' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Gold Rush

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Gold Rush

The 1925 film for which its distinguished creator Charlie Chaplin said he most hoped to be remember is technically a silent film and while there is no dialogue it forgoes intertitles to instead offer the film's creator himself reciting both narration and the varying characters' lines himself, his stately, booming English accent decidedly at odds with the famous appearance of his protagonist on the screen, The Lone Prospector. He tramps into the harsh, frightful Yukon territory at the tail-end of the 19th century in the hopes of striking gold, his obligatory bowler, bum's suit and oversized shoes at odds with the landscape and men around him doused in fur, and finds himself stranded in a cabin with a fellow prospector, Big Jim (Mack Swain), who has struck it big, and a fugitive, Black Larsen (Tom Murray). He survives the storm despite the company and then hoofs it to a nearby gold rush town where he falls for dance hall hostess Georgia (Georgia Hale) who pretends to fall for him as a way it would seem to provide herself entertainment on the edge of nowhere. Eventually he re-encounters Big Jim who has, as he must, developed amnesia and now needs The Lone Prospector's help in re-claiming his cache of gold.

I confess I turned to "The Gold Rush" not long after seeing "The Artist" as a way to compare something from the original days of the silent medium to this modern offering. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a classic to one that doesn't particularly strive for "greatness" (even if it is on the verge of scoring a Best Picture win at the Academy Awards) but that's the way the cran apple muffin crumbles. Andrew wrote a typically thoughtful piece on "The Artist", lamenting: "I have nothing against simplicity when fully realised...but what robs Hazanavicius’ skill with his cast and his impeccable direction from making this film soar is the lack of follow through in the screenplay. It’s not that I want The Artist to be about something 'bigger' but I want it to be about something more complete than its concept." His words in many ways mirrored my own feelings. "The Artist" felt to me very loving with the best intentions in all the world, a film that never meant to be a great triumph, something that can often lead directly to great triumphs...just not in this case. Of course, the inestimable Chaplin made "The Gold Rush", deemed historically significant by the Library Of Congress, with only a story outline and no actual script and, in a way, creating the movie as he shot the footage. This certainly causes the narrative to feel threadbare and not so much the point as the setpieces and interactions.

Some of these setpieces are spectacular, like Chaplin desperately attempting to evade the aim of a rifle being fought over by Big Jim and Black Larsen and eternally failing. Some of these setpieces are less successful, like the cabin dangling over the side of the cliff which to these eyes in this era is just too quaint. The most famous sequence of the film is probably Chaplin, hungry and desperate, cooking up and chowing down his shoe, forking up a bit of shoelace like linguini, and for as familiar as it is it still succeeds because of the warmth with which it is presented. For all his antics, Chaplin was such a sentimentalist and, rest assured, around these here parts that is a mighty high compliment.

The story of "The Artist" is so intent to be an homage it never cracks open to find a deeper layer. In contrast, contained amidst all the pratfalls of "The Gold Rush" is a nifty little commentary on how love can't be bought and genuinely great moments of both elation and pathos. The closest "The Artist" ever comes, I think, to settling down and really paying attention to its characters as opposed to characters locked into a ready-made story is in that scene when Peppy finds herself alone with George's suit. Even then, though, it's really nothing more than......cute.

In "The Gold Rush" when our Lonely Prospector finds himself at the saloon all by his lonesome off to the side as the various men swirl about the lovely Georgia, Chaplin brilliantly sets the shot so we can't see his face. And this is because we don't need to see his face. He doesn't want us to see his face. The situation and the body language tell us all we need to know. And despite having been some eighty years ago, from then 'til now, across the sands of time, that shit still hurts.


Sam Fragoso said...

I haven't lived yet.

Meaning I haven't seen a film by Charlie Chaplin.

Great review Nick.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you!

I've actually only seen two Chaplin films - this one and "City Lights." In fact, I haven't really explored that many silent films in general, just primarily the most classic of the classics. Perhaps I can explore some more at some point.