not in our stars, but in ourselves
Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2013 with one of my favorite films of all time: Charlie Chaplin’s lovely, sentimental The Gold Rush (1925). Before I delve into a proper review, I will caution you all: accept no substitutes with this movie. In 1942, Chaplin re-released it with about 20 minutes lopped off – and with NARRATION instead of perfectly adequate intertitles. I don’t mind Chaplin’s voice, but he’s a pretty frenetic narrator, and it just doesn’t work with this gentle little film. You must, at all costs, see the original 1925 release. Lucky for you, it’s available on YouTube – for now, anyway. Go enjoy it before some suit gets wind of it.
Now for the film itself. I realize Chaplin is very passé among the haughtier of you cineastes. He’s not very funny anymore. Most of his comedic material comes straight from vaudeville, and not even bawdy vaudeville like the Marx Brothers. Particularly later in his career, he got awfully mawkish and preachy, and even less funny. I acknowledge all of this. I acknowledge Buster Keaton’s superiority as a comedian and filmmaker. Keaton is still funny, still innovative, still miles ahead of his time. I know, I know.
But I do love Chaplin. Call me a rank sentimentalist; I do not care. The Gold Rush is just beautiful, and I will not brook any argument to the contrary.
It’s set somewhere in Alaska sometime during the late nineteenth century mania for finding gold and getting rich quick. Rather than the Little Tramp, we have Chaplin as the Lone Prospector – still dressed, seemingly inappropriately for such a cold climate, in his baggy trousers and tight frock coat. He finds himself in a nameless city, at the Monte Carlo Dancehall, where he almost immediately falls hopelessly in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale). His friend, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), has stumbled upon a “mountain of gold,” and he invites the Lone Prospector to share in the wealth. The Lone Prospector becomes a multi-millionaire, gets the girl, and that’s about it. Not exactly an intricate plot.
Who cares. It’s adorable. I think that, to enjoy Chaplin now, you have to go into the film not expecting laughter – but pathos. The Gold Rush has got pathos in spades.
This film has three of my all-time favorite scenes in cinema, all because they’re so goshdurn lovely and heartfelt. First, there’s the scene where Georgia – who, at this point in the story, wants nothing more than to piss off one of her johns – very solicitously invites the Lone Prospector to dance with her. He cannot believe his luck, and they waltz bouncily all around the floor. Then there’s some business with his pants falling down, and his using a rope to tie them back up, and the rope being tied at the other end to a large dog, and “hilarity” ensues. But after he frees himself from the dog, and dusts himself off, he escorts Georgia off the floor like a perfect gentleman. He knows how silly he’s just made himself look, but he is nothing if not a devout optimist. We were all thirteen once, right? We all know what that’s like. The difference is that, in The Gold Rush, it’s lovely. It’s just lovely.
Second, there’s the scene after Georgia and her fellow ten-cents-a-dance friends call on the Lone Prospector to make fun of him some more. They agree to come have dinner with him on New Year’s Eve (see why I’m posting this today?!) – and after they leave, his reaction is the most beautiful expression of boundless joy I’ve ever seen on screen: whooping, swinging from ceiling beams, doing handstands, exploding open pillows for feather confetti to stream down on your one-man parade of jubilation. If you’ve never been that excited, if your heart has never bubbled over like that, I feel sorry for you. You are missing out, my friend.
And third, there’s the scene where the Lone Prospector wanders around, despised and rejected – or at least stood up – by his beloved Georgia. She sends an imploring, contrite letter to her boorish john; he laughs it off and she breaks down crying. Then, not content to rest in his mischief, the john tells a waiter to hand the note to the Lone Prospector without saying that it wasn’t really meant for him. A man possessed, he searches the dancehall frantically for Georgia, all while Big Jim tries to bring him away to the mountain of gold. When the Lone Prospector finally sees her, he scales a balcony in almost a single bound, professes his love for her in the most ardent pantomime way – and is finally grabbed by the wrist and yanked out of the scene. It’s just a frantic rom-com almost-ending, but it’s unimaginably touching. For all the world, the Lone Prospector is a pathetic little knight in shabby armor.
Okay, and fourth: the very end. The kiss, which Chaplin cut out of the 1942 re-release. Maybe it was because he’d had an affair with Hale, and didn’t want to be reminded of it while he was dealing with a paternity lawsuit (Joan Barry) and courting a seventeen-year-old (Oona O’Neill). Who knows. But it’s gorgeous, and the movie is incomplete without it.
I can’t pretend that this is a great work of cinematic art, but it is sweet and warm and I just love it. It’s a comfy old sweater, a big mug of hot chocolate, and sometimes – today especially – that’s all I want from a movie.