“It is as much a dramatic story as a comedy.” – Mordaunt Hall
If there’s any movie character as recognizable from the silent era, it has to be Charlie Chaplin’s The Little Tramp. Instantly recognizable in his ill-fitting clothes, cane, and bowler hat, the Tramp is widely associated with physical comedy and dancing dinner rolls. Chaplin as a filmmaker is largely overshadowed by his character; in The Gold Rush, Chaplin’s craft is able to shine through, using a combination of universal motivations and adept storytelling.
Paired with our previous movie Nanook of the North, The Gold Rush again features characters that are in conflict with the elements around them. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush, Chaplin immediately establishes this as an unforgiving environment: the establishing shots show a long line of men traveling up the Chilkoot Pass, some fainting at the effort. Chaplin has a created a world where life and death are on the line, and therefore the most basic urges – food, shelter, companionship – become all the more important.
The first part of the movie places The Little Tramp (as the Lone Prospector), and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) taking refuge in a cabin belonging to a criminal (Tom Murray as Black Larsen). It’s within this cabin that some of Chaplin’s best work is displayed. As Black Larsen orders The Tramp to leave, he opens the door. The wind from the snowstorm causes The Tramp to walk, run, and spin in place as he tries to leave the cabin. Eventually, The Tramp flies out the back door, only to return when the front door is closed. Employing a hidden treadmill in the floor and set to The Flight of the Bumblebee, this piece is a unique comedic bit. Later, as Big Jim and Black Larsen fight over a shotgun, Chaplin constantly scrambles out of the way – he is always in front of the gun’s muzzle. From these two pieces alone, one can see Chaplin’s skills at directing and choreographing physical comedy to produce bits that are smart as well as perfectly timed.
It’s within this cabin that the humor takes a darker turn as well. On the brink of starvation, Chaplin cooks his shoe as a Thanksgiving dinner, and Big Jim hallucinates him as a giant chicken. Where in Nanook the lack of food was cause for concern, here Chaplin uses it to further the story and help gain the audience’s support. No one likes to go hungry, and to see the character succeed in finding food helps us to cheer for them throughout the rest of the movie.
When the action shifts from the wilderness to a mining town, the conflict also shifts from food and shelter to love. We are introduced to two new characters: Georgia, a dance hall girl (Georgia Hale), and Jack, a flirtatious prospector (Malcolm Waite). Over the course of an evening, The Tramp falls in love with Georgia as she uses him to avoid Jack. It’s within this part of the story that the tone changes as their relationship develops. Georgia and her friends mock The Tramp when they discover that he loves her; in perhaps the saddest scene, The Tramp dreams of the New Year’s Eve party he’s going to throw them, only for the realization that they stood him up.
Everyone has dreamed of a scenario or imagined that something was going to go a certain way, only to have it occur exactly opposite to what was “supposed” to happen. By tapping into a universal experience, Chaplin further brings the audience onto The Little Tramp’s side, which helps propel the story to its conclusion.
Reconnected with Big Jim, The Little Tramp and his friend strike it rich and return home millionaires. Georgia, we discover, is also going home, but in a lower class. When The Tramp and Georgia are reunited, we celebrate this triumph over love. The characters have succeeded, meeting their – and our – desires.
So, what makes it essential?
Hall writes in his review that this the best work that Chaplin has done. Chaplin, as the writer/director, has created a film that is tightly written and paced. It is also a textbook example as to how to write a “good movie:” use motivations everyone can relate to – hunger, shelter, companionship – and use them consistently throughout the film. There isn’t a lot more to say about The Gold Rush. Charlie Chaplin’s work speaks for itself.
 Hall, Mordaunt, “The Gold Rush, ”The New York Times Book of Movies, ed. Wallace Schroeder, (New York, NY: Universe), 2019, pg. 437