August 30, 2010

#58: The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin's 1925 comedy The Gold Rush is the oldest film on the list so far, and yet something about Chaplin's brand of humor seems so contemporary in its sensibility, so universal in its simplicity, that it might as well have been made today. Only I'm not sure if we would appreciate the satire about the Alaska Gold Rush now the way they did back when it was only thirty years in the past. This is also the second of three Chaplin movies on the list (the first was Modern Times and the third, very near the top at #11, is City Lights).

Company: Sheena, confidante and collaborator; and then, two-thirds of the way in, more guests: Eric, living genius; Jess, blonde vixen; and Coco, Bowie-type crooner

Cuisine: Smirnoff Mango and club soda. Summer time!

The film opens with a narrative voice (Chaplin's own, added in 1942 to a re-release of the film, along with minor edits and a fantastic musical score) describing the perils of the Alaska Gold Rush at the end of the nineteenth century. The Tramp (Chaplin, credited here as Charles) is seen bouncing duck-footed along a dangerously icy pass on a mountain ledge.

The wintry gusts lead him to a rickety cabin and trap him there with a prospector and an escaped fugitive. Much slapstick ensues, and much like the Marx Brothers, Chaplin is an extremely physical performer who knows exactly how to hit the joke with an economy of gesture. Half the fun of this sequence where he and his companions are bowled over by wind is that it goes on far too long ... and yet somehow we are entranced.

How's that candle taste?

The blizzard takes its toll on the gold rushers -- and drastic measures are taken. But hunger can do things to people.

Ain't that the truth. Bits bits bits, jokes jokes jokes, boots boots boots, all beautifully executed, and finally we get to the film's heart.

Now that's a shot.

After finally giving up prospecting, the Tramp winds up in a dance hall where he falls for the lonely dance hall girl (Georgia Hale), a girl whom he mistakenly believes shares his love. She'd leave this place, if only she could find someone honest and worthwhile... so they'll end up together, as they must, but how?

Woops. Maybe after a snowball right in the kisser.

The Girl and her girls giggle their way through his life, and all the while we remain on the weirdo's side. Through some miracle he winds up with them as guests for New Year's Eve, and don't we love rooting for the weirdo? Especially when we realize that we might be those girls. If only I was seeing someone awesome enough to do a table ballet with dinner rolls.

But alas...

... t'was all a dream.

She didn't show! What a chump! He goes to the dance hall to find her, and through serendipitous means, they fall in love, all the while with lovely, poetic narration ("the light of her loveliness was leaving!") But you need an eleven-o'-clock number, and so the prospector shows up for one final thrilling sequence in which his cabin threatens to fall off a steep cliff.

So much of what Chaplin does is firmly in our everyday comedic vocabulary now, but back then these kinds of scenes were revolutionary. Right now I'm working on a very physical comedic role in a children's show and I'm sweating buckets, but it seems Chaplin could communicate a world of hurt, disappointment, joy, terror and heart with only his lined eyes.

End of story. This film is only 82 minutes. You have time and reason enough to rent it.

Next up: Sylvester Stallone dons the gloves in Rocky.

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