This year marks the 90th anniversary of the release of The Gold Rush, one of Charlie Chaplin’s most iconic films. Released on 26 June 1925, this was the film Chaplin most wanted to be remembered for (though his personal favorite was 1931’s City Lights). In 1942, he reissued it with his spoken commentary, a musical score, and some editing. Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve probably seen or heard of some of its most famous moments, like the Dance of the Rolls, the Tramp eating his shoe, and the cabin wobbling over a chasm.
Besides Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, the film’s other major stars were:
Mack Swain, a big lug of a comedian with a walrus moustache, as Big Jim McKay
Georgia Hale, whom Chaplin was involved with in real life at the time, playing the eponymous role of Georgia
Tom Murray, as the villain Black Larsen
The film opens by Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon, which lasted from 1896–99. Among the throngs of treasure-seekers is the Lone Prospector (Chaplin), whose sweet personality and strange clothes make him a victim of bullying. He’s also no match against the harsh Yukon weather and challenging living conditions.
The Lone Prospector is caught in a blizzard, and during his struggle to survive, he comes upon the villainous Black Larsen’s cabin. Larsen kicks him out, and Big Jim McKay comes upon the scene to rescue the Lone Prospector. After Jim brings Larsen to heel, he makes Larsen search for victuals.
Food isn’t easy to come by, and unlikely objects are pressed into service as food. At one point, Jim is so hungry he hallucinates his friend as a huge chicken.
Finally, a bear comes to their rescue and provides itself as real food. Even as a longtime committed vegetarian, I understand and respect how vegetarianism and veganism just aren’t realistic or practical in certain situations or locations. This is one of those places. Who really expects anyone in a place like Siberia, Alaska, or Yukon to survive without meat and fish?
After the blizzard breaks, the Lone Prospector and Jim head off to a nearby town. Jim wants to claim his secret mine, which has quite a panoply of treasures, but he discovers Larsen there. During their fight, Larsen hits Jim with a shovel, runs away, and is taken out by an avalanche. Jim thankfully survives, but he’s lost his memory.
The Lone Prospector becomes an easy target for bullies in town, but as the Tramp always does, he perseveres and tries his best to ignore people’s cruelty. He falls in love with Georgia, the most popular dance hall girl, and braves every indignity to moon over her from afar. Georgia stands him up for New Year’s Eve dinner, but he’s still undeterred.
While the Lone Prospector waits for the date that never happens, he falls asleep and dreams of how he’s going to steal Georgia’s heart. This dream includes the famous Dance of the Rolls, though Chaplin wasn’t its inventor. It was first done by darling Roscoe Arbuckle in 1917’s The Rough House.
After being stood up, Jack Cameron, a dashing young man about town, gives the Lone Prospector a pretended note from Georgia. While the Lone Prospector searches the dance hall for his unrequited love, Jim enters. By now, some of Jim’s memory has returned, and he’s determined to get back to the cabin so he can find his mine.
Jim recognizes his old friend, and makes him lead the way to the cabin so they can both claim the riches. However, the Lone Prospector can’t help running to Georgia to declare his love first. Jim drags him away, and he tells Georgia he’ll soon be back as a millionaire.
When the Lone Prospector and Jim find the cabin, it’s better-stocked than they left it. During the night, another blizzard strikes, and the cabin is blown well past the mine, all the way onto the edge of a cliff.
The Lone Prospector and Jim struggle to hold onto the floor as the cabin frantically teeter-totters back and forth, until finally Jim pulls the Lone Prospector to safety in the nick of time.
A year later, the friends return to the U.S. as millionaires, yet the Lone Prospector can’t stop thinking of Georgia. While he and Jim are interviewed on their ship, the Lone Prospector agrees to put on his old clothes for a publicity photo. As luck would have it, he trips down the stairs, right into the arms of Georgia.
The film ends on a happy note, though the 1942 reissue inexplicably cuts out the final shot of the Lone Prospector and Georgia kissing. Chaplin could obviously do whatever he wanted with his own film, but the reissue just doesn’t feel like the same film, for many reasons.