Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Goldrush

Now it may seem like I’m jumping around here, moving from L.A. to a silent film by Charlie Chaplin. That is the very nature of my program at this moment, however fortunate or unfortunate.

For those of you just tuning in, I've just passed the one-year mark and have begun my third semester. I'm taking twelve credits, among which are two courses in preparing for doctoral dissertation research, another in writing a course in dark comedy film for my internship, as well as preparing for a seminar on Dante (I have two peer days to deal with, but I'll worry about those later). So, as this semester starts out, I'm trying to dip my toes in each pool, so to speak, to get the feel of the water. Today it is the internship pool, and the water is fine.

I watched Charlie Chaplin's 1925 silent film this weekend. It's a classic that I know I had to have seen at one time or another because parts of it seemed familiar. Maybe it was in the History of Film undergraduate course I took. The odd thing about those movies that become cultural icons is that one has
heard and read so much about them that it is impossible to know whether or not one's familiarity is genuine. Do I remember the scene where he shovels
snow, or did I just read in a few places about the fact that it was funny?

I know that I must have seen parts of Chaplin films as a kid because, the depressed little soul that I was never much saw the humor in him. I gathered early on that he never gets the girl, or he always gets sort of less of her than he wants. In The Goldrush, he falls in love with Georgia, a dancehall girl who seems not to take him seriously. He invites her and her girlfriends over to his house (in one of the numerous subplots) and falls for her; later he invites all of them for dinner on New Year's Eve, an invitation they accept but with obviously no intention of coming. Meanwhile, the little tramp works very hard to earn the money to buy a nice dinner and presents for each woman. Of course they don't show up, and there's this lovely dream sequence where he falls asleep at the dinner table, dreaming of how happy he will be when they get there. It's so painfully sad, the kind of thing that would have made it impossible for me to watch as a kid. As luck would have it in this one, the little tramp gets rich and does end up with Georgia, who by this time has apologized and proves her love miraculously before she learns he is a millionaire.

The little tramp is not so lucky in The Circus, a 1929 silent film I saw a few weeks ago. I TIVOed it from some late-night showing somewhere. In that one, which is far more political, he's in love with the exploitative circus-owner's daughter, but she loves the trapeze artist, so he sadly sees that the two get together happily while her father takes advantage of him. It has some slapstick moments, but it really is a melancholy film that leaves one wistful.

Anyway, back to the The Goldrush (sorry to ramble so). It's an interesting film for a number of reasons. For one thing, at the time, films were much shorter. The impression in the industry was that the general audience couldn't sit still for a long film, but at 69 minutes, I think this one was long for its time. Chaplin segmented the story, then, probably in response to fears that the attention of the audience would wane. So there's a beginning section where Chaplin scales the mountainside, followed by a bear. Those slapstick moments are followed by his time in the snowstorm in the cabin with the big bully, Black Larsen, where they get so hungry, they cook and eat Chaplin's boot, and Larsen begins to hallucinate that Chaplin is a giant chicken. It's quite funny.

Big Jim McKay, meanwhile, has been sent off to try to find food, but he is knocked unconscious and loses his memory. He gets to town, wherever that is, and all he can remember is that he discovered gold someplace out there, where ever it was that he left his cabin. Finally, he encounters the little tramp in town, and the little tramp can lead him to the cabin. The get to the cabin and sleep there overnight, while a terrible snowstorm blows so hard that it blows the house nearly off a cliff. Only the smallest of ropes that has become wedged between two boulders is keeping the house from falling off the cliff. There's a hilarious slapstick scene after the two wake up, where they walk to opposite ends of the house, Big Jim and the Little Tramp, doing a balancing act, while the house teeters in the balance. It's enough to make this jaded humor reviewer gufffaw out loud. Anyway, indeed the two find and share their fortune here, which is how they become millionaires.

By today's standards, The Goldrush is entirely too segmented and disjointed to make much sense, but it evidently made a lot of sense to the early Twentieth-Century audience. Saying this reminds me of what has often been said about the original film audiences who ran away at the sight of a locomotive coming towards them on screen; humor could be and was unsophisticated at the time. They didn't have to have the intricacy in the jokes or even the sight gags that they do in even today's most unsophisticated comedies. The audience was just so much less experienced, so much less jaded. If setting is a factor of place and time, then maybe a consideration of regionalism should add the consideration of the era as well as a sort of unavoidable, package element of the setting. The Philadelphia of the 1950s was not the same place as the Philadelphia of the 1980s.