, the sequence at the start where hundreds of climbers are braving a snowy pass is incredible. The scene introducing the Tramp by showing him wandering along a seemingly precarious ledge while a bear follows a few feet behind is also a fantastic accomplishment. It's all amazing, particularly in context of the limitations of the time. But Modern Times, the last of Chaplin's films featuring the Tramp, includes visual effects that are incredible outside of that context. I wouldn't go quite that far here, though some of those early scenes come close.

But seeing as this is a Christmas blog, we'd better address the giftwrapped elephant in the room, namely why this is set at Christmas. Or, more accurately, why it's set around Christmas, since the movie opts to sidestep the 25th of December entirely, despite implicitly being set during the holiday season. To be honest, I'm not entirely certain, though there are a few elements that stand out.

First, the movie's interest in New Year's makes sense, as that holiday is associated with romance and new beginnings, and the third act of the film certainly takes an interest in both, even if those themes feel a touch superficial in contrast to the comedic interludes.

The inclusion of Thanksgiving might simply be setup for the joke where they cook and eat the shoe, though it occurs to me the holiday also works as a symbol of America's past. You could even interpret the fact the characters are poor and starving at this point and wealthy at the end as reflecting the difficulties of the era contrasted with optimism for the future. Or not - that could be reading a little too much into this. Hell, it's entirely possible they started with Thanksgiving as a joke, then added the bit on New Year's to make the plot and timeline work. Regardless, it's absolutely a case where the holiday elements feel incidental, whether or not there was an intended thematic justification. This isn't a movie where the holidays drive the film - it's not even a movie where the plot is the driving force. The star attraction is Chaplin's physicality and comedic sensibilities. And, for what it's worth, those hold up a century later. He's one of the silent era's most enduring stars for a reason - he was really good at this stuff, and he innovated techniques and styles that remain relevant.

But as I said earlier, this isn't the movie from his filmography I'd start with. The tonal alchemy in The Kid is quite a bit better, while Modern Times (aided by another decade of technological development and some synchronized sound) is both more approachable and more immediately visually satisfying. But all three are worth checking out if you're interested in this era of film. That's probably true of all Chaplin's movies.

As a side note, I found a great deal of information on this site about Chaplin, in case anyone is curious to read more about this film or its star.