Chaplin Produces His Masterpiece Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With its characteristic combination of humor and pathos, The Gold Rush became a landmark film both for Charles Chaplin’s career and for the history of motion-picture comedy.

Summary of Event

Charles Chaplin’s place in film history was already assured long before the release of The Gold Rush in 1925. Within two years of his film debut in the two-reel comedy Making a Living (1914), Chaplin had become the most popular performer in motion pictures. His “Little Tramp” character was an internationally recognized figure, well on its way to becoming a cinematic icon so powerful that it remains one of the few images capable by itself of evoking the idea of Hollywood moviemaking. [kw]Chaplin Produces His Masterpiece The Gold Rush (June 26, 1925) [kw]Gold Rush, Chaplin Produces His Masterpiece The (June 26, 1925) Gold Rush, The (film) Motion pictures;The Gold Rush[Gold Rush] Actors;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] [g]United States;June 26, 1925: Chaplin Produces His Masterpiece The Gold Rush[06460] [c]Motion pictures;June 26, 1925: Chaplin Produces His Masterpiece The Gold Rush[06460] Chaplin, Charles Hale, Georgia Swain, Mack Chaplin, Lita Grey

Charlie Chaplin’s career began while he was still a child. Abandoned by his father, who died when Chaplin was twelve, and with his mother often a patient in mental asylums, Chaplin, along with his older brother Sydney, was forced to make his own way in the world from the age of nine. He gained experience as an actor, dancer, and comedian on England’s music-hall stages, finally joining the popular Fred Karno Company—which also included a young Stan Laurel—in 1908.

At the close of an American tour by the group in 1913, Chaplin chose to remain in the United States to embark on a career in motion pictures. Under contract to Keystone Studios, he made thirty-five comedy shorts during the next year; his Tramp character appeared for the first time in his second film, Kid Auto Races in Venice (1914). Kid Auto Races in Venice (film) Chaplin described the character’s creation in his 1964 autobiography:

I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. . . . I added a small mustache . . . the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.

Before the year was through, Chaplin was directing as well as starring in his films, and he had already begun to achieve a remarkable degree of popularity among motion-picture audiences across the country. The character of the Tramp—down on his luck but always resourceful, agile, and quick-witted—struck a chord with audiences and soon emerged as a creation of such complexity and durability that Chaplin would continue to develop and refine him for more than two decades. After leaving Keystone for the Essanay Studios, Chaplin began to explore the character’s potential in more depth, experimenting for the first time in The Tramp (1915) Tramp, The (film) with the combination of comedy and pathos that would become his trademark. The film ends with the Tramp losing the girl he loves and setting off down the road alone, his back to the camera.

The introduction of pathos into Chaplin’s films gave the Tramp a vulnerability that marked him as more than merely a comic figure, and it won for Chaplin a measure of artistic respect beyond that already accorded him as a comedian. In films such as The Vagabond (1916), The Immigrant (1917), and A Dog’s Life (1918), Chaplin demonstrated a style of comic filmmaking that combines both slapstick and subtlety while at the same time incorporating a potent measure of heartfelt human emotion. Chaplin’s decision to allow his essentially comic character to experience pain, loss, and disappointment—and to end some of his films on that note—is almost unique in the annals of film comedy. That he did so at a time when the medium was still in its infancy is especially remarkable.

In 1920, Chaplin released his first feature-length film featuring the Tramp. The Kid Kid, The (film) costarred Jackie Coogan as the abandoned boy the Tramp adopts and then nearly loses, and the film demonstrated Chaplin’s ability to sustain his character’s appeal in a format longer than the short comedies in which he had previously appeared. The film was a great success, and although Chaplin would make two more short films and one four-reel comedy in the years that followed, The Kid marked the beginning of his career as a feature filmmaker.

In 1924, Chaplin began work on The Gold Rush. Inspired by his interest in the tragedy of the Donner Party, a group of settlers who resorted to cannibalism while snowbound in the Sierras, the film is the story of the Tramp’s adventures as a gold prospector in turn-of-the-century Alaska: his run-ins with the villainous Black Larson (portrayed by Tom Murray), his near starvation in a snowbound cabin with his partner, Big Jim (Henry Bergman), and his love for Georgia (Georgia Hale), a beautiful dance-hall girl. The film contains two of Chaplin’s best-known comic scenes: his attempts to cook and eat his boot and the famous “Oceana Roll” sequence, in which he manipulates a pair of bread rolls on forks as if they are dancing feet. The Gold Rush also features scenes of great poignancy, particularly the sequence in which the Tramp waits forlornly for Georgia and her friends to arrive for a dinner he has prepared—an invitation she has forgotten.

Chaplin always worked slowly on features, and The Gold Rush was a year and a half in the making. The period would prove to be a tumultuous one in Chaplin’s life. His original costar was to be a fifteen-year-old girl named Lita Grey, who had appeared briefly in two earlier Chaplin films. By the fall of 1924, however, Lita was expecting Chaplin’s child, and their subsequent marriage—and divorce two years later—was the source of a scandal that haunted Chaplin for many years to come. Lita was replaced in the film by Georgia Hale, and shooting resumed in early 1925.

The Gold Rush opened to tremendous critical acclaim, with The New York Times terming it “the outstanding gem of all Chaplin’s pictures” and the New York Daily News calling it “the funniest and saddest of all comedies.” The film is a masterpiece of silent comedy, drawing on all of Chaplin’s skills in pantomime, comic timing, and the careful construction of sight gags. Its story is tailor-made for the Tramp’s particular blend of plucky resourcefulness and vulnerability, and Chaplin succeeds behind the camera in telling an engaging story that brilliantly showcases his talents onscreen.

After The Gold Rush, Chaplin devoted himself exclusively to feature-length productions. He would make only eight more films during the next fifty years, with City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) joining The Gold Rush in the ranks of his acclaimed masterpieces and The Circus (1928) winning for its creator a special Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.

Significance

Comedy has been an important component of theater since its earliest incarnation, with Aristophanes’ work surviving into the modern age alongside that of Euripides and Aeschylus. The strong link between theater and film, therefore, led quite naturally to a position of similar importance for comedy in the medium of film. That early films were silent made them particularly well suited to visual comedy, in which a minimum of dialogue is needed to convey the story; as the medium grew in popularity, its comedians quickly emerged as favorites with audiences. Founded in 1912, the Keystone Studios Keystone Studios produced one split-reel comedy a week and introduced Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, director Mack Sennett and his Bathing Beauties, and the Keystone Kops to the screen. When Chaplin joined their ranks two years later, the studio had already established itself as a leading force in Hollywood by tapping into the universal language of laughter and adapting it to the new technology of film.

Chaplin’s training in the acrobatic style of English music-hall comedy had prepared him well for the physical nature of silent film comedy. The early shorts produced by the Keystone Studios relied primarily on sight gags and actors’ talent for comic pantomime. Slapstick comedy Chaplin excelled at the physical agility needed for such routines, and his skill at mimicry and wordless self-expression remains unsurpassed. The specific nature of silent comedy would also lend itself brilliantly to the deadpan comedy of Buster Keaton Keaton, Buster and the boyish enthusiasm of Harold Lloyd, Lloyd, Harold both of whom successfully tailored their talent for physical comedy to the requirements of the screen.

One of those requirements arose from the camera’s ability to bring a viewer closer to the action taking place than is possible for a stage theater audience. That factor, coupled with the exaggerated size that figures projected on a screen assume, made it necessary for film comedians to master subtle gestures and expressions in addition to slapstick. The best silent comedians soon learned that a laugh could be achieved not only through a pratfall or a well-aimed pie but also with a raised eyebrow or deadpan stare. Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd all excelled at combining slapstick with subtlety, but only Chaplin used this skill to move his screen persona into the realm of pathos. With his expressive dark eyes and mobile face, the Tramp could evoke sorrow as readily as humor with a shrug or a glance.

Chaplin’s extraordinary combination of popular and critical acclaim made him the yardstick against which other comedians were measured, often to their detriment. So great was Chaplin’s fame during the years of silent comedy that he in many ways unfairly overshadowed the work of his contemporaries. Indeed, both Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have grown in critical stature in the years since their best work was done. Keaton, in particular, has achieved well-deserved cult status among silent comedy aficionados—a welcome development that does not detract from Chaplin’s own mastery of the field, but rather enhances the field itself by recognizing the depth of talent it contained. The era that produced The Gold Rush also produced such comic masterpieces as Keaton’s The Navigator (1924) and The General (1927) and Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925).

Ironically, however, the release of these films marked not only the pinnacle of silent film comedy but also the beginning of the end of the silent era. In 1927, two years after The Gold Rush—and the same year as The General—The Jazz Singer introduced sound to motion pictures and changed the medium forever. Chaplin resisted the change longer than his contemporaries; City Lights, City Lights (film) released in 1931, contains sound effects but no spoken dialogue, and Modern Times (1936) Modern Times (film) confines its spoken lines to a character using a loudspeaker and a nonsense song sung by the Tramp near the film’s close. Despite these few concessions, both remain silent films in spirit.

Although the introduction of sound changed filmmaking irrevocably, the techniques perfected by Chaplin and his contemporaries continued to influence film comedy. The screwball comedies Screwball comedy of the 1930’s and the films of Preston Sturges Sturges, Preston in the 1940’s effectively combined physical comedy with witty dialogue. In films such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Lady Eve (1941) slapstick is an integral part of the humor, and the actors in these films, such as Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Barbara Stanwyck, rely on the same pratfalls and elaborate sight gags that were the highlights of silent comedies. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, French director Jacques Tati drew heavily on the silent comedy tradition in such films as Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953) and Playtime (1968), in which he created a screen persona who rarely spoke in films that relied almost entirely on visual humor.

The work of filmmakers Mel Brooks Brooks, Mel and Woody Allen Allen, Woody also owes a debt to Chaplin and silent comedy. Allen’s earlier films, in particular, combine verbal and physical humor and feature central characters who are outsiders and hapless “little guys” thrust into situations larger than themselves. Brooks’s films have long made use of slapstick humor, a debt he acknowledged in the film Silent Movie (1976), which contains only one word of dialogue. Indeed, physical comedy in any visual medium, whether it be film, television, or live theater, continues to draw on the brilliant comic technique of Chaplin and his contemporaries.

Yet Chaplin’s contribution to motion pictures does not end with comedy. In his hands, comedy was transformed into art at a time when the relatively new medium of film was struggling to gain credibility as more than simple entertainment. Chaplin’s role in achieving this was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the special Oscar he received in 1971. The award was presented to the eighty-three-year-old Chaplin for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of the century.” Gold Rush, The (film) Motion pictures;The Gold Rush[Gold Rush] Actors;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. . . . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. One of the best books available on the history of silent film, thoughtfully conceived and exceptionally well written and researched. Offers an engrossing look at Hollywood’s early years, drawing extensively on interviews that bring the material to life. A highly recommended source for anyone with an interest in film history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. 1964. Reprint. New York: Plume Books, 1992. Chaplin’s life and career in his own words. Early portions relate in vivid detail Chaplin’s harrowing, Dickensian childhood in the slums of Victorian London. Also interesting for behind-the-scenes reminiscences on Chaplin’s life and films and his assessments of his own work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Collection of interviews Chaplin gave to various reporters and others from 1915 to 1967 provides insights into his views on filmmaking and comedy. Includes chronology, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huff, Theodore. Charlie Chaplin. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951. The first, and for many years the only, in-depth study of Chaplin and his work. Contains the first complete (up to that time) Chaplin filmography. Weakest where Chaplin’s autobiography is at its best—his childhood years—devoting only five pages to the first twenty-four years of Chaplin’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCabe, John. Charlie Chaplin. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Thorough, well-researched biography includes an extensive bibliography and a filmography with credits. Draws on many interviews with Stan Laurel for unique insights into Chaplin’s career. Informative and well written.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCaffrey, Donald W., ed. Focus on Chaplin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Excellent compilation of essays and reviews of Chaplin’s work. Contributors include George Jean Nathan, Louis Delluc, Gerald Mast, Walter Kerr, Winston Churchill, and Chaplin himself. Also features scenario extracts from three of Chaplin’s films: Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid, and Modern Times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonald, Gerald D., Michael Conway, and Mark Ricci, eds. The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1988. Brief introductory essays followed by chronologically ordered entries on all of Chaplin’s films. Each entry contains credits, plot synopsis, photographs, and excerpts from reviews of the film in question. A useful reference, although the credits do not include character names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manvell, Roger. Chaplin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. Well-written, well-researched biography offers an absorbing account of Chaplin’s life and work. One of the better entries in the vast array of literature on the comedian. Includes a limited bibliography and suggestions for further reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. 3d ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981. One of the best comprehensive overviews of film history offers a context for Chaplin’s work. In addition to a general outline of Chaplin’s career, provides a comparison of The Gold Rush and Keaton’s The General. A valuable addition to any film library.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. Excellent comprehensive examination of Chaplin’s life and work is vividly written, exhaustively researched, and thoroughly annotated. Offers not only a detailed retelling of Chaplin’s life but also a look at his work that includes numerous interviews with colleagues and contemporaries. Contains a useful chronology of the major events in Chaplin’s life, appendixes chronicling his early theatrical career, scenarios from three Keystone shorts, an excellent filmography, and a “who’s who” of people who figured prominently in Chaplin’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vance, Jeffrey. Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Comprehensive biography uses some five hundred photographs, many never before published, to illustrate Chaplin’s life and his creative process.

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