“The Gold Rush” is a distinct triumph for Charlie Chaplin from both the artistic and commercial standpoints, and is a picture certain to create a veritable riot at theatre box offices. It is the greatest and most elaborate comedy ever filmed, and will stand for years as the biggest hit in its field, just as “The Birth of a Nation” still withstands the many competitors in the dramatic class.
Billed as a dramatic comedy, the story carries more of a plot than has been the rule with the star’s former offerings. There are spots where Charlie has developed dramatic situations bordering on tragedy, and these show the master hand and finesse of Chaplin’s artistry. But taken on the whole, the public will accept “The Gold Rush” as an out and out comedy, and the greatest of all time. Innumerable gags and situations that score round after round of laughter are logically woven into the theme of the story. At no time is the plot lost to gain extra laughs that do not belong.
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Alaska, with its dangers, hazards, sufferings and riches, forms the locale of the story. The opening shows an unending stream of prospectors negotiating the difficult Chilcoot Pass, and this is very beautiful in so far as scenery is concerned, but it tedious to an audience that has viewed similar scenes in the news weeklies and scenics many times before.
Charlie is presented as a tramp prospector in the wilds of Alaska, garbed in his old familiar derby, cane, baggy pants and shoes. He seeks refuge from a raging Arctic storm in the cabin of Black Larson (Tom Murray), hunted outlaw, and is allowed to stay by the latter.
Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a husky prospector, discovers a huge vein of gold on his claim, but the storm uproots his tent and blows him to the hut of Larson. The latter objects to McKay’s intrusion, and a struggle ensues between the two for possession of a rifle. Chaplin scores here with business in trying to keep out of line with the barrel of the gun. McKay finally subdues Larson and elects to stay till the storm subsides. But the blizzard continues for many days, and provisions give out. The trio cut the cards to select one who must brave the elements to secure food. Larson gets the assignment, and sets forth, but down the trail encounters two officers of the law and kills them both. He picks up their provisions and equipment and continues on his way, making camp at McKay’s claim and discovering the rich gold strike.
Meantime Charlie and McKay feel the pangs of hunger back in the cabin, and the tramp gets over a wow when he cooks and serves one of his shoes. The unusual meal rings the bell. Finally the two decide to leave, McKay to relocate his claim and Charlie heading for town. The tramp secures food and lodging at the cabin of Hank Curtis on the outskirts and Curtis leaves him to take care of the place during a prospecting trip.
McKay surprises Larson at the claim. In the battle ensuing McKay is felled by a shovel, Larson dashing off down the trail. A thrilling and realistic spectacle is presented when the outlaw is engulfed in a mountain of snow and ice that breaks loose and crashes to the bottom of the canyon hundreds of feet below.
Charlie visits the dance hall and secretly admires Georgia, the favorite girl in the place. Jack Cameron, in love with the girl, heckles the tramp. Georgia selects Charlie to dance with her in preference to Cameron. On the dance floor Chaplin tops each succeeding gag with another even better.
A few days later a quartet of the dance hall girls headed by Georgia stumble on the cabin of Charlie. The girl decides to have some fun at his expense, and the quartet promise to be at the cabin for a New Year’s Eve party, without thought of being serious. But the tramp makes elaborate preparations to entertain his dream girl. The sequence depicting the disappointment of Charlie in the cabin in the midst of his spread for the girl is undoubtedly one of the finest pieces of dramatic interpretation ever put on the screen.
McKay stunned by the blow delivered by Larson, wanders back to town and is laughed at when he declares a mountain of gold was found, but he cannot relocate it unless he finds the cabin occupied by Larson. At the dance hall Georgia pens a note to Cameron declaring her love for him. Cameron laughs at it and passes the letter around the table. Seeing the lone tramp over in a corner he has the waiter deliver the note to Charlie. The latter is elated and dashes to find Georgia. McKay has entered the place and spies the tramp while standing at the bar. Cornering Charlie, he demands that the lone prospector accompany him to Larson’s cabin promising Charlie an equal share if the mine is found.
Arriving at the cabin the pair decide to stay until the following day and then search for the mine. During the night a heavy storm breaks, the cabin is dislodged and carried to the brink of a high cliff. The balancing cabin and the struggles of the pair to escape provide more than a reel of solid laughs that do not cease until the cabin crashes over the cliff with Charlie escaping at the last moment. McKay then discovers his lost claim within a few yards of the precipice.
The final scenes of Charlie and McKay journeying back to the States as multi-millionaires are unusual in that they show Chaplin out of his familiar attire. He is dressed in the height of fashion with evening dress and all the adornments. Seeing him this way will make the audience like him more in the makeup that made him famous. On the boat, the newly created millionaire discovers Georgia en route home in steerage, with a fadeout on the usual clutch.
Humor is the dominating force, with Chaplin reaching new heights as a comedian. Chaplin naturally carries practically the entire 10 reels of action and performs this task without difficulty. He transcends everything that has ever gone before in comedy production, and it will be a long time before any one displaces him as the genius of pantomime.
The 10 reels do not leave one bored at any time, for Chaplin has deftly interspersed his comedy action throughout a logically developed plot. At times, in unfolding the story, there seems a few moments of retarding interest, but Chaplin snaps these up with clever and unexpected gags.
The sequence showing Chaplin and Swain in the see-sawing cabin on the edge of the precipice surpasses anything ever before screened and provides one reel of continuous roars and howls.
The Far North settings are adequate, although they show plainly they were of studio construction in most instances. In this case, however, Chaplin is the main attraction, and he comes back in his old familiar part that will make “The Gold Rush” a much-played and greatly enjoyed picture everywhere.
The supporting cast includes Georgia Hale as the dance hall girl, who shows great promise with more experience before the camera. Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Malcolm Waite and Henry Bergman complete the balance of the principals.