Picture yourself trudging through the frozen Alaskan tundra, alone, in the midst of a storm. Flecks of ice and frost are whipping around your hunched figure, your bowler hat can barely stay on, and your bamboo cane sinks straight into the snow when you lean on it for support. You will shortly face extreme hunger, paranoia and attempted cannibalism. From an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that your situation is dire.
Only Charlie Chaplin could turn this scenario into a comedy, and one of his most endearing ones at that. THE GOLD RUSH has his lovable Little Tramp embodying the outsider, as usual, amidst prospectors who have journeyed north in search of gold. His distinct getup is more out of place than usual here, especially when we see him trudging through the snow alongside a man well over six feet wearing a thick fur coat and weather-beaten boots. Any sensible viewer would have to wonder what exactly Chaplin is doing in the north, though the answer seems obvious—he is, after all, described by an inter-title as a “lone prospector.” Nevertheless, we do not see the tramp digging up frozen ground or sifting through rocks once in the entire film. He is suspiciously unconcerned with prospecting throughout the movie, and only acquires wealth at the film’s conclusion because his furry companion, Big Jim, shares his gold with him after the tramp helps relocate the source claim.
Anyone familiar with Chaplin’s work will not be surprised at this turn of events. His characters are rarely motivated by the promise of riches alone, and when they are, as in MONSIEUR VERDOUX, he excels at depicting the folly and utter lack of fulfillment in such a pursuit. In the filmmaker’s universe, material wealth is no guarantee of spiritual wealth—in fact, it is often antithetical to it. It is fitting, then, that the lone prospector gains his fortune not through seeking it, but through the kind companionship he shows Big Jim.
For the clearest idea of the underlying beliefs present in all of Chaplin’s films, I turn to his own words as written in his autobiography. He has just finished relating how his mother expressively read the New Testament to him as a child when he declares, “In that dark room in the basement at Oakley Street, Mother illuminated to me the kindliest light this world has ever known, which has endowed literature and the theatre with their greatest and richest themes: love, pity and humanity.” In this light we can examine THE GOLD RUSH, a film whose passionate embrace of these three virtues creates a beauty and pathos unrivaled by any other motion picture.
Under Chaplin’s direction, THE GOLD RUSH confronts the audience about the nature of suffering and happiness through some of the most memorable scenes in cinema. Take the one in which the tramp and Big Jim famously make a Thanksgiving dinner out of a boiled shoe. The two trapped prospectors are starving and have dark bags under their eyes, yet Chaplin makes light of the situation by twirling his shoestrings as if they are spaghetti and sucking on the nails of the shoe like they are turkey bones. Though he and Big Jim are clearly in pain and hungry beyond belief, Chaplin’s entertaining behavior attempts to convince the audience (and perhaps himself) that eating one’s own boot really isn’t that bad. One cannot help but feel a surge of affection towards him for his continual efforts to downplay any revulsion at the depressing sight.
While the director depicts the physical nature of suffering in the first half of THE GOLD RUSH, in the second half he centers on the emotional nature of suffering with a poignancy that brings any viewer capable of empathy to tears. The tramp’s troubles begin when he first enters the town saloon. In one of the best shots of the film, we see a stationary Chaplin with his back to the viewer as he leans forlornly on his cane and watches the dancing townspeople. Although his face isn’t visible and we have no clear indication of how much space is between him and the dancers, the composition is such that his isolation and longing to be part of the festivity is clearly and touchingly rendered.
This desire for social acceptance is also manifest in the tramp’s interactions with the pretty saloon girl, Georgia, whom he immediately falls in love with. She is not nearly so smitten with him, but finds him amusing and invites herself and her friends over for dinner on New Year’s Eve, much to the tramp’s delight. He subsequently decorates his one room cabin with an artful simplicity, using cut paper to create ornamental snowflakes and setting out tiny presents for Georgia and her friends. A roast is under, candles are lit–the only thing the soiree needs is guests. While waiting, the tramp dreams up the wonderful dinner roll dance, which he imagines as the display that wins Georgia over at last. The effort and imagination of it all leaves both him and the viewer crestfallen that the person for whom everything was done does not even bother to show up. There is no moment in cinematic history that evokes such pathos as when the tramp confusedly opens his front door to see if Georgia might be running four hours late, and then realizes, with a devastated lowering of the eyelids and somber expression that she is not coming. Some kinds of hurt simply cannot be laughed away, and even Chaplin does not try to here.
Human beings can brave the elements at their worst, they can humorously distract themselves from hunger, fatigue and poverty, but rejection by one’s fellow man, let alone the person you love? That is truly unbearable. For, it is not when the tramp is eating a candle sprinkled with salt that the viewer feels the greatest compassion for him, but rather when he walks over to the saloon on New Year’s Eve and sees the entire town holding hands and singing together from outside of the window. Let’s not forget that the tramp is dubbed the “lone prospector” at the beginning of the film, and never is his aloneness more evident than it is here.
Of course, the director would be a cruel man indeed if he ended the film on such a melancholic note. The tramp winds up a millionaire thanks to Big Jim, and sails back to the states with “everything but Georgia,” as the inter-title points out. As fate would have it, though, Georgia is on the same ship leaving Alaska. She bumps into the tramp and saves him from being kicked off by an officer who mistakes his identity. The film ends with the happy couple kissing, and the tramp finally gets what he has wanted all along: love and a genuine human connection.