In 1919 the four biggest in Hollywood formed their own production and distribution company United Artists. The four were Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Grifith and Charlie Chaplin. They were the top of the pops and the argument for forming UA was that they were the most expensive people in Hollywood and in this way they could keep the profits for themselves.
What happened to them?
Mary Pickford totally disappeared. There is not a single entry with her on the 1001 list and I have to admit that I have not seen anything by her myself. Douglas Fairbanks made some hugely successful silents of which “The Thief of Bagdad” is the only one to appear on the list. Unfair I think, but a consequence of his movies not ageing very well. D.W. Griffith will always be remembered, but mostly for his technical achievements of which much of it was already done before 1919. He features massively on the list, but it can be argued if that is really deserved.
Charlie Chaplin on the other hand had not even come close to realizing his potential in 1919. His movies since then are glorious landmarks and are as watchable today as they were back then. A hard person might say that it is because he made comedies and they simply age better, but it is a lot more than that. Charlie Chaplin is true genius on many levels. His movies are not just comedies. They are romantic, tragic love stories, social comments, technical marvels and filled with a humanity that speaks to us today far beyond the slapstick.
I have to say this because after watching three of his movies of the four on the list (thanks Steve!) I have realized how grossly I had underestimated Chaplin. Not for a second am I thinking that this or that feature of the movie or story is sooo dated and would have to be done differently today. My guess is that you could make a movie along the lines of Chaplin today and it would work just fine. “The Actor” is not so far off and it cornered the Oscars.
In Gold Rush Chaplin’s tramp is in Klondike prospecting for gold, a task he is hopelessly unsuited for. He is as usual pitted against formidable odds but carry on unfazed, not with Keaton’s deadpan, but with Chaplin’s tragic optimism. In the wilderness he encounters the dangerous outlaw Black Larsen and the friendly but forgetful prospector Big Jim. The scene is a lone hut with basically only that one room. Here we have a number of immortal scenes. The most famous ones are probably when Chaplin and Big Jim out of hunger cook and (try to) eat one of Chaplin’s shoes. Black Larsen has left to get supplies but he is not coming back. The following scene is equally funny. Big Jim is getting delirious and imagines Chaplin is a big chicken and he cannot wait to sink his teeth into him. This is perfect slapstick, but on a tragic backdrop that makes the humor bittersweet and so much more exquisite.
There is a terrible storm and the house and its content is blown away in what is an amazing technical achievement. The hut ends up precariously balancing on the edge of a gorge. When Chaplin and Big Jim go to one side of the hut it tips into the gorge and when they go back the hut rights itself. It takes them a while and more slapstick to figure out what is going on and we got a literal cliffhanger.
Back in town Chaplin makes a tragic figure among the rowdy toughs of this wildest of outback towns. He gets a crush on one of the women in the saloon, but she has only eyes for her boyfriend. New Year ’s Eve he has invited her and her friends to dinner and dressed up the place complete with small gifts for the guests. But no-one comes. For them this was not important and they have already forgotten. Chaplin dreams of having guests and performs the unforgettable potato dance. Comedy again on a sad backdrop. When the girl finally remembers and come to his hut it is too late.
The little tramp is fundamentally a tragic character and hopelessly incompetent at anything he does. But somehow he wins anyway. Not in the traditional way or by some stupid blind luck, but because he manages to win hearts. When Big Jim remembers where he struck gold and uncovers his mother lode he remembers Chaplin and shares it with him. Likewise he wins the girl. And us.
The version I saw carried Chaplin’s own voiceover from the early forties. This is of course a modification from the original, but so are any silent we see with a score, so I do not mind and actually thinks it adds to the movie and gives it a better flow because we can be rid of the inter-titles.
I hate to compare the Chaplin movies with each other because they are all good each with their qualities. Instead I would say that “The Gold Rush” ranks among to top movies on the list based on the 121 movies I have seen so far on this quest.