Published on December 22nd, 2011 | by Paul Anthony Johnson0
In 1952, the British film journal “Sight & Sound” published the results of the first of its decennial lists of the greatest movies ever made, compiled from a survey of respected international critics. First place went to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterwork “The Bicycle Thieves” (1948), but in second and third place came two Chaplin movies–“City Lights” (1931) and “The Gold Rush” (1925). Chaplin’s reputation as the cinema’s greatest artist, both as a filmmaker and performer, was at its peak. But in the following decades, as Buster Keaton’s star belatedly (and deservedly) rose in the 1960s, Chaplin’s went into relative decline, and “The Gold Rush”’s status as the arguable zenith of American silent film comedy was eclipsed by Keaton’s “The General” (1926). In 1962, “City Lights” and “The Gold Rush” fell to 14th and 16th place, respectively, and by 1972 Chaplin fell out of the top 20 entirely. In the 2002 edition of the poll, both “Modern Times” (1936) and “City Lights” received a respectable smattering of votes, but “The Gold Rush” failed to elicit enough mentions to rank. Thanks to its profound depth of feeling, “City Lights” has partially maintained its high standing among the cognoscenti, and “Modern Times” (1936) has picked up considerable support thanks to the lasting bite of its political satire, but “The Gold Rush” has never quite regained its reputation as possibly the summit of Chaplin’s talents. Which is unfortunate, because in terms of craft and construction, “The Gold Rush” is probably the most elegant of all of Chaplin’s pictures, and may be the most powerful rejoinder to the old canard that Chaplin, while a brilliant performer, was a pedestrian and “uncinematic” director.
Where much of “City Lights” plays almost like a greatest hits compilation pulled together from bits recycled from his two-reeler days (and is no less great a film for it), and “Modern Times” lurches about from terrific episode to terrific episode, “The Gold Rush” adheres to a rather more cohesive narrative model, as Chaplin plays a prospector who makes his way to Alaska during the gold rush of the 1890s, finding famine, fortune and love along the way (and very much in that order). Much of the humor derives from the ways the indefatigable tramp make his way through the rough and tumble world of the Klondike, always the potential victim of bigger, tougher men who nevertheless never quite manage to get the best of Charlie. Along the way, he also falls hard for a bar girl (Georgia Hale) who mostly fails to return his affections. We also get inspired gags about insanity, starvation, cannibalism and murder, none of which prove incongruous with the lighter-than-air fairy tale quality Chaplin maintains. In other words, it’s an ideal showcase for the patented Chaplin mixture of slapstick and sentiment, so expertly handled that it looks effortless–a virtue which probably hasn’t helped its chances in greatest movie polls.
Chaplin, who began making broad knockabout farces for Mack Sennett in the 1910s, was by 1925 a master at making tonally complex comedy that perfectly balanced comedy and pathos. One of the film’s most celebrated sequences, the dance of the bread rolls number wherein the Tramp creates a dance routine using a pair of bread rolls and his own beautifully expressive eyes (a bit he lifted from an old Fatty Arbuckle short and which subsequently showed up in the 1993 Johnny Depp rom-com “Benny & Joon,” as well as in an episode of “The Simpsons”), actually occurs during one of the film’s most poignant moments, as the Tramp attempts to stave off loneliness and despair after the girl of his dreams stands him up. The scene achieves a tricky tonal balance characteristic of the movie as a whole–a balance not many filmmakers have attempted before or since without seeming either irritatingly crass or unbearably twee.
The film’s formal eloquence contrasts sharply with the shambolic, gormless style of most contemporary comedies. Chaplin’s routines, from the aforementioned “Dance of the Dinner Rolls” to the moment he eats a cooked leather shoe like it’s a splendid delicacy, reflect the skill and timing of a perfectionist who would spend months refining a single movement–as far removed as possible from the open-ended, self-indulgent improv excess that characterizes so much modern film comedy. Just try imagining a modern version with Russell Brand or Will Ferrell and you get an immediate sense of the distance between comedy as Chaplin conceived it and comedy as it is usually practiced by today’s professional class of mugging magpies. And now that nobody seems to think it’s the 3rd greatest movie anymore, “The Gold Rush” has become something of a neglected underdog. How very Chaplinesque.