The Gold Rush was Charlie Chaplin's favorite among his own films, so much a favorite that he deliberately did not copyright it, allowing it to pass into the public domain as a gift to his future public. As a result, the film has been seen more frequently than any other Chaplin feature, especially between 1952 and 1972, the two decades of Chaplin's disenchantment with America, when he withdrew all his other feature films from public circulation. Inspired by stories of the Donner Party, trapped in a desert of ice, and perhaps by the icy landscapes of Robert Flaherty's popular documentary feature, Nanook of the North, Chaplin took his Tramp character to the frozen gold fields where human beings endure great hardships so that they might strike it rich. As usual in a Chaplin film, the Tramp is very much an outsider in the world of The Gold Rush, even in this society of outsiders and outcasts. The Tramp is too kind, too sensitive to human needs, and too spiritual for that isolated, materialistic world. The Tramp's kindness in befriending Georgia, an abused dance-hall girl, contrasts with other human actions in the film – with those of Jack, Georgia's handsome boyfriend who treats her as his sex object; or with those of Black Larsen, a man so hungry for gold that he robs and kills others.
Despite the serious moral issues which the film raises in its contrast of material and spiritual human pursuits, its popularity derives from the power of its comedy sequences. In one of the most famous of Chaplin's transpositions of objects – his conversion of one kind of physical object into another – the Tramp cooks a dinner for himself and his starving friend, Big Jim McKay. Lacking anything else to eat, the Tramp sacrifices one of his own symbols, his floppy shoe, which he boils carefully in a pot, testing it with a fork for tenderness. He then carves it like a roast beef, twirls the shoestrings around his fork like spaghetti and sucks on the nails like chicken bones. In a later sequence, lacking even a shoe to eat, Charlie converts himself into a mammoth chicken – or so Big Jim imagines. The contrast of Charlie's chickenish actions with the cannibalistic dreams of his sometime friend reveals the typical Chaplin method of making comedy out of the most basic and elemental human needs – love, shelter, hunger.
Balancing the comedic scenes is one of the most effective and powerful sequences of pathos and poignancy in the entire Chaplin canon. Charlie has invited Georgia, whose picture he preserves under his pillow next to a rose, and several of her friends at the dance hall to supper on New Year's Eve. They, making fun of the pathetic little Tramp, have teasingly promised to attend the supper. As he waits for them, Charlie falls asleep and dreams of the delightful dinner that will never be. He entertains the girls by sticking two rolls on the ends of two forks and using them to dance the "Oceana Roll." The sight of Charlie's playful face, coyly peering over the tops of these two tiny, dancing legs is one of the most memorable single images in Chaplin's work. But Charlie awakens to find that his social success has only been a dream – like his many dreams of love and success in earlier films. The pathos of his loneliness is emphasized by the communal society of revelers singing "Auld Lang Syne," while Charlie, shown isolated within the frame, stands outside the circle of their friendship and observes.
However, almost miraculously, the Tramp eventually finds both love and wealth in this film. Charlie, now rich from his gold strike, discovers Georgia on board the same ship on which he is travelling home. She has had enough of the frozen wasteland (Chaplin typically uses the hired dance-hall girl as a metaphor for prostitution, the conversion of female sexuality into a commodity to be bought and sold). Georgia reveals her kindness when she protects Charlie from the ship's captain, believing him to be a stowaway. And Charlie, in turn, returns the girl's kindness by embracing her, now that he can offer her money as well as love. In what seems Chaplin's own conscious comment on the film's happy ending, a group of shipboard photographers, taking pictures of the former Tramp now a millionaire, criticize a photograph of the Tramp's kissing Georgia: "You've spoiled the picture." Chaplin seemed to have been anticipating the film's critics whom he expected to attack this last scene.
The issue that the ending raises is whether the Tramp can ever find happiness with a romantic-sexual mate. Must the Tramp, as outcast and outsider, also be disqualified from the consummation of love, which in our society is formalized by marriage? The previous Chaplin films to end with a happy, affirmative answer to this question (The Vagabond, A Dog's Life, The Kid) also suggest something dreamlike and impossible about such a solution. This dreamlike suggestion about the Tramp's attainment of marital happiness becomes explicit in films like The Bank or Shoulder Arms, in which his attainment of the lady of his dreams literally turns out to be a dream. His next three films, The Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times, will return to the marriage theme with far more ambiguity and uncertainty. The Gold Rush, which lies at the crossroads of Chaplin's lighter early work and his more mature and darker features, is probably his most successful film at producing a completely happy ending without "spoiling the picture."
Essay by Gerald Mast
Release Date: 1925
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale, Betty Morissey, Malcolm White, Henry Bergman, John Rand, Albert Austin, Heine Conklin, Allan Garcia, and Tom Wood
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Source Citation: Mast, Gerald. "The Gold Rush." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 469-472.