Richard J. Leskosky: View 'Gold Rush' and claim some laughs

Richard J. Leskosky: View 'Gold Rush' and claim some laughs

You can take your mind off July's heat by taking in a classic comedy set in the frozen north when The News-Gazette Film Series screens Charlie Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece "The Gold Rush" at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

Coincidentally, the two greatest silent film comedies were period films: Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" and Buster Keaton's "The General" (1927).

Keaton based his on an actual event — Union spies' theft of a Confederate locomotive during the Civil War in order to sabotage Confederate supply lines — and shot it largely outdoors using real locomotives.

Chaplin set his story during the Yukon Gold Rush, inspired by stereoscopic photos of hundreds of prospectors climbing single file up to the Chilkoot Pass to reach the gold fields.

After re-creating that image in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, he shot the rest of the film in the studio. But it cost over 20 percent more to make than Keaton's, in large part because of delays in shooting and Chaplin's perfectionist tendency to shoot 50 or 60 takes of a scene.

The Gold Rush of the title is not the 1849 California frenzy that gave us the term "forty-niners" but the similar phenomenon that took place in Canada's Yukon Territory from 1896-1899. Those frigid environs were so hazardous that Canada insisted prospectors come equipped with a year's worth of food.

Chaplin's film spends a good third of its running time mining laughs from characters suffering from hunger — it's the funniest feature film ever made about starvation.

Chaplin's character, The Little Tramp, here referred to as The Lone Prospector, wanders into this hostile environment alone and ill-provisioned. A blizzard strands him in a cabin occupied by murderous outlaw Black Larsen (Tom Murray), but before Larsen can throw him out into the cold again, they're joined by Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain, a regular in Chaplin's films), who has just found a mountain of gold. With all their food gone, Larsen is sent to find more. When he does not return, Big Jim and the Tramp are reduced to eating the Tramp's shoe to stay alive, and cannibalism seems a likely second course.

Once back in a mining camp, the Tramp falls for dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale), but her attention to him amounts to little more than a source of amusement for her, and he winds up brokenhearted. Then a dazed Big Jim shows up with no memory of his gold find's location but with the idea that the Tramp can help him find it by taking him back to the cabin. And then another blizzard hits.

Along with the Chilkoot Pass photos, Chaplin drew inspiration from the true story of the Donner Party. California-bound settlers stranded by an early snowstorm in the winter of 1846 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (not far from where Chaplin shot his outdoor scenes) resorted to eating their dead in order to survive.

One of the film's most hilarious scenes has Big Jim hallucinating from hunger and seeing the Tramp as a giant chicken. When his original choice for playing chicken could not mimic his distinctive arm and leg movements, Chaplin donned the chicken costume himself for one of the film's most iconic moments.

Other memorable comic moments from "The Gold Rush" that have entered Hollywood's collective memory include the Tramp's entrance unaware that a bear is following only a few feet behind him, the meal consisting of his boiled shoe and the table dance the Tramp mimes with forks stuck into dinner rolls acting as puppet legs and feet.

Re-creating the dancing dinner rolls bit in Richard Attenborough's 1992 biopic "Chaplin" helped earn Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

The following year, Johnny Depp won a Golden Globe for his performance in "Benny & Joon" (1993) as a fan of silent films who imitates Chaplin doing the dancing roll routine. (And when Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow shows up sleeping on a pile of gold when town officials open a bank vault in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," it recalls when the unveiling of a municipal statue in the 1931 "City Lights" reveals Chaplin's Tramp asleep on the statue's lap.)

Although "The Gold Rush" marked the first time Chaplin began a film with a script already completed, delays in the production resulted from an unusual array of causes.

When Chaplin and his cameraman Rollie Totherow determined that they could not shoot the special effects scenes of the cabin moving in the blizzard on location, the entire production moved back to the studio, where the crew took a couple of months to build a mining camp and cover everything with soap flakes and other sorts of fake snow.

That allowed 35-year-old Chaplin to become too involved with his original casting choice for Georgia, 16-year-old Lita Grey, and her pregnancy and their subsequent marriage meant recasting the role.

Mack Swain, at 300 pounds, decided that he couldn't tolerate performing in a bearskin coat in the Hollywood heat and dropped out. Chaplin persuaded him to come back, but in the meantime, Swain had shaved off his beard. Chaplin didn't want him to wear a false beard, so he held up production while Swain's beard grew back.

Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, though, "The Gold Rush" became one of the great silent comedies. In 1942, Chaplin re-edited it, dropped the intertitles and replaced them with his own spoken narration, and added his own musical score. (He composed it without being able to read musical notation himself.)

Chaplin's expressive face and the deft physicality of his movements immediately warm audiences to his character and provide comic effects both subtle and broad. Though his movements might seem free-wheeling, his scores of takes for each ensure that every comic bit is honed to perfection.

Because someone neglected to renew the copyright on the original version in the 1950s, a lot of visually very poor copies have been floating around for decades.

So anyone interested in film comedy and/or classic cinema should take advantage of this rare opportunity to see a carefully remastered print on the huge Virginia screen.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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