At first glance, the silent slapstick comedy and the epic would appear to be incompatible. The latter requires a grand scale and heroism to match, while the former is essentially a chamber piece, a small, tightly framed story of a ridiculous clown.
But two of cinema's greatest actor-directors saw a way to merge the two forms and did so nearly simultaneously. Buster Keaton released his Civil War comedy The General in 1926, while Charlie Chaplin released The Gold Rush one year earlier.
True to form, Keaton transformed his epic into an action comedy, a kinetic, stunt-laden chase filmed on location and almost entirely outdoors. Chaplin likewise stayed true to his brand of comedy and, after setting the tone with a dramatic opening sequence shot in the snow-packed Sierras, returned his epic to the calmer, more controlled confines of the studio, the intimacy of interiors better serving his character's quieter, more personal dimensions.
The San Francisco Symphony will present Chaplin's epic on the scale it deserves this week, accompanying the film with the comedian's own score, composed for the film's 1942 reissue.
The Gold Rush came at something of a crossroads in Chaplin's career. After nearly a decade as the screen's most beloved figure, he was running out of steam.
Chaplin had broken out of Mack Sennett's stable of knockabout comedians in 1914 and had gone solo with a series of films made for the East Bay's Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, in the town of Niles, near Fremont. With these films Chaplin firmly established the Little Tramp in the popular consciousness and became the famous man in the world. He then signed with Mutual and made a dozen more short films that many critics still consider his best work. After fulfilling the Mutual contract, he signed with First National, where he was able to produce films at a slower, more thoughtful rate, further developing his unique and innovative blend of slapstick and pathos, exemplified by his first feature-length masterpiece, The Kid.
It was during this period that Chaplin joined with friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and the preeminent director of the day, D.W. Griffith, to form United Artists. The filmmakers would now control the marketing and distribution of their work rather than signing away all their rights to studio bosses.
But Chaplin still had a contract to finish for First National, and as he spent more and more time on each film, his United Artists debut was delayed and delayed again. When it finally came, it was a most unusual production for the world's best-loved comedian.
The First National period had been a trying time, and Chaplin had grown weary of comedy and of the Little Tramp and was in search of new means of expression. The result, A Woman of Paris, is a drama; there is no slapstick comedy, and Chaplin himself does not appear, but for a heavily disguised cameo as a railroad porter. It was Chaplin's first foray into pure drama, as well as an attempt to establish his longtime co-star Edna Purviance as an independent dramatic actress. Though the film was a critical success and highly influential due to its sophistication and subtlety, audiences did not take kindly to it.
But it gave Chaplin the respite he needed, and when he returned to comedy, he was revitalized.
Chaplin modified his Tramp character for The Gold Rush, highlighting his innocence, virtue and humanity and shelving his more anarchic, troublemaking instincts. The film as a whole has a more melancholy tone that Chaplin's previous work, dwelling on loneliness and isolation amid a cold and unforgiving landscape.
Yet amid these circumstances, Chaplin created some of his most enduring comic scenes, comedy which stems from the character and his circumstances. Deprivation and hunger leads to the famous scene where Chaplin expertly boils a boot and sits down to dinner with his fellow prospector, coiling shoelaces on a fork like spaghetti; and to the scene where his companion hallucinates that Charlie is a chicken, chasing him around the cabin. And the film's most stirring scene begins with the Tramp's rejection by the girl of his fancy, when he imagines the party that would have been had she and her friends not stood him up. Stabbing two forks into dinner rolls, Chaplin creates a funny and sweetly sad scene where the Tramp entertains his imaginary companions with a deft and charming dance in miniature.
(The dance of the dinner rolls was not purely Chaplin's invention; the silent comedians often borrowed and built upon each other's gags. The first screen incarnation of the dinner rolls dance was performed by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in his 1917 short film The Rough House, which co-starred Arbuckle's friend and collaborator, Buster Keaton. Arbuckle's version was purely comic, however, whereas Chaplin imbued the routine with poetry through his signature blend of humor and pathos.)
Despite the somber tone of the film, The Gold Rush is one of the few Chaplin films with a happy ending. For once, the Tramp not only got the girl, but got the fortune as well. Chaplin struggled against it, but the logic of the story simply would not allow anything different. But he was more than satisfied; upon its release, he said The Gold Rush was the film for which he hoped to be remembered.
Still, he wasn't above tinkering with it. Nearly two decades later, well into the sound era, Chaplin reissued the film, but not without some significant changes. Not only did he replace the intertitles with his own narration, he reedited the film as well, cutting one subplot and changing a few details, including the elimination of the closing kiss between the Tramp and Georgia. Perhaps it seemed too sentimental in retrospect, or maybe Chaplin wasn't quite as comfortable with the happy ending as he had been years earlier.
Many prefer the original silent version of the film, disagreeing with Chaplin's revisions or finding his narration intrusive. But the one inarguable improvement Chaplin made to The Gold Rush was its score.
The advent of sound in the late 1920s meant that for the first time Chaplin could have absolute control over the scoring of his films. In the silent era, most films featured scores improvised by the musicians working at each theater—sometimes a full orchestra, sometimes a single organist or pianist. The new technology allowed Chaplin to compose his own scores and oversee their recording, thus filling the only remaining gap in his auteurist resume.
Chaplin would compose the scores for his future films, but he also composed scores for all the silent films to which he owned the rights; that is, everything he had done for First National and United Artists. The music, however, may not be quite what you’d expect from silent comedy. It has none of the clichéd bumps and whistles that pedestrian musicians so often use to accompany visual comedy. From Chaplin’s autobiography:
I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension. Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grace and charm, to express sentiment, without which, as Hazlitt says, a work of art is incomplete.Because Chaplin's films, as per his estate, must be screened with his orchestral scores, modern audiences who wish to see the Tramp on the big screen are often cheated of one of the essential pleasures of silent film: live musical accompaniment. Most theaters do not have the resources to bring in a 60-piece orchestra for every screening, and must therefore rely on Chaplin's prerecorded score.
Thus the San Francisco Symphony's performances provide a rare opportunity to see The Gold Rush in all its glory.
The San Francisco Symphony will accompany Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush with the comedian's original score at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 15; 8 p.m. Friday, April 16; and at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 17 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. (415) 864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org .