14 July, 2010

Movie Review: The Gold Rush (1925)

The proper way to eat a shoe.

The easiest type of movie review to write is one about an awful disaster of a film. Writing such a review taps into the insult comic within us all, and it usually consists of quoting laughable dialogue, pointing out absurd plot consistencies, stringing together insulting hyperbole, and deriding any offensive content.

Next on the scale of easiness is the review about a beloved gem, either a recent film or an obscure older film that the reviewer has seen and loved. The reviewer can still take a sense of ownership over such a film because it has not yet been dissected and devoured. Reviewing such a film is like writing a travelogue about previously unexplored terrain; the reviewer, a trailblazer, feels as though what he says can be treated as authoritative gospel because it's never been said before, and this praise isn't hard to put words to because the reviewer desperately wants to share his new-found love, to figure out what has so moved him.

Somewhat harder is the review of a supposed masterpiece that the reviewer didn't like. These reviews fall into two categories. The critic can either stand firm in resolving that the film is horrible, expressing bafflement that the idiotic masses would be gullible enough to buy into it, or he can throw his hands in the air, earnestly wishing to know what went over his head, what other people saw that he couldn't see, what his own problem is that he's unable to recognize a masterpiece.

But the hardest review of all to write is the review of a classic masterpiece that the critic knows is a masterpiece. What hasn't been said before? How many television documentaries, film studies classes, countdown lists, and scholarly books have already explored every facet of such a film. The critic's words, if he doesn't have some fresh new insight into the film, are repetitive, obvious, and irrelevant.

Charlie Chaplin's iconic comedy The Gold Rush came out eighty-five years ago, and yes, it's hilarious; yes, it's well acted; yes, it's memorable and touching and important and a masterpiece. What can I add to the critical material about this movie?

Perhaps it's best to keep it short and stick to the moments in the film that meant the most to me.

There's a classic scene in this film where Charlie Chaplin boils and eats his own shoe. Chaplin is the Lone Prospector, a silly little tramp braving the elements of the nineteenth century Klondike in search of gold. Caught in a terrible snowstorm, he holes up in an isolated cabin with a wanted criminal named Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and a burly fortune hunter named Big Jim (Mack Swain). When Larsen leaves in search of food, the two prospectors wait and wait, slowly starving. When all the food and the candles and everything else edible is eaten and their stomachs can take it no longer--to the point that Big Jim begins hallucinating that the little tramp is a giant, succulent chicken--the Lone Prospector throws his leather shoe in a pot with snow and boils it for dinner.

This is a very old joke by now, and it was even an old joke and a cliche when the film was made in 1925. What makes it hilarious, though, is how Chaplin goes about eating the shoe. With the shoe on a dinner plate, using a fork and knife, salt and pepper, he carefully removes the shoelaces, cuts apart the heel from the top, removes the cobbler nails and sucks on them, and piles the discarded nails, like bones, on a small dish. He eats the shoe with grace and precision, with nary a hint of desperation. He picks it apart as though it were a fish or a steak, as though there were a traditional method for eating a shoe, with customary rituals and procedures. He follows all the rules of etiquette for the eating of shoes.

The scene was shot using licorice and sugar candy designed to look like a boot. Chaplin, a perfectionist and a diabetic, supposedly shot the scene more than sixty times. By the time he had perfected it, he had suffered from insulin shock and needed to be rushed to the hospital. His suffering paid off, though, the scene is one of the most memorable comedic movie moments of all time.

What also moves me about The Gold Rush is the sad romance between the Lone Prospector and Georgia (Georgia Hale), a beautiful dancer who knows she is beautiful and uses the prospector's shy affections to her own advantage, giving him false hope and making him false promises so that she can make her rivals jealous, make her friends laugh, and make herself feel better. The prospector's childlike persistence in loving her and his naive willingness to be duped make the scenes in which he is humiliated especially sad. Here is a good man with a pure heart who hasn't yet realized that love can be cruel.

What's great about the love story is that his persistent faith in love forces her, if only temporarily, to see the ugliness within herself. She, too, though perhaps only for a moment, remembers that love can be something more than a game. Her transformation is visible, believable, and touching. Of course, her decision to be with him is also coupled with the fact that by the film's end he has become a millionaire. Their love may not be blessed with a happy ending in the years to come, but it is undeniable that the flames of love blaze at the film's end.

Charlie Chaplin is said to have wished that The Gold Rush would be what he was remembered for. With the film as his second highest rated movie on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of great films (it's #32, with City Lights at #25), he may have got his wish.

The Gold Rush (1925)
d/w: Charlie Chaplin
(Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain)


danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Charlie Chaplin Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!

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