Thursday, March 22, 2012
The Gold Rush
There's a reason Charles Chaplin's The Gold Rush is still such an enduring comedic masterwork, almost 90 years after it was made. It's a delightful, charming, irresistible movie, as funny today as it was when it first made audiences roar with laughter. It's a near-perfect movie, with not a wasted moment, balancing its cleverly staged humor with the pathos of Chaplin's little tramp character suffering because of his poverty, his decency, and his large capacity for love.
The tramp is an iconic figure, an everyman for the lower classes, with his beaten-up bowler hat, his cane, and his bedraggled clothes. Despite his impeccable sense of humor, Chaplin's tramp is a melancholy figure, wandering a hostile environment that offers him scant nourishment. He duck-waddles around, his gait uneven, one shoe swaddled in rags so that he seems to have a misshapen foot. He's constantly coming up with tricks to get by on his minimal means, stealing drinks in a bar or feigning frostbite to get a friendly stranger to feed him a hot breakfast and some coffee. Chaplin's tramp seems especially out of place in the context of The Gold Rush, roaming across the tundra as "the lone prospector," trying to make his fortune in the frozen North — though curiously enough Chaplin never actually does any prospecting. He's never less than funny, but he's also desperate and downtrodden, and later in the film, his romantic longing for the beautiful but casually cruel Georgia (Georgia Hale) is downright heartbreaking.
Before that plot is introduced, though, it's just the tramp alone in the cold, soon to throw his lot in with two other lonely souls, the newly successful prospector Big Jim (Mark Swain) and the brutish outlaw Black Larsen (Tom Murray). This trio gets locked into a cabin together during a bad storm, and the antics that ensue constitute some of the best, purest comedy in the cinema. The scene where Chaplin first arrives at the solitary cabin is a masterpiece of formalist physical comedy, using the two doors of the cabin as a wind tunnel which sends Chaplin, Big Jim and Black Larsen flying through the air, whipping them out of the room only to have them come crawling and trudging back through the snow. Chaplin's playfulness with space provides the scene's comedy, with perfect timing of doors opening and closing, unleashing the wind that propels the scene's constant movement and reversals of position.
Geometry is often the locus of comedy for Chaplin, as in the brilliant sequence where Jim and Larsen wrestle over a shotgun, while Chaplin scurries around the room, the barrel of the gun following him wherever he goes, always angled directly at his head whether he's ducking under a table or comically trying to climb the walls. The invisible line from the gun's bore to Chaplin's head, the prospective path of a bullet if the gun should go off, is never broken no matter how much Chaplin darts back and forth or the other two men struggle, which is quite a feat of choreography as well as a grimly comic bit of business.
That playful use of space returns in the later scene where a starved Big Jim stalks Chaplin with an axe — because his fevered brain sees the tramp as a giant chicken — while Chaplin fends him off with a shotgun. They dart in and out, from door to door, circling the cabin inside and out. Best of all is the way Chaplin begins slamming into wooden beams and walls, rapidly spinning around to point his gun at empty space, careening back and forth across the cabin. These confusions continue as he struggles with Big Jim over the gun, Chaplin's face covered with a blanket so that he doesn't realize when Big Jim flees the cabin, a black grizzly bear taking his place, with Chaplin hanging off his leg. Chaplin's double take when he sees this is priceless, as is his baffled look when the fur-clad Jim returns, as though for a moment Chaplin is wondering if he'd just imagined the bear.
Naturally, when the tramp and Big Jim return to the cabin towards the end of the film, it is once again the site of spatially precise comedy that hinges upon geometry and the locations of the two characters. An avalanche pushes the cabin to the edge of a cliff, teetering on the brink, and the whole cabin see-saws drunkenly as the two prospectors obliviously walk around inside. Chaplin, a master of staging and movement, extracts sublime comic suspense from the way the men walk back and forth across the cabin, balancing each other's actions for a time so that the cabin remains stable, but of course it's inevitable that they'll soon end up on the same side and send the cabin tipping over. Chaplin even playfully stutter-steps at one point, briefly suggesting that he's going to double back and join Jim on the side of the cabin that's hanging over the ledge, before continuing the opposite way to keep the balance.
The film has too many funny scenes to mention; Chaplin's keen sense of timing and feel for visual humor is present in both his performance and his direction. One of the film's most iconic moments is the scene where Chaplin "dances the Oceana Roll" for Georgia, piercing a pair of dinner rolls on forks and playfully dancing them across the table. This tabletop choreography is dazzling enough, but what's really mesmerizing about the scene is the subtler choreography of Chaplin's eyes, rimmed with black and somewhat feminine, rolling and flitting from side to side in counterpoint to the rolls' footwork. There's a lot of choreography in Chaplin's comedy; another great scene involves the tramp, dancing with Georgia, accidentally tying a dog's leash into his belt so that the dog follows the couple around the dance floor. A film of great formal precision that nevertheless gives the impression of being breezy and loose, The Gold Rush is one of the finest comedies the cinema has produced.