(Sir) Charles (Spencer) Chaplin

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Stanley Kauffmann

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[Before The Gold Rush, Chaplin] made very few films that took the Tramp out of contemporary city or country life. Tramps are, after all, a by-product of industry, urban or rural. Evidently (we can deduce after the event), Chaplin's unconscious saw at once, in those stereoscopic pictures, the advantages of the novelty of putting the Tramp into a context that, so to speak, had no direct relation to Trampdom, the possibilities for the "epic" that he was seeking. And, presumably, he saw the power in putting the image of the Tramp, whose black moustache is the center of the figure's color gradations, against predominantly white backgrounds. All in all, it was a chance to simultaneously vary and heighten what he had done up to now. (p. 299)

[The Gold Rush] is the "epic" that Chaplin was looking for. (p. 300)

[A] title announces "A Lone Prospector," and we see a narrow mountain path on the edge of a steep drop. I always laugh at once, not just because I know Chaplin is coming and the path is dangerous, but because—separated from the opening only by one title—the scenery is so patently phony compared with the reality of the Pass. Thus, early in the film, Chaplin sets a pattern that weaves throughout, the real world posed against the theater of that world, unblinking reality as the ground for a comic abstract of that reality. It's dangerous to mix modes like that, of course, unless you are able, as Chaplin is, to make the return to each mode instantly credible and supportive of the other.

Then in he comes, dancing along with a pack on his back. This first sequence shows the touch that made him great. As he skips and skids along the narrow path, a gigantic bear appears behind him and follows him. A lesser comic would have turned and seen the bear, and possibly would have got a lot of laughs out of panic on the slippery path. But the bear disappears into a cave just before Charlie stops to turn around and see how far he has come. We know the danger he has escaped, he doesn't. This is not only funnier, it is also serious: it exemplifies two of the Tramp's most important qualities—innocence and an unwitting faith in the power of that innocence.

Later, when he and Big Jim are trapped and starving in the cabin, the other man, delirious with hunger, imagines that Charlie is a gigantic chicken…. The delirium is funny, but Chaplin says he got the idea from the tragic story of the Donner party, the emigrants who were lost in the Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846 and resorted to cannibalism. Grimness as a source of comedy! On this point Chaplin himself said: "In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule, because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature—or go insane." (pp. 300-01)

All through Chaplin's body of work, hunger is a recurrent subject of comedy…. Hunger is an inevitable subject for a Tramp, particularly one whose creator had a childhood in surroundings of wretched poverty. Three times a day, life puts the Tramp at the mercy of "the forces of nature," and three times a day Chaplin has the option of transmuting those forces into laughter so that the Tramp will not "go insane." But there is an extraordinary aspect to this theme in The Gold Rush . Usually in Chaplin's films the pinch of...

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hunger comes from a social stringency: no money. Here in the cabin, money is irrelevant. Chaplin takes the theme that has always had a social-political resonance for him, isolates it into the Thing Itself, and makes it funnier than ever.

The harmonics of the picture—light tone against dark, light tone arising out of dark and vice versa—is enriched by his first entrance into the dance hall in the boom town. Chaplin, the director, avoids the conventional sequence: showing us the bustling saloon and then showing us the Tramp looking at it—which would mean looking at the camera. He shoots past the Tramp, from behind, to the saloon interior. Charlie is in outline; the brightness is beyond him. He watches from the edge, and we watch from an edge ever farther behind him. Yet because he is seen from slightly below eye level, there is something strong, almost heroic, in the pathos, and, simultaneously, there is something comic in his silhouette. It is the classic, quintessential Chaplin shot. (pp. 301-02)

[The] dream dinner, we should also note, exemplifies another theme that runs through Chaplin's work, the mirror image of the hunger theme discussed earlier. Instead of hunger, we get here the other extreme, the feast, the laden table, which has an effect in Chaplin films like the effect of feasts in Dickens…. Plentiful food means not gluttony, but love: an atmosphere of community, conviviality, and affection. One of the most touching moments in The Kid is the huge breakfast that the Kid prepares for himself and his "father," the Tramp. In The Gold Rush the golden brown turkey is the Tramp's contribution to an atmosphere in which human beings can be human. Chaplin's idea of a low and dehumanized state is not hunger, but the insult to the full table. In Modern Times, the Tramp is strapped to an automatic feeding machine, with food enough but without feeling. It debases a daily joy.

I describe one more scene in The Gold Rush, although it is hard to limit oneself, as an example of Chaplin's comic invention. When Charlie and Big Jim wake up in the lonely cabin to which they have returned in their search for Jim's lost claim, they don't realize, of course, that during the night the cabin was blown to a new location: the very edge of a cliff. They can't see out the frost-covered windows. As the cabin begins to shift on the precipice, Charlie decides to have a look at the trouble. He opens the back door—and swings out into immense space, hanging onto the doorknob. (If I had to vote for the single funniest sight gag in films, I'd probably choose this moment.) (pp. 303-04)

Like so much in Chaplin's films, and in farce generally, this cabin sequence is built on danger, scary but seen from safety. It is the quantum of the banana peel greatly multiplied: we know what it would feel like if it were happening to us, but we also know that it isn't. Comedy, of all kinds, depends on perception and superiority. In high comedy, which usually deals with social criticism, we can recognize the hypocrisy or vanity or whatever it may be, acknowledge secretly that we share it, and laugh with relief that it is being pilloried in someone else. In farce, the materials are often physical, often the dangers of daily life that surround us all the time, even when crossing the street. The farceur makes injury and possible death simultaneously real and unreal. We know that the Tramp and Big Jim will not be killed in the cabin—it simply could not happen in this kind of picture; yet we feel the danger in our viscera. We are frightened at the same time that we enjoy the skill of the artists who have nullified death. Farce characters—important ones—never get killed. They contrive for us a superiority over mortality, even as they make us laugh at their struggles to escape it.

To this comic heritage of danger combined with subconscious assurance of safety, Chaplin adds a unique touch: grace. All through his career, it is manifest: as in the dangerous skating sequences of The Rink and Modern times. (pp. 304-05)

[The ending of The Gold Rush differs from some of Chaplin's other films] only in that we see Charlie rich. Essential though the wealth is thematically, this was not the image that Chaplin wanted to leave before our eyes, so he devised a way for the rich Charlie to put on his Tramp clothes once again. This persona, resumed, gives Georgia, the prostitute, a chance to prove the genuineness of her feelings, and it gives Chaplin a chance to score a last point. The Tramp had to be dragged away from Georgia by Big Jim, had to be dragged to wealth; now the wealth brings the lovers together again on the ship. Money and happiness, Chaplin seems to say, are at the whim of two powers: Fate and authors.

But an even subtler complexity runs through the film, through most of his major films. The element that persists, through the comedy and through the pathos that makes the comedy beloved, is a sense of mystery. Who is the Tramp? What is the secret of his unique effect on us? (p. 305)

I propose no supernatural answer, that he is a divine messenger in ragged clothes, a fool of God. I do suggest that part of the genius of Chaplin, part of his superiority to all other film comics except Buster Keaton, is his ability to make us believe in a comic character whose standards are better than our own, just as his body in motion is more beautiful than our bodies. I suggest that one of the reasons we have loved him all these decades—and young people seem to feel that they have loved him for decades, too—is that he has not concentrated on merely making us laugh, he has shown us the funniness in a hero-clown, an unsententious agent of exemplary values. He is not dully angelic; he sometimes pulls off con games, though usually to a good end or to flout oppressive authority. But in the main he compensates for the shortcomings, social and physical, of our lives and beings. In his magical movement and in his code, even in his cunning, he is what we feel we ought to be. (p. 306)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Gold Rush'" (originally published in a different form as "Landmarks of Film History: Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush'," in Horizon, Vol. XV, No. 3, Summer, 1973), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 298-306.


Eric Bentley