At the height of the Roaring 20s and economic prosperity within America, The Gold Rush feels fascinatingly out of step with the culture around it. Rather than lapping up the luxury of the time, director and star Charlie Chaplin takes his Tramp character to the frozen depths of Alaska. In a time where Americans were enjoying the frail uptick in economics, Chaplin took on his most lonesome and tough project of the Tramp’s lifespan. He isolates the character when the rest of the country he lives in is united through strength and experience. Parties galore, the perils of this time and those that did not prosper are seemingly forgotten. Chaplin extends his hand to those, applying those same exceptional notes of comedy to the usually strong cultural commentary.
Such a swerve in the mood to that of the time of The Gold Rush’s release makes for a fascinating collation of themes. There is a disparity inherent to The Gold Rush that would reflect the life of some Americans a mere four years on from its release. Once the Great Depression hit and the economy inevitably slumped, millions were out of work, but also out of sight. The Lone Prospector (Chaplin) as he is called here, is the latter and the former embodied in a time of overwhelming prosperity for most Americans. Beyond the slapstick and the usual energy Chaplin brings to the comedy is a statement made on never forgetting those who have not made it so luckily. They have not breached the future, the present has forgotten them, so there they remain, stuck in the jobs that provide them little service or room for creativity.
What a sad life that must be. If anything, the Lone Prospector is a miserable being. Most of that is portrayed with a humorous nature, naturally. His exploration of snowy mountains sees him wearing his iconic suit, with a backpack and black bear in accidental tow. He is certainly not prepped for the wilderness, but the iconography that surrounds Chaplin and the Tramp character is unavoidable and develop an extra layer of humour. These visual stylings should be no surprise to the veteran Chaplin fan, but even then, they offer such a marvellously light tone to the film. Seeing Chaplin sledge his way down snowy tundra and wander aimlessly with a lack of weather-appropriate clothing is marvellous. But so are the gags that rely on manipulating the set. Windy gusts blow Chaplin and company out and around the ice-cold cabin, and the musical cues explore these moments of comedy far more intensely than dialogue ever could.
But that is the draw of Chaplin. He could tell such a hilarious, moving tale without the desire or need for placards or wordplay. He uses them here, but even if they were removed, we can infer from the actions and reactions of those around the Lone Prospector where the story is headed. Chaplin gazes down the lens of the camera from time to time. Its effect is not to break the fourth wall, but to suggest his actions are relatively odd, especially given the circumstances. But that is the circumstantial behaviour and humour Chaplin refined so well. The Gold Rush is a setlist of definitive moments from his career. Those special flickers of genius that reformed how a set is used, how a character is defined, and what a story should offer audiences who were, at the time, miles away from the squalid style of life.