When one writes about Chaplin, discussion of a ”best” work inevitably results in his most ardent supporters agreeing to disagree in choosing his best feature length work or short film. Less contentious is the selection of a favorite example to represent him. ”The Gold Rush” is a fine work in itself, and is also emblematic of the master’s life’s work.
“In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule, because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane. I read a book about the Donner Party, who, on the way to California, missed the route and were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Out of 160 pioneers, only 18 survived, most of them dying of hunger and cold. Some resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead, others roasted their moccasins to relieve their hunger. Out of this harrowing tragedy, I conceived one of our funniest scenes. In dire hunger, I boil my shoe and eat it . . .” ( Chaplin; Autobiography, 1964 )
The Gold Rush was only the second long film of his own about the Tramp, yet the trademark was recognizable to everyone. The role of the unconscious in the creative process is still unfathomed; how the struggle for an idea finds an image and a story on which to grow. After looking at photos of the Klondike at Douglas Fairbanks home after breakfast, a vague idea of the incongruity of tearing the Tramp out of his habitual contemporary city or county habitat began to be expanded on. The potential for striking unpredictability was seized upon since Tramps are, after all, a by-product of modern industry.
Chaplin’s poetic discovery of his metaphors is done through what writer Arthur Koestler called ”The Eureka Process”. Koestler has defined this as a certain way in which the mind functions, a particular manner whereby two seemingly unrelated patterns of behavior are brought together, and previous separate matrices are fused into one. Chaplin’s unconscious saw at once the advantages of putting the Tramp into a different context as well as the power of the Tramp’s black mustache and the figure’s dark color gradations against predominantly white backgrounds. Chaplin was able to disrupt rigid patterns of mental organization to achieve this new synthesis..
Early in the film, Chaplin establishes a contrast between serious and authentic imagery and other scenery that is patently and intentionally phony. The real world versus the theatre of that world. An unblinking reality as the ground for a comic abstract of that reality. This alternation of modes is not without risk, unless as Chaplin did, to make each mode instantly credible and supportive of the other.This concept of duality and community, a persistent leitmotif in his work is perhaps best expressed by Martin Buber:
”The principle obstacle to the erection of true community is that dualism which splits life into two independent spheres — one of the truth of the spirit and the other of the reality of life. True human life is life in the face of God, and God is not a Kantian idea but an elementarily present substance — the mystery of immediacy before which only the pious man can stand. God is in all things, but he is realized only when individual beings open to one another, communicate with one another, and help one another — only where immediacy establishes itself between beings. There in between, in the apparently empty space, the eternal substance manifests itself. The true place of realization is the community, and true community is that in which the godly is realized between men. … knowledge of the single world, fallen through confusion but capable of redemption through the struggling human will, came the postulation of a fundamental and unbridgeable duality of human will and God’s grace. The will is now regarded as unconditionally bad and elevation through its power is impossible. Not will in all its contrariness and all its possibility is the way to God, but faith and waiting for the contact of grace. Evil is no longer the ‘shell’ which must be broken through. It is rather the primal force which stands over against the good as the great adversary. The state is no longer the consolidation of a will to community that has gone astray and therefore is penetrable and redeemable by right will. It is either, as for Augustine, the eternally damned kingdom from which the chosen separate themselves or, as for Thomas, the first step and preparation for the true community, which is a spiritual one. …It is the community of spirit and grace from which the world and nature are fundamentally separated. .This atmosphere of the dualism of truth and reality, idea and fact, morality and politics is that, writes Buber, in which our present age lives. Corresponding to it is the egoistic nationalism which perverts the goal of community by making it an end itself. It is not power itself which is evil … Power is intrinsically guiltless and is the precondition for the actions of man. It is the will to power, the greed for more power than others, which is destructive. ( Martin Buber; The Life of Dialogue. Maurice S. Friedman )
Chaplin raises comic scenes to a higher power, be means of forsaking the easy laughs by means of poetic imagination, that in turn reinforce and exemplify one of the tramps qualities which is innocence and an unwitting faith in the power of that innocence. In the famous sequence of eating the boiled shoe, the humor comes not only from what they are eating, but how they do so. Big Jim, another prospector is jealous because the tramp has a bigger piece of the shoe, and switches plates. Then the tramp twirls the shoelaces on his fork like spaghetti, sucking each nail as if it were a tasty bone. The consolations of fantasy have rarely gone further.
All through Chaplin’s body of work, hunger is a recurrent subject of comedy. Hunger is an inevitable subject for a Tramp, particularly one whose creator grew up in abject poverty. There is a special aspect to this theme in Gold Rush. In Chaplin’s previous films, the pinch of hunger came from the social stringency of no money, but in an Alaskan cabin, money is irrelevant. The theme that has always had a profound socio-political resonance for Chaplin is isolated into the Need Itself, and makes it funnier than ever.
The idea of falling in love, despite his forlorn condition contributes to a heightened sense of both pathos and comedy; something strong, almost heroic in his pathos, and simultaneously something comic in his silhouette. Chaplin chose to have the world-beloved Tramp fall in love with, and finally win , a prostitute, in an American comedy; seemingly as a tacit certification of the post-war era’s changing sexual standards. In one of the most celebrated moments in all Chaplin films, Charlie dreams he is entertaining adoring bordello girls by doing the Oceana Roll. Siting at the table, he stick two forks into two sabot-shaped rolls, then kicks and jigs them as if they were his legs and he was doing a chorus girl dance. This is brilliant harmonics, since the pantomine occurs in a dream into which the Tramp has fallen because he has been tricked and disappointed.
The dream dinner exemplifies another Chaplin theme, the feast, hunger’s mirror image. Plentiful food, similar to the effect of feasts in Charles Dickens, represents not gluttony, but love and an atmosphere of community, conviviality and affection. Chaplin’s idea of a low and dehumanized state is not hunger, but the insult to the full table. In ”Modern Times” , the Tramp is strapped to an automatic feeding machine, with ample food, but without feeling and represents the debasement of a daily joy.
Comedy, of all kinds, supplies perception a superiority. Like much of Chaplin’s films, the cabin sequence, where their humble abode is blown off a cliff, resembles the banana-peel gag greatly multiplied; built on danger, scary, but seen from safety. The ”farceur” like Chaplin, makes injury and death both real and unreal. There is a delight in the skill of the artists who have outwitted death and fall back on the axiom that farce characters never get killed. They contrive for us a superiority over mortality, even as they create laughs at their struggles to escape it. To this subconscious assurance of safety, Chaplin adds his own pivotal and unique touch. And that is grace. His performing style as mixture of dance-like grace, earthy body language, and exquisite pantomime, revolutionized screen acting.
” …to stress our need to recover Chaplin, not as a enshrined genius, but in his original energy, as a controversial modern artist whose art not only delighted and entertained, but also helped transform the world he was born into. Chaplin’s work offered something new; he laughed the world into a new physical realm, exploring the ambiguities – indeed the comedy – of the body of modernity….Chaplin’s cinematic body defies verbal description – and that’s the point. His body transforms before our eyes; it even occasionally sprouts wings and flies. However, as the crumpled body of Chaplin’s Icarus-like fallen angel in The Kid shows us, he never loses his physical nature; his grace defies, but cannot deny, gravity. In the face of propriety he asserts the body’s less than genteel functions. But besides enacting the clown’s traditional role of affirming the body’s appetites against social convention, Chaplin’s physical nature also exceeds his human identity and transforms itself into the mechanical, the animal and even the vegetable. His body seems at points to disaggregate itself, with limbs operating independently of each other, or to merge with other bodies and create new creatures. Chaplin slides up and down the great chain of being, achieving a plastic ontology in which inanimate objects become bodily appendages, and the body itself suddenly seems inert.” ( Chaplin and the Body of Modernity; Tom Gunning )
The ending of the Gold rush, only differs from previous films in that we see Charlie Rich. The issue is more complex. The Tramp had to be dragged away from Georgia by Big Jim, dragged to the wealth that prospecting gave them. Now this fortune brings them together again on the ship. Money and happiness, Chaplin seems to reveal, are the private whims of two powers which are fate and authors. However, the issue with money in his films is supplanted by an even more subtle complexity and that is the sense of mystery. That being, who is the Tramp and what is the secret of his unique effect on us?
When Georgia invites him to dance, he is wearing silly clothes and has wrapped one foot in rags to replace the eaten shoe. But he dances with exquisite style. When he performs the Oceana Roll, he knows a chorus girl routine. When he invites girls to dinner he know table settings and how to cook. There is no answer to the identity issue. But he has an unerring ability to make the viewer believe in a comic character whose standards are better than our own, just as his body in motion is more beautiful than our bodies. Chaplin concentrated not merely on making people laugh, but in showing the funniness of a hero clown, an unsententious agent of exemplary values.
”He is not dully angelic; he sometimes pulls off con games, though usually to a good end or to flout oppressive authority. But in the main he compensates for the shortcomings, social and physical, of our lives and beings. In is movement and in his code, even in his cunning, he is what we feel we ought to be.”