Release Date: 26 June 1925
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 95 minutes (original); 72 minutes (1942 re-release)
With: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Malcolm Waite, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford
Story: The Little Tramp, now a lone gold prospector in the frozen north, gets lost in a blizzard. Finding a cabin for shelter, he encounters the wanted criminal Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and Big Jim (Mack Swain), who has just struck it rich. Weathering the storm, the Tramp later arrives at a nearby town and meets dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). Just as happiness looms, however, the Tramp is drawn back into the gold digging machinations of Big Jim.
Production: Although Charlie Chaplin had made many innovative films during his apprenticeship in filmmaking (right at the beginnings of the business as a popular art form, a full decade before The Gold Rush), it wasn’t until he embarked upon features that his true talents shone through. Several of his later First National films had verged on ‘feature length’ (they were described as such at the time), like Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Kid (1921). That latter film was as close as Chaplin came to making a true masterpiece—until The Gold Rush (1925). For Chaplin, it was the picture by which he wanted to be remembered.
There are scenes from The Gold Rush that many people will have seen without ever actually watching the entire film—the ‘dance of the bread rolls’, for example, is a staple in any show featuring clips from Chaplin’s work—while the antics in the beleaguered cabin of Chaplin eating his boot, Big Jim seeing the Tramp as a tasty giant chicken, and the cabin teetering on the edge of the cliff are all well known. What is perhaps less appreciated is The Gold Rush in its entirety at its original 95-minute length. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking and a serious step forward in Chaplin’s depiction of and use of his Little Tramp character, a part he felt trapped by (hence his making of A Woman of Paris, 1923, as his first true feature, rather than a Tramp film) but that he was now reconciled to continuing to feature in his work (at least for the immediate future).
It was during a breakfast meeting at Pickfair, the home of Chaplin’s friends and business partners (in United Artists) Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, in the fall of 1923 when the inspiration for the film that would become The Gold Rush struck him. His partners were pressuring Chaplin to embark upon a new movie for United Artists, preferably one starring the Tramp. By 1924, Pickford had released 11 movies through United Artists, Fairbanks had put out seven, and the fourth partner D. W. Griffith had managed nine, all to Chaplin’s sole contribution (A Woman of Paris). Part of the morning saw Chaplin viewing stereoscopic (3D) slides that depicted authentic scenes from the Klondike ‘gold rush’ of 1898, an event less than 30 years in the past. This, it seemed to Chaplin, would be an ideal setting into which to pitch his Little Tramp—a character who was constantly out-of-his-element, yet strived to make the best of any situation he found himself in. Chaplin began reading further on the subject, encountering the tale of the Donner Party of 1846 who had resorted to cannibalism when stranded in the Sierra Nevada. Chaplin could see the comic, if macabre, mileage in such a scenario. ‘It is paradoxical,’ Chaplin wrote, ‘that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule … 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.’
Oddly, Chaplin’s first take on the material was in the form of a play, completed in December 1923 under the title The Lucky Strike, which he deposited in the copyright library. In January 1924, Chaplin began formal work on what he was calling ‘the Northern story’, further researching the time period and setting, delegating some of the work to assistants such as Eddie Sutherland, Chuck Riesner, and Henry Bergman. Others at his studio began work building the kind of props and costumes a Klondike-set film would likely require, from furs to sleds. A massive backdrop of a snowbound mountain scene was painted in the studio with a ‘real’ layer of snow deposited in front of it (the ‘snow’ was actually salt mixed with flour). A prospectors’ hut was built—as much of the opening action of the film would take place here. It was constructed on a kind of primitive gimbal, a rocking system controlled through a set of easily entangled pulleys so the entire edifice could be rocked back-and-forth for the scene where the hut hangs over the edge of a ravine. All through this busy work, Chaplin continued to develop his story—although The Gold Rush would, as usual, begin production without a ‘proper’ script (despite the existence of The Lucky Strike), Chaplin had a better handle on the twists-and-turns of the story than he’d sometimes shown in the past.
With Edna Purviance not under serious consideration (although Chaplin continued to pay her a ‘salary’ until her death) for the leading female part of the dance hall girl that the Tramp falls for, Chaplin began looking elsewhere. While shooting tests of the rocking hut and the blizzard effects, Chaplin and studio manager Alf Reeves filmed tests of various actresses. Lobbying for the role was Lillita McMurray (Lita Grey, as would be), who had appeared in the dream sequence of The Kid and was a maid (alongside her mother) in The Idle Class. Against the advice of others in the studio, Chaplin signed the then 15-year-old McMurray to be his leading lady in The Gold Rush, changing her name to ‘Lita Grey’, for $75 per week. Lita’s casting was given the full press treatment, with a photo of The Gold Rush team at Lita’s contract signing issued in March 1924.
Writing in his 1927 biography Charlie Chaplin: His Real Life Story, Jim Tully noted: ‘Chaplin’s selection of Lita Grey to play the role of the leading lady in The Gold Rush was quite romantic. Many young women of great beauty had applied for the position. Charlie, never quite certain as to which type he wanted, found his selection almost hopeless until the young schoolgirl appeared at the studio. [Told she was hired] the young girl, not yet 16, jumped up and down with joy. Had she been able to read the future she might have jumped over the moon, for within a short time Lita became not only leading woman for the most famous man in the world but also his wife.’ Many news reports claimed Lita’s age to be a more acceptable 19.
Filming on The Gold Rush had begun the previous month, February 1924, with some of the cabin scenes and the opening sequence of the Tramp getting lost in the blizzard were efficiently captured (some of the scenes featured a genuine large brown bear). Later in the month, Chaplin and his colleagues embarked upon a location scouting trip to Truckee, near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, 400 miles north of Hollywood, where they hoped to shoot some genuine snow-laden scenes. This was part of a misguided quest for authenticity on Chaplin’s part, driven by his jealousy of the achievement of Erich von Stroheim’s shot-on-location Greed (1924). Back in the studio, after the recce north, Chaplin returned to shooting the cabin scenes featuring Mack Swain as Big Jim. Three days and 63 takes were spent on shooting the scenes in which the Tramp, suffering great pangs of hunger, meticulously prepares and eats his boot. Through each of those days, the director refined his comic material, increasing the comedy by increments, such as transforming a rusty nail into a wishbone. For the filming, the boot and laces were made of liquorice. By mid-March, Chaplin had developed the scene in which Big Jim imagines the Tramp to be a chicken. Initially, this was no more than a vision of a roast chicken on the cabin table, but inspiration struck leading to Chaplin to obtain a full-size chicken suit he could wear. The effect was achieved in a near faultless cross-fade carried out ‘in camera’ rather than through a post-production optical effect (as would become standard later for such scenes).
It was several weeks before Chaplin was ready to shoot Lita Grey’s first scenes. This was intended as part of the cabin scenes, with the Tramp asleep but dreaming as a beautiful woman brings him a plate of succulent roast turkey. That was shot on Saturday, 22 March 1924. By the Monday, Chaplin had a new idea and reshot the scene with strawberry shortcake replacing the turkey. In the dream, she proceeds to feed him strawberries and it ends with him getting the cake in his face and awakening. Neither scene was ultimately to appear anywhere in either version of The Gold Rush.
By April, the cast and crew were in cold Truckee (Lita accompanied by her mother) to shoot the scenes in and around the gold rush town. Material to build out the opening scene of the film (to be combined with the earlier shot studio material) was first to be captured. Hundreds of extras, many ‘hobos’ drafted in from Sacramento, played the long line of prospectors making their way through the snow, Chaplin’s Tramp initially among them (before he gets lost). The lengthy path was created with the help of the Truckee Ski Club. Many members of the filming crew also appeared in the scene to boost the numbers, including assistant director Eddie Sutherland and (somewhere among the crowd) Lita Grey. A genuine snowstorm hit the location, and Sutherland was quick to grab shots of Tom Murray fighting his way through the blizzard (Chaplin was—conveniently–ill at this moment). By the end of April, filming on location for The Gold Rush had wrapped.
Having been efficient in production on the film thus far, things soon ground to a halt on The Gold Rush with the studio lying idle throughout May and June, much to the annoyance of Chaplin’s associates. While Chaplin worked on further ‘story material’, a recreation of the location mountain range was built in studio while Lita Grey posed for photographs in a variety of diverse costumes. People were kept busy, but they weren’t actually making the movie. The cameras turned again at the start of July, filming more (ultimately unused) cabin scenes between Chaplin and Swain (who struggled under the heavy furs in the Californian heat). Work then moved to the cabin on the ravine edge scenes, achieved with a mix of the full-size hut and cleverly made miniature models.
At the end of June all work on The Gold Rush suddenly stopped. Although it was not known to his co-workers, Chaplin had been hit by what biographer David Robinson called a ‘bombshell’: Lita Grey announced she was pregnant. No doubt he was hit by flashbacks to events with Mildred Harris, but there was an added complication—Lita was legally underage, meaning Chaplin could face a criminal charge of rape with a potential 30-year prison term. His first instinct was to pay for an abortion, but Lita’s Catholic mother was outraged. The only answer was an immediate marriage. By his own actions, Chaplin had once more trapped himself in an unwanted relationship.
Towards the end of November 1924, Chaplin took a small film crew to Mexico, supposedly to continue with some filming for The Gold Rush (despite the improbability of that location). Instead, the trip was simply a cover story for the rapid civil wedding between Chaplin and Lita Grey that took place on 26 November at Empalme, Mexico (bizarrely at 3am, according to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton). During what remained of that night, Lita and her mother shared the bridal suite; Chaplin was nowhere to be found, the groom having apparently ‘gone fishing’! The entire weary entourage returned to Los Angeles the next day. One anecdote has Chaplin saying to his travelling companions of his ‘shotgun’ marriage: ‘This is better than the penitentiary, but it won’t last…’
The press was quick to catch on, even if reporters had been most recently fascinated by a supposed burgeoning relationship between Chaplin and Marion Davies. The actress was then the mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Chaplin had been caught up in the mystery surrounding the death of director Thomas Ince aboard Hearst’s yacht earlier that November. Now, however, the cat was out of the bag and Chaplin’s marriage to the extremely young Lita Grey was front-page news. The New York Daily News headline suggested the marriage was in danger of ‘Spoiling A Good Clown’ by making Chaplin too happy!
To escape his personal troubles, Chaplin followed his habitual reaction to such drama—he threw himself into his work. His first act was to replace Grey in The Gold Rush, using her pregnancy as a spurious excuse. By Christmas 1923, the Chaplin studio had announced that unknown Georgia Hale would be Chaplin’s new co-star in The Gold Rush (then 17-year-old Carole Lombard was among those tested). Chaplin was once more treading on dangerous ground in that his replacement for 16-year-old Grey was only herself 18—Chaplin was then 35 years old. At 16, Hale had won the Miss Chicago title and had come to Hollywood in the summer of 1923 seeking stardom. She’d won a few parts as a background extra, including in the Mildred Harris-starring film By Divine Right (1924, directed by Roy William Neill). Joseph von Sternberg then cast Hale as the lead in The Salvation Hunters (1925), his directorial debut, which was where Chaplin first saw her. Chaplin then ‘stole’ Hale from Fairbanks who had subsequently cast her as the Queen in his Don Q., Son of Zorro (1925, Hale was replaced by Stella di Lanti), a sequel to his 1920 film The Mark of Zorro. Hale had been a fan of Chaplin’s since she was a teenager, so working with him on his latest film was a dream come true for her.
Replacing Grey with Hale was relatively simple, since all that had been shot was the later excised dream sequence and Chaplin had not yet reached the scenes set in the town that featured the dance hall girl (now named Georgia, after the actress). The dance hall and bar were built in the studio and Hale was prepared for her first scenes in The Gold Rush. Around 100 extras were signed up for these scenes, but many of them proved disruptive to the filming by acting as if they were in a real bar. Despite that, the highest paid performer in these sequences was actually the dog (hired from Hal Roach) that’s on the end of the rope Chaplin’s Tramp employs to hold up his trousers. The ‘fake’ New Year’s Eve scenes were completed by 19 January 1925, shortly after the real event. In February, the scenes of the lonely Tramp waiting for party guests who never arrive (including the famous ‘dance of the rolls’, part of another dream sequence) were shot. By April, with the filming of the closing boat scenes in San Diego, The Gold Rush was completed (although in mid-May some additional miniature filming of an avalanche for the death of Black Larsen was shot).
As Chaplin was hard at work editing the footage of The Gold Rush, Lita Grey gave birth to his son, Charles Chaplin Jr., on 5 May 1925. Concerned over the fact that it had only been six months since the marriage, Chaplin hid Lita and her mother, along with the baby, in a cabin in the San Bernadino mountains. A friendly doctor (who owned the cabin and had attended the birth) falsified the birth certificate giving the child the ‘official’ birthday of 28 June—two days after Chaplin premiered the completed The Gold Rush.
Chaplin described The Gold Rush as a ‘dramatic comedy’ revealing his new balance between drama and laughs in his films going forward. Where The Kid had leaned perhaps a bit too heavily on strong emotion or even sentimentality, The Gold Rush would provide the ideal mix between the drama of the general situation and the specificity of the comedy involving the antics of the Little Tramp. Overall the film had cost the Chaplin studio just under $1 million to make, while it would gross in excess of $6 million at the box office during its first run. By any contemporary measure, The Gold Rush was a success.
From the atmospheric opening shot of the hundreds of prospectors climbing the snowy mountain pass to the uncharacteristic happy ending that sees the now wealthy Tramp reunited with Hale’s dance hall girl aboard ship, The Gold Rush is a perfectly constructed masterpiece displaying the ideal balance between drama and comedy, with several of the comedic moments making their mark on film history. In surveys of silent cinema, The Gold Rush often comes second only to the same year’s Sergei Eisenstein directed Russian drama Battleship Potemkin.
The Gold Rush features a slightly different version of Chaplin’s Tramp, a more mature figure whose outlook on life is still optimistic but who has admitted to himself his lonely station in life as the perennial striver who, despite his own ambition and persistence, repeatedly fails to make the big time or get the girl. The Tramp’s hunger pangs call back to Chaplin’s own early life, aspects of which were also explored in A Dog’s Life and The Kid; the black marks around the Tramp’s eyes accentuate his deprivation. The fantasy of the ending seems somehow out of place, with the now rich Tramp’s donning of his old outfit for photographers keen to tell his rags-to-riches story perhaps suggesting that no matter his wealth, he cannot escape the man he really is inside those clothes. Much the same could be said of Charlie Chaplin himself.
Version Control: Chaplin reissued The Gold Rush in 1942 in a new cut that deleted 20 or so minutes, used alternate takes in some scenes, deleted the inter-titles, and added sound effects, as well as narration and dialogue performed by Chaplin himself. The most significant alteration is on the ending, where the passionate kiss between the Tramp and Georgia is deleted. This new version of The Gold Rush no doubt extended the commercial life of the film at that time, but the alterations were really unnecessary, and the best version of the film is the full-length 1925 original. It can be hard to see however—the Chaplin estate insist on making only the 1942 cut-down version available (this is the one on Blu-ray). However, in 2003 MK2/Warner Bros. included the original 1925 longer version of The Gold Rush as an extra on the DVD release of the film (a 1993 restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill), so don’t ditch that DVD if you move up to Blu-ray!
Trivia: The studio-built Klondike mountain range for The Gold Rush took 239,577 feet of timber and 22,750 feet of chicken wire to build, and it was covered in 200 tons of plaster, with the snowy landscape made up of 285 tons of salt, 100 barrels of flour, and four cartloads of confetti!
Charlie Says: ‘I read a book about the Donner Party who, on the way to California, missed the route and were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Out of 160 pioneers, only 18 survived, most of them dying of hunger and cold. Some resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead, others roasted their moccasins to relieve their hunger. Out of this harrowing tragedy I conceived one of our funniest scenes…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
‘During the filming of The Gold Rush, I married for the second time. Because we have two grown sons of whom I am very fond, I will not go into any details. For two years we were married and tried to make a go of it, but it was hopeless and ended in a great deal of bitterness.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
Verdict: A film of genuine laughs and genuine drama, The Gold Rush gets the balance right mostly avoiding the sentimentality that was a key feature of The Kid.—Brian J. Robb
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.