Chaplin’s Masterpiece: ‘The Gold Rush’

Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin’s favorite cameraman, with Charlie during the film of The Gold Rush, 1925 (Photo: Motion Pictures and Television Photo Archive)
Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin’s favorite cameraman, with Charlie during the film of The Gold Rush, 1925 (Photo: Motion Pictures and Television Photo Archive)

 

To the question of which of his films he most wanted to be remembered for, Charlie Chaplin gave different answers at different times. But in the end the film he most mentioned, and seemed to have settled on as the one, was his 1925 silent masterpiece, The Gold Rush.

Chaplin made The Gold Rush out of the most unlikely sources for comedy. The first idea came to him when he was viewing some stereoscope pictures of the 1896 Klondike gold rush, and was struck by the image of an endless line of prospectors snaking up the Chilkoot Pass, the gateway to the gold fields. At the same time he happened to read a book about the Donner Party Disaster of 1846, when a party of immigrants, snowbound in the Sierra Nevada, were reduced to eating their own moccasins and the corpses of their dead comrades.

Chaplin–proving his belief that tragedy and ridicule are never far apart–set out to transform these tales of privation and horror into a comedy. He decided that his familiar tramp figure should become a gold prospector, joining the mass of brave optimists to face all the hazards of cold, starvation, solitude, and the occasional incursion of a grizzly bear.

 

An image of miners climbing the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike gold rush, 1898, similar to the 1896 image Chaplin saw that inspired the idea for The Gold Rush
An image of miners climbing the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike gold rush, 1898, similar to the 1896 image that inspired Chaplin’s idea for The Gold Rush

The idea took shape much more quickly than was usual for Chaplin: this was the only one of his great silent comedies that he began to shoot with the story fully worked out. Only two months after the premiere of his previous film, A Woman of Paris, he had already sent a scenario (provisionally titled The Lucky Strike) for copyright, and set his studio to work on building sets. Perhaps his activity was stimulated by the public’s disappointment with A Woman of Paris a dramatic film in which Chaplin himself appeared only fleetingly, as an extra.

In casting the film Chaplin found his private life inextricably linked to his work when he hired as his leading lady Lillita MacMurray, who, as a 12-year-old, he had cast in his 1921 hit, The Kid. McMurray, then 15 going on 16, was put under contract as Lita Grey. A clandestine affair between the two ensued, and six months into shooting Ms. Gray found she was pregnant. She and Chaplin were married, unhappily for the most part, and became bitter opponents in one of that era’s most scandalous divorces. Their union did produce two sons, however, in Charles Jr. and Sydney Chaplin.

Georgia Theodora Hale, as Miss Chicago 1922, the first year the contest was held. In addition to being cast as Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady in The Gold Rush, she also played Myrtle Wilson in the first film adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 1926. (Chicago Herald Tribute historical photo)
Georgia Theodora Hale, as Miss Chicago 1922, the first year the contest was held. In addition to being cast as Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady in The Gold Rush, she also played Myrtle Wilson in the first film adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 1926. (Chicago Herald Tribute historical photo)

Owing to the drama in his personal life, Chaplin shut down The Gold Rush production for three months, and replaced Lita Gray with a new leading lady, 24-year-old Georgia Hale, a former beauty queen from Chicago whom he had spotted as an extra in Josef von Sternberg’s debut film, The Salvation Hunters.

The Site

In what was then the most elaborate undertaking of his career, Chaplin took cast and crew to the snow country of the Sierra Nevada, to shoot on location at Truckee, California, where he faithfully recreated the historic image of the prospectors struggling up the Chilkoot Pass. Five hundred extras, “many drawn from the vagrants and derelicts of Sacramento,” according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, were brought in by train to clamber up the 2300-foot pass dug through the mountain snow.

During the early part of the 20th century, Truckee was one of Hollywood’s favorite sites for making movies. Nearly 100 known movies or movie sequences have been filmed in Truckee and the surrounding area, not including many scenes from popular television series, such as Bonanza.

The earliest report of filming in this area was in 1910 when the Truckee Republican reported that the Selig Polyscope Company had arrived in town for the purpose of filming winter scenes to be used to simulate the Alaskan wilderness. It is believed that this was the first movie ever made in Truckee.

The film crew of 20 arrived decked out with Alaskan outfits along with sleds, skis and eight Alaskan dogs for a weeklong filming schedule. Winter scenes included heroic rescues by Iceland frontiersmen and Perry’s expedition to the North Pole.

With the invention of the automobile, the pass over Donner Summit was made accessible and from 1913 to 1928, the Lincoln Highway crossed the Sierra through Donner Pass, following most of the old Dutch Flat-Truckee route. This was part of the nation’s first coast-to-coast road for automobiles.
With the invention of the automobile, the pass over Donner Summit was made accessible and from 1913 to 1928, the Lincoln Highway crossed the Sierra through Donner Pass, following most of the old Dutch Flat-Truckee route. This was part of the nation’s first coast-to-coast road for automobiles.

Truckee had already become a popular winter recreation area and the town’s location along the railroad lines and ample accommodations made it an ideal area for filming. Film crews and equipment could be hauled to the summit or to remote locations wintertime and the area’s alpine beauty provided a perfect backdrop for outdoor scenes.

However, the journey to Truckee did not prove fruitful. Chaplin attempted to film many of the scenes on location near Truckee, but abandoned most of this footage (which included him being chased through the snow by Big Jim, instead of just around the hut as in the final cut), retaining only the film’s opening scene. The final film was shot on the backlot and stages at Chaplin’s Hollywood studio, where elaborate Klondike sets were constructed.

For the main shooting a remarkably convincing miniature mountain range was created out of timber (a quarter of a million feet, it was reported), chicken wire, burlap, plaster, salt and flour. The spectacle of this Alaskan snowscape improbably glistening under the baking Californian summer sun drew crowds of sightseers.

In The Gold Rush the miners’ hut teeters on the edge of a precipice in one of cinema’s most sustained sequences of comic suspense
In The Gold Rush the miners’ hut teeters on the edge of a precipice in one of cinema’s most sustained sequences of comic suspense

In addition, the studio technicians devised exquisite models to produce the special effects which Chaplin demanded, like the miners’ hut, which is blown by the tempest to teeter on the edge of a precipice, for one of the cinema’s most sustained sequences of comic suspense. Often it is impossible to detect the shift from model to full-size set.

This brilliance, founded in the stereoscope image Chaplin discovered by chance, owes much to Chaplin’s favored cameraman, Rollie Totheroh. In his essay “The Soundless Laugh,” published online at Notebook, a digital magazine of international cinema and film culture, Daniel Riccuito notes: “Totheroh replicates the composition with a remarkable degree of accuracy in his opening shot, which has enough sweep and peril to give the audience permanent agoraphobia. A seemingly endless ribbon of gold-hunting prospectors buck a stiff grade, disappearing into distant mountain peaks. Ultimately, to re-create this image, 500 hobos, working as extras, would be trundled by locomotive to a location near the shoot, where they’d dutifully trek Chilkoot Pass for Chaplin. It’s an unsettling sequence in which one man collapses from exhaustion, and nobody stops to help—nor does the film have a moment to grieve over casualties.”

Classic Moments

The Gold Rush abounds with now-classic comedy scenes. The historic horrors of the starving 19th century pioneers inspired the sequence in which Charlie (playing The Lone Prospector) and his partner Big Jim (Mack Swain) are snowbound and ravenous. Charlie cooks and eats his boot, with all the airs of a gourmet. In the eyes of the delirious Big Jim, he is transformed into a chicken–a triumph both for the cameramen who had to effect the elaborate trick work entirely in the camera; and for Chaplin who magically becomes a bird. For one shot another actor took a turn in the chicken costume, but it was unusable: no-one else had Chaplin’s gift for metamorphosis.

The lone prospector’s dream of hosting a New Year dinner for the beautiful dance-hall girl provides the opportunity for another famous Chaplin set-piece the dance of the rolls. The gag had been done before, by Chaplin’s one-time co-star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in The Rough House (1917); but Chaplin gives unique personality to the dancing legs created out of forks and rolls. When the film was first shown audiences were so thrilled by the scene that some theatres were obliged to stop the film, roll it back and perform an encore.

Aftermath

The Gold Rush was a huge success in the U.S. and worldwide. It is the fifth highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more than $4,250,001 at the box office in 1926, and the highest grossing silent comedy. Critics gushed over it: in appraising the original 1925 release, the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall noted: “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, as it has more thought and originality than even such masterpieces of mirth as The Kid and Shoulder Arms.” At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, critics rated it the second greatest film in history, behind only Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. In 1992 The Gold Rush was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It has also been recognized by the American Film Institute in its “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies” rankings in 1998 (#74), 2000 (#25) and 2007 (#58).

In 1942, Chaplin released a new version of The Gold Rush, taking the original silent 1925 film and composing and recording a musical score, adding a narration which he recorded himself, and tightening the editing which reduced the film’s running time by several minutes. The film is also shortened by being run at “sound speed,” i.e. 24 frames per second; like most silent movies it was originally shot and exhibited at a slower speed. As noted above, Chaplin also changed some plot points. Besides removing his kiss with Georgia Hale at the end, another change eliminated a subplot in which Charlie is tricked into believing Georgia is in love with him by Georgia’s paramour, Jack.

The new music score by Max Terr and the sound recording by James L. Fields were nominated for Academy Awards in 1943.

As revealed in the 2003 DVD release, the reissue of The Gold Rush also served to preserve most of the footage from the original film, as even the DVD-restored print of the 1925 original shows noticeable degradation of image and missing frames, artifacts not in evidence in the 1942 version.

The Gold Rush took an extraordinary (for that time) 17 months to complete (most silent films were done in less than a month), and cost nearly a million dollars, making it by far the most expensive comedy of the time. It was also groundbreaking in placing a film comedy in the context of an actual historical event.

“It is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule,” observed Chaplin in a passage from his autobiography that might well serve as a summation of The Gold Rush’s raison d’etre. “Ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance; we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature–or go insane.

Sources: “Truckee Was Once the Film Mecca of the Sierras,” by Guy H. Coates, posted at the website of the Truckee Donner Historical Society

“Filming the Gold Rush,” by David Robinson, posted at the official Charlie Chaplin website, www.charliechaplin.com. Copyright 2004 MK2 SA.

“Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush,’ Part 2: Soundless Laugh,” by Daniel Riccuito, Notebook, 25 September 2012

“The Gold Rush,” Wikipedia

chaplin-goldrush-poster

THE GOLD RUSH (1925)

Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Rollie Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcolm Waite.