Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)

Objectively speaking, 1925's The Gold Rush is - in spite of all the acclaim - a surprisingly flawed effort from Chaplin, imo. In terms of its plot, it seems considerably less refined than his later comedic efforts. Much of that fault lies with the issue of character development - what's the real purpose of Black Larsen, for example? Or why waste precious momentum by focusing on the Georgia/Jack relationship? The dynamics of that union, complete with the former's carefree persona significantly detracts from the already distractingly-contrived [Spoiler]happy ending. Is this ho-that-appears-from-nowhere really meant to be worthy of our beloved Tramp?[/Spoiler]

And yet, to focus on these elements strikes me as somewhat reductive, for all the plot gripes in the world pale into insignificance when one is dealing with what could well be the funniest of all Chaplin comedies. And that's as lofty as praise gets. For a film that's defined by its boundless energy, it seems thoroughly appropriate for the director to play fast and loose with staple narrative tools. This decision works a treat, because his alternative is to create a series of increasingly outrageous setpieces that launch a full-scale tickling assault upon the funnybone. The film brims with these bravura sequences that underline its star's gift for slapstick: the first appearance of the bear (this was the point where I fell in love with Chaplin all over again); the boiled shoe; the fights against the storm; the dog at the dance; the initial brawl between Big Jim and Black Larsen; the cabin on the cliffside; and my personal favourite, Charlie in a chicken suit. Whilst the art of film comedy probably reached its peak with the sophisticated screwballs of the 1930s/1940s, the simplistic splendour of Chaplin's own endeavours serves as a pervading reminder that complexity doesn't necessarily equate to superiority.

Personally, I find that the resonance of Chaplin's art consistently derives from his ability to locate light in the bleakest of situations. Although the potential for social commentary in this particular film is mostly disregarded, it nonetheless boasts moments that lay to bare the director's modest (but powerful) emotional canvas. Key to all this is the creation of the Tramp himself, whom Chaplin always embodies with such irresistible charm - to the point where I often find myself taken aback by those that don't fall for him like I do (fortunately, these people seem to exist only on the Internet, which means that they need not fear my real-life wrath). He may well be my favourite character in film history, and although his position in the social hierarchy bestows him with an underdog status that ensures sympathy to a certain degree, I really believe that the Tramp genuinely the audience's affections in his on-screen adventures. Rarely has this been better expressed than during The Gold Rush's dream sequence, where Chaplin's extraordinary talent for blending comedy and pathos reaches its zenith with the famed "Oceana Roll" - typically amusing, but concurrently gut-wrenching as a result of its distance from the Tramp's present reality. Chaplin follows this with one of the most heartbreaking close-ups this side of his own conclusion to City Lights - and once again, his crestfallen face expresses more in a mere few seconds about love, dreams, social status and loneliness, than 180 minutes of spoken dialogue ever could.

I guess I see this film as a reflection of the Tramp himself. What he and it lack in intelligence, they more than make up for with their heart. Chaplin's enduring appeal throughout the years has surely been in large part due to his ability to express painfully honest emotions with a uniquely humorous filter. It's a combination that I'm a sucker for, to be honest. So to return to an earlier point, who really gives a damn about plot?! [Spoiler]If the Tramp wants the girl, then I want him to have her too![/Spoiler] In a world where life is always hanging precariously in the balance, the Tramp's resilience and his ceaseless optimism is both admirable and infectious.

There's a brief scene in this film where the Tramp finds a self-release from all his inhibitions, and bounces off his cabin walls as if all the happiness of the world has been momentarily imbued into his meagre little frame. I feel no shame in confessing that both Chaplin and The Gold Rush have the same effect upon me. For consistently reminding me of the beauty of innocence and sentimentality where so many other directors have miserably failed, I'm indebted to him. And I would never dare let my objectivity get in the way of my subjective love for this here film.

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