Charlie Chaplin was the “Little Tramp” who wore a bowler, had a wooden cane and walked like a penguin in The Gold Rush (1925), a timeless tale of fighting for the American dream while struggling for survival against man and nature. He played the underdog, an isolated lone prospector who fell in love with a dance hall girl. It portrayed subtle socio-economical commentaries of the time expressed through pantomimed slapstick and pathos.
In The Gold Rush, we witnessed tragedy through the eyes of hunger in an allusion of Alaska, perceived fear of failure, and related to the joy expressed by the actors. Chaplin’s vision of realism in telling the story was developed by incorporating the right combination actors/actresses, background sets, costumes, camera angles, and editing styles.Henderson (1988) discussed the fundamentals in which to create a narrative, “Actors, sets, montage, photographic effects and other elements work together – in concert-to create a narrative that carries us along so firmly that we often fail to notice, or will not to do so, the means by which it is created.” (p. 23).
As the lights faded in a movie house the title appeared on the screen, The Gold Rush in big bold letters that are shadowed to give the impression of three dimension lettering, just as the Little Tramp lived in a multidimensional world. The continuity editing techniques used for the beginning credits were fade-in and fade-out lightening of overlapping words. The blackened sides of the screen made the credits stand out so the audience would focus on them. The establishing shot began with a prologue of an iris-in opening up with an overhead crane angle creating a large depth of field with an extreme long shot of a snow covered mountain, a small town and a crowd of prospectors. With the help of United Artist Studio the major mise-en-scéne had been created and described by Chaplin’s website, “For the main shooting the unit returned to the Hollywood studio, where a remarkably convincing miniature mountain range was created out of timber (a quarter of a million feet, it was reported), chicken wire, burlap, plaster, salt and flour.” This was the films reality and as Corrigan (2010) stated, “The illusion of realism, in short, is a kind of mise-en-scéne that makes us believe that the images are of an everyday world that is simply “there” – one we know and are familiar with.” (p.52).
The long and high shot camera angle for this adventure scene had the audience looking down at the human chain of prospectors who climbed up the winding mountain trail at Klondike’s ChilkootPass, like ants on a food frenzy trail.
The struggles of these men were depicted as they climbed up the snow capped mountain and one man fell towards the camera giving a three dimensional affect. The closing of the scene utilized an iris-out leading into a fade-in of an extreme long shot of the mountain cliffs.
As the “natural” daylight brightened the scene, within a long shot of the mountains we see the main character walking carefree as the upbeat tempo of the music seemed to follow his steps while a close up exposed his natively of black bear behind him. The irony of the scene was the potential danger which was unseen. The bear returns to his cave, fade to black ending the scene.
The introduction of the second main character was of an extreme close up of a sign with Big Jim McKay’s (Mack Swain) name on it, cutaway to a long of him hitting the post into the ground. Warmed by his fur coat the prospector knelt down into the snow and became excited by a discovery with a close up the audience saw gold parallel edited to the Little Tramp coming up to a large sign which frightened him as it told of a man dying.
As a blizzard hit, there was a long shot of a cabin as the two characters find their way through the snow storm parallel edited to the introduction of the next character, a wanted criminal. The insert shot of Black Larsen (Tom Murray) sitting inside the cabin, established his character as he glanced at own his face on a piece of paper, cutaway to an over the shoulder close up eye line matching of the wanted poster he held in his hand. The tight compression of the cabin scene signified a prison in which he resided. A stove, table, and two beds were all that the audience had seen in the wide angle shot. The off kilter doorframe symbolized the future chaos within the cabin.
The scene which helped establish the plot began with a wide angle of the characters, starving, and playing high-low to see who would hunt for food. The criminal chose his card and an extreme close up uncovered the two of spades resulting in his losing the draw. The reaction shot was that of disbelief, fade to black. While the two men waited in the cabin, the decision had been made to boil a shoe. A ¾ shot of the Little Tramp taking the shoe out of the boiling water cutaway to a close up of his feet signaling the audience of one shoe missing. A medium shot showed The Little Tramp eating the footwear as if it were a sirloin steak expressing his pleasure through facial expressions. It was actually made out of licorice. The dialogue between the two men at the table captured by a shot/reverse pattern displaying Big Jim’s disbelief in the shoe being eaten. Days had passed and a dream sequence with a wide angle of Big Jim’s delirium visualizing his cabin mate as a large chicken (representing the cruel world, cannibalism, feelings of being trapped, and survival of the fittest, my impression) resulted in the two parting. The composition of the scene was balanced by the awkward angle of the cabin on the right and the two men on the left side of the screen. It was here that the plot point dramatically changed.
In town, a scene in the dance hall portrayed a dark background of people at the bar until the dance hall girl came down the stairs and into a medium cameo shot. A long and wide shot of the town’s perspective exposed the Little Tramp walking into the hall. Wide and medium shots showed the mise-en-scéne of a crowded saloon. He stood in the door way, the critical focus was on his presence as the crowd enjoyed themselves in a shallow depth of field. People were talking, dancing and laughing. Through the smoke filled room the music played a waltz that was befitting of the scene. A ¾ shot of a dance hall girl glancing in his direction gave him the wrong impression as irony would have it, her boyfriend stood behind him as she held her hand out.
angle as she and her boyfriend spoke and the Little Tramp stood by and watched. His affection was shown to the audience by a close up of her picture with a rose under his pillow. His invite and her acceptance along with her girlfriends to spend New Years dinner together turned out to be a hoax. The women were seen ridiculing him as explained by Grace (1952) stated, “Women are used to depict the objective reality of a particular situation. They exemplify the realist position, and Charlie, the tramp, the idealist. (p.360). The second dream sequence took place when the women stood him up. He envisioned entertaining his guests with an oceana roll dance utilizing inanimate objects and his facial expressions. The wide angle of everyone seated at the table cutaway to a medium close up cameo shot as he performed his comic routine in an angelic light.
Big Jim and the Little Tramp found the gold and began living the American dream while sailing on a ship back home. Ironically, a ¾ shot of the dance hall girl placed her on the same ship. After a mistaken identity of the Little Tramp being a castaway, the girl came to his rescue in a wide angle eye-lined shot.
Chaplin’s inspiration for The Gold Rush was based on factual incidents regarding the legendary Donner Party incident of 1846. He produced a comedy out of the most fundamental human behaviors and needs such as love, food, shelter, and survival of the fittest…all narrated through the art of silent film.
Corrigan, T. (2010). A short Guide to writing about film.New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
Grace, H. A. (1952). Charlie Chaplin’s Films and American Culture Patterns. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. The American Society for Aesthetics, 10(4), 360. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/426065
Henderson, B. (1988). Notes on Set Design and Cinema. Film Quarterly, 42(1), 23. Retrieved April 7, 2010 from www.jstor.org/stable/1212433
 Location description from website: http://www.charliechaplin.com/biography/articles/5-The-Gold-Rush