The Gold Rush – 1925 – dir. Charles Chaplin
What would it have been like to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush in a theater when it premiered in 1925?
First, maybe we should consider what was happening in American culture in 1925, because it was a great year: The New Yorker began publication in February, “The Great Gatsby” and Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” were published, Al Capone became boss of the Chicago Outfit, President Calvin Coolidge gave the first inaugural address via radio, and, in Tennessee, John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, was convicted of illegally teaching evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial, resulting in a $100 fine.
One of the biggest stars of American film at the time was the German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin, who would be considered, but not nominated, for the first Best Actor Academy Award in 1929.
The first screening of The Gold Rush was at midnight on August 16, 1925 in New York City at the Mark Strand Theatre, which was located at 47th street and Broadway in Times Square. The theater had been built in 1914 and was considered the first modern film “palace” in New York, with a seating capacity of nearly 3,000 according to cinema treasures. The opening of the Strand had heralded the demise of the storefront nickelodeons, which had been the primary way to view films since 1905. Just two years after the opening of the Strand, in 1916, there were more than 21,000 cinemas in the United States.
(The Mark Strand Theatre was demolished in 1987, but images of it can still be found on the web. Have a look at this newspaper clipping from 1915, which gives an idea of how gilded the theater was. The same location now houses a Sunglass Hut.)
The point being that in 1925, cinema was very young and expectations were different.
In October 1924, the New York Times had appointed Mordaunt Hall to be their first motion picture critic and in his 1925 review of The Gold Rush, he wrote, “Chaplin takes strange situations and stirs up tears and smiles. He accomplishes this with art and simplicity, and in his more boisterous moments he engineers incidents that at this presentation provoked shrieks of laughter. You may analyze some of them and think them absurd. They are but it does not alter the fact that you find yourself stirred by the story, gripped by its swing and filled with compassion for the pathetic little hero.” He notes that “It is the outstanding gem of all Chaplin’s pictures.” High praise.
Hall also wrote about the atmosphere in the Strand the night that The Gold Rush premiered, where Chaplin himself was in attendance: “It was a proud night for Chaplin, as while he sat looking at the picture and listening to Carl Edouarde’s orchestra he was not insensible to the chuckles and shrieks of laughter provoked by his own antics on the screen. The joy of the spectators testified to the worth of the picture, on which he had worked for more than eighteen months.”
It was a hot night, according to Hall, and many of the attendees had already watched other films that night, but The Gold Rush was a resounding success.
Variety magazine wrote “The sequence showing Chaplin and Swain in the see-sawing cabin on the edge of the precipice surpasses anything ever before screened and provides one reel of continuous roars and howls.” (who wrote the article isn’t immediately clear on their website.)
And, “Humor is the dominating force, with Chaplin reaching new heights as a comedian. Chaplin naturally carries practically the entire 10 reels of action and performs this task without difficulty. He transcends everything that has ever gone before in comedy production, and it will be a long time before any one displaces him as the genius of pantomime.”
Has the opinion of the movie changed considerably? If we jump forward to today, where almost no one refers to how many reels are in a film, it has a 100% fresh approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And after a quick scan of the multitude of Amazon reviews for the new Criterion Edition of The Gold Rush reveals that the charm of the film is intact. Almost all the negative comments are about the quality of the film or the restoration or the digital transfer.
Of course, not everyone gets just how much of a visionary Chaplin was, or how high he set the bar with The Gold Rush. Amazon frequent reviewer Bjorn Clasen’s one-starred, four-sentence review titled “I Am Not Amused” lets us know that “the humour [sic] in the film is very unsophisticated, at times even ridiculous.”
With all last year’s weepy nostalgia for the silent black-and-white film era, it is easy to forget that a actual silent film like The Gold Rush, which grossed $4,250,001 at the box office in 1926, still might have more charm and wit than today’s knockoff equivalent. (I’m looking at you, The Artist.) In fact, with the Oscar-grabbing success of The Artist, I might even argue that there will be fewer people out there who actively remember how raw and new the film industry used to be. The audience’s memories of actual grainy film can easily be replaced by the swank of Hollywood’s glossy and cheap revamp. There was a time when the limited special effects and camera tricks of Chaplin were amazing, unbelievable, and unparalleled to a civilized and intelligent crowd.
When we look at a modern marvel like Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, we should see how it is an amazing feat compared to what was possible just 90 years ago. Without the ingenuity of Chaplin, we might never have reached such great advances in explosions.
With The Gold Rush, we have a genuine article, a film that is interesting, well written and carefully shot, and groundbreaking for its era. Chaplin’s tramp goes for the American Dream on this one: headed Westward in search of gold and in search of love and completely unprepared for both. From the moment that The Lone Prospector appears on the screen, we see the gag is that he’s not prepared for this climate, this job, or this lifestyle. He’s twirling his cane and all duck feet, precariously walking on the edge of a mountain. Imagine what those shots would look like to an audience that had never seen footage of the Yukon. Imagine an audience marveling at Chaplin eating his shoe.
Maybe Clasen is right. Maybe Charlie Chaplin is ridiculous by today’s standards, but he certainly wasn’t ridiculous in 1925. And, although they look amazing today, maybe James Cameron and Avatar will look ridiculous in 90 years.
I think Woody Allen, in a 1995 conversation with Michiko Kakutani for “The Art of Humor No. 1” in the Paris Review, nailed how we should remember Chaplin:
“Once in a great while something comes together by pure accident of time and place and chance. Charlie Chaplin came along at the right time. If he’d come along today, he’d have had major problems.”