The Gold Rush abounds with comedy scenes. The film narrates the complicated and fun experiences of Charles Chaplin in the search of enough gold to help him escape the poverty in which he lives. During the trip he meets a dangerous criminal (Black Larsen), another gold digger who will become his ally (Big Jim McKay) and an attractive dancer named Georgia with whom would will fall madly in love.
The historic horrors of the starving 19th century pioneers inspired the sequence in which Charlie and his partner Big Jim are forced into a cabin by a snow storm and have no food, where the movie starts. The underlying theme is, however, the importance of money and how a person’s status changes when he becomes wealthy.
Character Driven Comedy
The Tramp (or Charlot as we know him in Spain) was Charlie Chaplin’s most memorable on-screen character and an icon in cinema during the era of silent film. In The Gold Rush he plays the part of The Lone Prospector, but still has all the idiosyncrasy of this particular character that is funny in itself. In minute 3:00 we are presented to him, completely out of place and dressed for some other event other than climbing a snowed mountain. The way he moves, he walks… is already familiar to an audience that associates him with comedy and laughter. More precisely he has some comedic moments, for instance, 11:40 minutes into the film where The Tramp portrays the prowess of his colleague Big Jim after the victory in a fight with Black Larse. In minute 24:30, The Lone Prospector is followed with an axe but he is totally unaware. In minute 8:00, in his own naivety, he is seen totally unafraid about being confronted by a man with a rifle, action that is repeated later in minute 10:10 and is amusing to the audience. During the fight of Big Jim and Black Larse where the rifle is randomly pointed everywhere, it turns out that he is always in the way (10:35). This struggle is kept for over a whole minute, making it even funnier. Small acting
details, like when The Lone Prospector thinks Big Jim has eaten the dog (14:00), or he is holding a bear (26:00) without realising it, or how he translates all the snow onto the next doorstep while cleaning (58:00), show how great a comedic actor Charles Chaplin was.
The big comedic moment of the movie is when The Lone Prospector is serving a shoe as food, the shoelaces being spagetti (18:00). Charlie cooks and eats his boot, with all the airs of a gourmet dish. This is a totally character driven scene and his performance carries the weight of the entire comedic atmosphere. The Lone Prospector’s dream of hosting a New Year dinner for the beautiful dance-hall girl provides the opportunity for another famous Chaplin set-piece: the dance of the fork and the rolls (1:36:00). When the film was first shown, audiences were so thrilled by the scene that some theatres were obliged to stop the film, roll it back and perform an encore.
Cinematography and Special Effects
Special Effects add on to the comedic performances. Practical effects, like the choice of having smoke steam out the shoe in minute 17:00, enhance the already funny scene. Other effects are more cinematographic and have to do with the choice of lenses and angles. A POV shot of Chaplin as a chicken from delirious Big Jim’s perspective (21:00) shows how hunger is really pushing Big Jim’s view of reality to a surreal and funny world by imagining his companion as a chicken he would like to eat (said to be a copy from Chaplin’s one-time co-star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s and Buster Keaton’s The Rough House (1917)). Chaplin also plays with the contrast between detail shots inserted into wide shots to enhance the comedic effect.
The mise-en-scène describes how a scene is set up. The scenes filmed in the cabin are shot in a theatrical manner, with the mise-en-scène set up facing an imaginary audience (us behind the camera), fixed camera and comedic props. The set has three doors, which is unrealistic for a mountain cabin but is a big resource for comedy having the actors play hide and seek as they come in and out of stage. Also, full on wind blows through the doors repeatedly (8:20, 8:40, 8:54) for an exaggerated, comedic effect. As a prop in the scene, the text of banners is usually written to be intentionally funny. For instance, in minute 5:23 when we see the text about Jim Sourdough dying in the snow on some random Friday in 1898. The map that The Lone Prospector uses to guide his way (5:00) is also funny as it serves no purpose without a real compass.