Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, playing from Mar. 3 through 8 at the Bijou in its lusciously-restored original 1925 version, is as unmixed a pleasure as I know. It’s what religious optimists imagine creation to be: “The best of all possible worlds”—hilarious without being cruel, romantic without being saccharine, deep without being heavy-handed, with just the right amount of sadness, evil and suffering to enhance its overwhelming happiness, virtue and justice.
When the character of the Tramp first appeared in 1914 with his signature bowler and toothbrush mustache, a strong streak of malice tempered his charm and ragged nobility. In Chaplin’s late phase, the Tramp gets that malice back in spades. In The Great Dictator (1940), he’s the shadow cast by the poor Jewish barber, the Hitler character that destroys the world like a child popping a balloon (Chaplin on Hitler: “He stole my mustache!”). He even morphs into a strangely lovable wife-murderer in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). But in The Gold Rush the Tramp is the pure charmer, the embodiment of the most decent part of humanity, the mythic figure of everybody’s lovable desire to be loved, whose blunders are sheerly the results of mix-ups and innocence.
The movie’s setting is the Klondike Gold Rush, when in the 1890s a hundred-thousand men trudged into northwest Canada in hopes of striking it rich. Cut to our Tramp, inappropriately attired for the place and time, tottering through the snowy mountains. A giant bear lumbers out of its den and starts stalking our oblivious hero. What kind of life-or-death craziness is to ensue? What exquisite comedy will the master mime weave out of the prospect of being eaten alive? Suddenly the bear disappears into another den: The Tramp was never in danger after all. Funny by not being funny, the scene says something very deep about humanity and nature and art. I’m not sure what, but like all the memorable scenes in The Gold Rush, I understand it perfectly well through the sheer pleasure of its unfolding.
Unlike the bear, we do ravenously follow the Tramp as he seeks gold, struggles to survive with Big Jim and the murderous Black Larsen, falls in love with Georgia the saloon girl and finally lucks into great wealth. On one reading, The Gold Rush is an allegory of Chaplin’s own rise from the rough London music halls to fame and fortune. Equally, the movie can be read as Chaplin’s purest take on modern times (to employ the title of his other masterpiece), presenting our lives as the quest for money, food and love—in that ascending order—against the backdrop of total wilderness.
Just as the title suggests, The Gold Rush is about desire and how it burnishes the world. Desire can elevate existence out of its squalor, as when the starving Tramp makes a scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner out of his own shoe. Desire can also dehumanize, as in the trope-creating scene when Big Jim gets so hungry that he sees the Tramp as a giant chicken. Georgia’s recognition of the intensity of the Tramp’s desire finally makes her love him. Likewise, the intensity of the Tramp’s desire to be loved by us insinuates every glowing scene into our memory.
We live in an age that regards art exclusively as entertainment. The weird thing is how weakly entertaining so much of our art is. The Gold Rush is that rare example of truly entertaining art, the kind that gladdens us from bottom to top, that satisfies our fundamental desire for big laughs and a good story while simultaneously lavishing on us all of the ingenuity and wisdom our intellects could crave.
In one of my favorite scenes of all time, the Tramp wakes up with a bad hangover. Unbeknownst to him, the shack he’s sharing with Big Jim has blown to the edge of a cliff; so whenever he walks to one side, the house teeters on doom. The Tramp thinks it’s all in his head, simply the wooziness of his hangover. Big Jim suspects something else, and the two pace deliberately back and forth, their alternate paths keeping the house in balance. The scene has all the profundity and elegance of the yin-yang symbol. Whenever I see it, I swell with deep thoughts about the relationship between life and death, man and woman, Republican and Democrat. My kids, who love the movie as much as I do, just laugh their heads off when Charlie finally
realizes what’s going on.