- Director: Charlie Chaplin
- Writer: Charlie Chaplin
- Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, and Malcolm Waite
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#58), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#96), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#97), 2 Oscar nominations (1942 re-release) (Best Original Score, Best Sound Recording)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with cable subscription on TCM app, stream with subscription on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video
City Lights is probably the Charlie Chaplin movie you’re most likely to have seen today, but I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I was much more into his earlier classic, The Gold Rush, which I had never watched in its entirety. I found myself the parts that are supposed to be funny much funnier here, with several real laughs even for a modern viewer. There are special effects in this movie where I genuinely have no idea how they did them, too. Some of them are surely just as they appear, as in the early scene where Chaplin’s “Tramp” toddles obliviously along a mountain ledge, completely oblivious to the actual 600 pound bear just behind him. It was a major financial success of its day, and gave the world several indelible scenes, images, and ideas that many people are likely aware of without actually knowing where they come from.
Chaplin had co-founded United Artists (along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith), in order to gain independence from the studio system. In his case, this freedom only exacerbated Chaplin’s perfectionist tendencies. Having been told by his partners that he needed a hit after a couple of so-so outings, Chaplin decided to return to his world-famous Tramp character for a movie set during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, in which thousands of people streamed through mountain passes to Alaska in hopes of striking it rich. The opening title card calls The Gold Rush a “dramatic comedy,” something of a weird lift considering the movie doesn’t have any dialogue. But Chaplin is doing his thing all the way through, it’s just that he’s doing it in situations that might not have actually seemed funny until he got into them. Many of the movie’s best known bits, for example, involve him and his partner, Big Jim (Mack Swain), snowed in and starving in the Alaskan winter. Many people had in fact starved to death in precisely this way during the real Gold Rush, which hadn’t been that long ago at the time this movie was made (the events of this movie are the same time prior to this movie as a movie set in 1993 would be today), yet Chaplin mines a lot of comedy out of it. Another great scene has Big Jim fighting the villainous Black Larsen (Tom Murray) for control of a gun, the two of them during their struggle somehow managing to point the barrel directly at Chaplin, no matter where he goes, as he desperately tries to get out of the way. I’d never seen anything like it.
The movie churns through a good amount of story over the course of its 90 minutes (pretty long for a silent comedy of this era), including not only the Tramp and Big Jim’s quest for gold but also his romance with Georgia (Georgia Hale), a “Dance Hall Girl” (read: prostitute) in “one of the many cities of the North,” and many other curlicues. Perhaps the best known image of the movie is the “roll dance,” in which Chaplin uses two rolls on the ends of forks to do a funny dance as if they are two legs. This “dance” has been mimicked many times in movie history, with prominent examples being Robert Downey, Jr., in Chaplin, Johnny Depp in Benny & Joon, and even Amy Adams in The Muppets. Other famous sequences include the bit where Chaplin cooks and eats his own boot, which seems like it should not work as comedy but is really well done, especially him using the laces as a sort of pasta side dish. Then there’s the scene where the Tramp and Big Jim’s cabin is blown to the edge of a cliff overnight by the wind, at which point it keeps threatening to tip over the edge. We even get a tiny Chaplin dangling over the cliff’s edge on a doorknob. Again, no idea how they actually did this in 1925.
Chaplin’s initial impulse was to shoot the movie on location in the Sierra Nevadas, not that far from where the Donner Party had to resort to cannibalism. He wasn’t happy with most of the results, however, and only the initial sequence showing seemingly thousands of men trudging through the snow is included in the film. He trucked the whole production back to Hollywood and did the entire rest of the movie on some of the most involved sets built in Hollywood up to that time. Somehow, he still made all his money back, and then some.
When I watched City Lights, I was struck by how much of the comedy was so different from even the physical comedy we see today, and not just because of the silent nature of the material. It’s more like watching a dance than it is actually funny to a modern viewer. But a lot of the funny stuff in The Gold Rush is still funny today. There’s a scene in the middle you would barely have to touch for a modern movie, where Georgia visits the Tramp at his cabin and stumbles on the picture of her he keeps under his pillow. Rather than running away from her stalker, she soon agrees to meet him for dinner, and after she leaves he celebrates wildly, throwing snow all over his cabin, at which point Georgia unexpectedly returns. “I forgot my gloves,” she says, which he silently hands to her, followed by her slowly backing out of the cabin door. I completely cracked up, 96 years after the scene was filmed.
If The Gold Rush is less seen today than City Lights, it is likely partially a matter of audience tastes: the former is more action-based and definitely more acerbic, much darker in its general take on humanity, than the latter, which leans into its saccharine melodrama. However, The Gold Rush, though a bigger hit at the time of its release, was widely unavailable in something close to its original form until very recently. This is a result of Chaplin producing a 1942 re-release, in which he replaces the title cards with his own narration, added a score he’d written himself, and drastically cuts down the love story, shortening the movie by nearly 20 minutes. He was trying to make the movie more palatable to contemporary audiences, for whom silent movies were seriously passe. But Chaplin, like more than one later perfectionist filmmaker, decided that this later version better represented his “true vision” and made no efforts to preserve the original. In the last few years, however, film preservationists have pieced together a version that’s basically the original 1925 movie with Chaplin’s later score on the soundtrack, and it’s probably the version you should be watching. However, HBO Max will let you pick which one to watch, so you can make that choice for yourself.