27. The Gold Rush

Gold Rush
June 26, 1925
United Artists
Directed by Charles Chaplin

The Gold Rush has an ambiguous status as a silent movie. After attempting to remove it from circulation in the 1930’s, Chaplin revived it in 1942 with great fanfare. He recorded an orchestral score and voiceover narration and recut the film to match the soundtrack. He then took to hunting down and destroying any other version of the film, claiming this as the director’s cut and only legitimate Gold Rush. The revival was a complete success that cemented the film’s reputation as the Great Silent Comedy in the very moment that Chaplin effectively converted it into a sound film. The Criterion DVD presents both the 1942 director’s cut sound film and a restoration of the original silent version constructed by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow in 1993. Chaplin’s assiduous quest to replace the original with the new version suggests that there is something significant in the schism of these two texts. Is it merely the act of artistic control, or was he trying to rewrite something?

One reason for the triumphant reception of the Gold Rush in 1942 was that it was lauded as a pure comedy, in contrast to the progressively more political work that Chaplin put out between 1925 and 1942 (four movies which we will visit later in this story). The most celebrated sequences are about survival, and we laugh because we are delirious with hunger. Boiling and eating a shoe, being imagined as a giant chicken, performing a dance with rolls for feet. While this is a movie about the fundamentals of survival common to all life, this is not a famine like the one currently ravaging the Volga. These people are suffering the frozen wastes of the Klondike only because they’re looking for gold.

In the end it’s not the tramp that strikes gold but his partner Big Jim. The tramp becomes rich by being in the right place, associating with the right person, and by staying alive. We never really see the Tramp make any effort to find gold. He pawns his pickaxe and wanders into local dance hall where Georgia works, selling dances and other favors to the more prosperous prospectors. Tuned to sources of money, her adoring gaze looks everywhere but at the Tramp. As he picks up a discarded photograph of Georgia, only another bum watches him. To make her boyfriend Jack as jealous as possible, Georgia finally sees the Tramp and invites him to dance, and after a perfect comedic sequence, he falls on his ass and she laughs at him.

They next meet when she and her friends chance upon his cabin, which as opposed to the savage one in those desperate first scenes, is cozy and warm. He’s clearly improved his status a little bit, and she now shows a smile and accepts his invitation in. She finds her discarded photo and flower under his pillow and looks with wonder, stunned to know the effect her beauty has had on one whom she barely considers. As she leaves, she looks affectionately on him and promises to return New Year’s Eve.

She doesn’t return, at least not until she gets the idea to go prank him, along with Jack and her girls. When she sees the elaborate design of his dinner plans her heart changes. She suddenly loses interest in the prank and tries to refuse to kiss Jack. The next day she writes an apology love note to him, but he gives it to the tramp to trick him into thinking he has won Georgia’s love, which of course works. None of this happens in the 1942 director’s cut. In that version the prank is Jack’s idea alone, and the note passed to the tramp is a different one – a straightforward apology from Georgia. A complex emotional affair has been streamlined into nonsense.

In the final scene the tramp is a millionaire, aboard a ship back to California and wearing his old clothes as a costume for a photo shoot. Georgia is aboard the steerage of the same ship, and when she sees him she gives him a full smile and defends him when he caught as a suspected stowaway. Chaplin is now in full delight – he has both money and her love. He announces their marriage and kisses her full on the mouth. Ah, but this is all still just the photo shoot, and we see it through the cameraman’s view! “You’ve spoilt the picture!” the cameraman announces.

The look on her face as this scene unfolds is mysterious, and we must remember Chaplin’s previous film A Woman in Paris, which was a study of the inscrutable expressions of the title character, as well as the fact that this movie cost about $1 million, money spent on endless takes of the same shots that Chaplin could sift through when editing. Her eyelids twitch as she closes them for this kiss. Her smile is enchanting and genuine, but it’s not the  pure joy we read in the tramp. (Of course, no one can express pure joy like Chaplin – next to him, we all look like we’re either faking it or holding back because of some psychic ache we can’t forget even in our happiest moments.)

The kiss, the various expressions on her face, and the photo comment were scrubbed from the final version, leaving an incomplete feeling as the couple merely walks off together. Did Chaplin spoil the picture with the original ambiguous ending? It’s clearly a cynical comment on marriage which is understandable given the fact that Chaplin had been forced to marry the original female lead of the picture, the 16-year old Lita Grey after he got her pregnant. It wouldn’t be fair to say it’s only about the money. Georgia’s affections are real, but her entire emotional register is governed by the marketplace. Whatever our attempts to make our life better, there is no escape from economics.

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