It might not be the most flattering of praises to say that Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” was the first movie to make cannibalism funny, but that’s the irreverent charm of one of the Tramp’s finest films.
Watching it can immediately reveal two things. Firstly we take notice of just how committed Chaplin is to every one of his gags. He doesn’t exactly play everything with a straight face the way Buster Keaton would, but when he aims to eat his own shoe as though his laces were spaghetti and the sole was a bony fish, he makes a point to get a laugh out of it. Not to mention he will continue walking without a proper shoe even in the most pathos filled moments.
Even his face in the film’s famed “Oceana Dance,” with two bread rolls stuck to forks acting as legs, is made so endearing thanks to his immersion and dopey charm within his miniature character. Further, Chaplin’s cinematographer isolates him in a darkly back-lit scene to allow the routine to stand on its own as a clever vaudevillian number. It’s as if he made a point to make that moment famous.But secondly, you can see how Chaplin is such a universal comic. “The Gold Rush” makes such a perfect introduction for kids or adults to silent films because many of the bits today have been appropriated into children’s programming and beyond. In the aforementioned cannibal sequence, the Tramp’s roommate envisions him as a man in a giant chicken costume and begins to pull out a big fork and knife. It’s as if we’re watching Foghorn Leghorn here.
Granted, this is potentially a reason why “The Gold Rush” has not aged as well as “The Kid” or “Modern Times.” The film’s hokey irreverence can be corny for a modern audience, but part of the film’s charm is precisely that “blissful ignorance” that will almost get the Tramp killed in the film’s climactic comic set piece.
Because at the end of the day, “The Gold Rush” combines the ideas of insanity and loneliness in clever, self-mocking ways. It’s a remarkably complex story that makes us care for the Tramp and others involved in a way other silent comics did not.
One of the film’s best moments, one actually removed from Chaplin’s own 1942 re-release of the film, is when the lovely Georgia writes an apology letter, presumably to the Tramp for missing New Year’s Eve dinner. When the letter goes to the “ladies man” Jack, it’s hurtful enough, but Chaplin turns the screw in our back a second time by getting Jack to then deliver Georgia’s letter to him. Amidst lighthearted slapstick, only Chaplin was capable of such heart-wrenching storytelling.
I’ve seen the film twice now, first watching it many years ago as a starter for silents and now again. This time however I streamed it on Netflix and was a bit irritated by their version of this film now in public domain. Watch it in a theater or on DVD if you can, because the film’s accompanying score is not only not Chaplin’s own composed work but is a slapdash assortment of ragtime music performed on a computerized MIDI keyboard. It hardly follows the action on screen and severely lessens the impact of this great film.