Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin, which reduced the screen legend’s life to a series of clichés so encyclopedic in their debasement of its subject as to take on a kind awe-inspiring comprehensiveness, remains after 20 years since its release one of the most perfect ways ever devised to insult a major figure, in any field. At the end of the day, we learn that Charlie Chaplin was a child prodigy who spurred Dan Aykroyd’s Mack Sennett to slap his knee in grudging respect, and whose charisma was such that Milla Jovovich collapsed on his front lawn, crushed under the weight of her psychotically amorous longing. Such is the wearisome, stagnant sea of what passes for mythology in this age: Chaplin is an immortal for the precise sum of the iconic images one might use to pitch a project like Chaplin, no more, no less.
By the same token, it might be hard to believe, even if you’ve seen the film, but surrounding the “dining on a boot,” “teetering cabin,” and “dance of the rolls” scenes, which are some of the most indelible set pieces created for a film, there’s an entire movie, nearly 90 minutes in length, and it, not just those set pieces, is The Gold Rush. Those sequences certainly stand out, even if it’s hard to tell if that’s so because of what they are, or because of the impenetrable window of memory through which we look at them. But what’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how much else there is, too, not just in terms of set pieces (two more stand out: the one where Chaplin’s Little Tramp hires himself out as a storefront snow-shoveler, and the earlier one where he uses a dog’s leash as a makeshift belt), but in how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage.
Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny, but retains its barbarism; as distant as such things may seem now, Chaplin was born just over a dozen years after Wild Bill Hickcock was shot down by Jack McCall in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. The edge-of-civilization environment the Tramp wanders into is not yet wholly divested of its realistic edge; of Chaplin’s early shorts it tends to resemble the grotesquely violent Easy Street.
Not everything works in The Gold Rush; the episodic nature of the script makes the film as a whole feel a little slack, and Chaplin doesn’t surround himself with subtle comic actors in supporting roles. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period, and as much as I prefer Keaton, the Great Stoneface would never have gone for anything like it. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion.