In The Gold Rush, the wonderful silent comedy by Charlie Chaplin, we are transported to the bitterly cold and snow-covered Alaskan terrain of the 1880’s, where a mountain-top high-angle shot reveals an endless stream of gold prospectors making their way up a steep pass.  So many men, presumably far from home, have come to this deceptively beautiful landscape with dollar signs in their eyes.  There’s gold to be had!  And any lucky lad in a million could be the one to find it!  The film then hones its focus to a Lone Prospector (“the little fellow” as Chaplin so affectionately narrates in the 1942 version of the film), an instantly-recognizable pint-size man with a bowler hat and one very large swaddled mukluk.  The Gold Rush was made in 1925, a time when Hollywood—that crass yet undeniably bankable beacon in the West—was expanding with terrific force.  Titanic studios were solidifying, the talkie was imminent, and thousands of jobs were cropping up.  Yet true success in Hollywood was—and still is—for the few.  Could the lure of that precious metal in The Gold Rush, with the Lone Prospector played by Chaplin himself, be a parallel to the siren song of early Hollywood?

We meet the Lone Prospector as he wanders alone, perilously off-course, on an icy mountain ledge.  A substantial brown bear sticks its nose out of a cave to judge whether the tiny man would make a delicious lunch, but never mind.  Exhausted and lost, the Lone Prospector takes refuge in a small log cabin with two colorful characters: Big Jim, a shrewd gold miner who has recently discovered but not yet dug up the mother lode, and Black Larsen, a conniving outlaw.  As the storm outside rages and the food supply lessens, Black Larsen goes out into the cold to find more sustenance, and does not return.  After a few belly-aching days, the storm lets up and the Lone Prospector and Big Jim are free to leave the cabin and visit the nearby town.

The Lone Prospector, always filled with a delightfully oblivious curiosity, makes his way into a saloon and spots the newfound apple of his eye: Georgia.  Georgia (a spunky, luminous Georgia Hale) is the fair-skinned and sparkly-eyed local showgirl, who starts up a flirtation with the giddy Lone Prospector initially as a means of making another man jealous, and then as a means of having a good laugh at the smitten little man.  She promises she will meet him at a cabin for New Year’s Eve dinner, and then forgets.  The Lone Prospector of course does not forget, and spends his New Year’s Eve alone with streamers and Christmas crackers and a fully set dinner table.  But all hope of a bright future is not lost for the diminutive fellow.  He and Big Jim finally unearth Jim’s plot of buried gold, and the two are made millionaires.  Yet gold does not satisfy the wistfulness of the heart, and the Lone Prospector wonders if he will ever see his beloved Georgia again…

The character of the Tramp famously reappears throughout Chaplin’s oeuvre and is always depicted as the hapless, loveable outsider.  The Tramp is forever adorned in shabby, ill-fitting clothes (the blazer is too small, the clown shoes are far too big), and arrives on the scene alone, with little if nothing in the way of material goods.  He has no people, no family, and no home from which he came.  It makes a certain lovely sense, then, that the Tramp is always such a physically expressive character.  For someone who has nothing, the body is everything.  Part of the Tramp’s charm is that while he so yearns for meaningful friendship, and while he throws himself completely sincerely and optimistically at the people he meets (particularly the pretty ladies), normal human interaction eludes him a little bit.  Though given a different name, the Lone Prospector in The Gold Rush is essentially the Tramp incarnate in an icy wilderness, with the same costume and endearing demeanor, and the same ability to express himself chiefly with his little body.  In the re-release version of The Gold Rush, he says to the ladies at his New Year’s Eve party in the wonderfully funny and ultimately very sad fantasy sequence, “I can’t make a speech, but I’ll do a dance.”  He then plops himself down on his seat, skewers two dinner rolls with a fork each, and proceeds—very earnestly—to have the buns do some fancy footwork.  Along with this being one of the most well-known moments in Chaplin history, the dinner roll sequence is perhaps the finest example of physical comedy ever recorded.

And ultimately, it is the marvelous comedic sequences, along with the Lone Prospector’s flat-out adorable exuberance, that makes The Gold Rush so endlessly pleasurable to watch.  Yet it’s always comedy mixed with a premise of desperation.  This is where the brilliance lies.  While Big Jim and the Lone Prospector are cooped up (no pun intended) in the snow-barricaded log cabin while the nefarious Black Larsen is out looking for food, the two prospectors of hilariously opposite size become acutely hungry.  So acutely, in fact, that the Lone Prospector boils up his boot and serves it for dinner—sole and laces for himself, and the more appetizing leather top for Big Jim.  But Big Jim, as his name will tell you, is big and has a stomach to match, and is not satiated by the Lone Prospector’s attempts at cooking.  Instead, he begins to eye the Lone Prospector.  Before Big Jim’s ravenous eyes, the little fellow transforms (with a clever dissolve) into a gigantic chicken.  Big Jim, much to the Lone Prospector’s dismay and confusion, proceeds to chase the oversized poultry around the cabin with his rifle.  A starvation and hallucination-induced attempt at cannibalism is turned into a riotous romp.

At his lightest, Chaplin puts a comedic spin on two gold prospectors going hungry, and even one lonesome prospector having his heart toyed with.  In a more serious vein, Chaplin finds the humor in dehumanizing factory-line work, as in Modern Times.  At his darkest, Chaplin turns a leader of genocide into a dancing buffoon, as in The Great Dictator (sparking, it should be noted, an entire trend in filmmaking of “fascists as bumbling idiots,” such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and most recently Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds).  The Tramp himself is a face of hard times, and foreshadows and mirrors the Depression in his years of prominence on-screen.  Chaplin’s gift is being able to locate fundamental human sadness and struggle, and then, with those truths in mind, making us laugh.