Chaplin begins his film not with a iris in on the tramp, or an elaborate sight gag introducing the tramp, but instead an iris-in focusing on a large vista of people traveling up a mountain, giving the film a sense of spectacle that had not been seen in a film by Chaplin before. However, Chaplin soon follows this and a few other shots following the humans travelling up this mountain with a man collapsing from the strain. We stay with him while others go on. The Gold Rush has begun.
Chaplin follows this sequences with a series of scenes set inside a cabin in the middle of nowhere. It’s here where some of Chaplin’s most sustained comic pieces from his entire career take place. Hunger is one of the main themes of these sequences and it’s telling when Chaplin reserves the films first close-up(and the first major shift in music in the 1942 re-release) to Chaplin finding the chicken leg inside the cabin. And I can’t deny that some of these sequences are absoutely hilarious, such as Chaplin eating the candle, or the infamous boiled shoe sequence. It’s been said by many, including Chaplin himself, that he was not a surrealist. Yet can one not call the eating of a boiled shoe or a house teetering over the edge of a cliff surreal? Well, perhaps Chaplin was not a surrealist, as all of his Post City Lights films show, save for perhaps The Great Dictator, but before this Chaplin had not been so audacious as to push screen comedy so far, and only with The Great Dictator would he do this again.
However, the cabin scenes which bookend the film is not where the heart of the film really lies. The Dance Hall sequences are the emotional center of the film, and the most involving. Perhaps a hold over from A Woman of Paris, Chaplin introduces multiple characters with their own lives in a Tramp film for the first time. Contrast this with Chaplin’s shorts, or The Kid, where Chaplin was front and center at all times, while the Kid was simply a mirror of Chaplin and the Mother just there to advance the story. This time we have fully developed characters, to support Chaplin as a character and add to the emotional core as a whole.
A much passed over item in both this film and A Woman of Paris is Chaplin’s use of the single, still image. The image as an ideal, the image as an object of ridcule, the image as a breeder of hate. In A Woman of Paris we had the painting of Marie. This time we have a tintype photo of Georgia. We see it first when she first recieves it. She soon discards it as she gets in a scuffle with Jack, “the ladies man”. We see it a second time when Chaplin sees the tattered image on the ground. He falls in love with this image of this beautiful woman. He forgets that she is a dance hall girl. However, this idealized image prevents him from reality; the reality of life, the reality of Georgia. To them, he’s just some tramp that they can play around with. There’s no gain or loss for them. But to the Tramp, she is everything. We see the image once more, later after the Tramp has secured a home at Hank Curtis’s Cabin. It is hidden under a pillow, with a rose bud that he had picked up in the dance hall. Georgia finds it, and laughs at it. But is she just laughing at the Tramp, or is she also laughing at the image; this idealized image which she does not know. After all, she is a prostitute. She’s lived rough, and she knows the ways of the world.
The sequence I had mentioned previously in the dance hall is enormously pivotal, and perhaps one of Chaplin’s most important sequences in his entire filmography. Every emotion runs through us, emotions stemming from isolation and lonlieness. Chaplin walks into the dance hall alone, behind the crowd. He then stands alone, after he has joined the crowd. Everyone has a partner but Charlie, the outsider. He can only stand there, frustrated as he puts all his weight on his cane, and expresses all the emotions of the ages with his right hand. Chaplin does not need to show us very much; like Ford, he knows that the elequence of gesture can drive emotions and ideas home much more effectively than more elaborate schemes. It is now that he sees Georgia for the first time, and she motions to him. Charlie is suddenly excited! He has at last been acknoledged. Little would poor Charlie know that she was motioning to the man beside him. Charlie’s longing for love goes unrequited once again, a longing for love that which even the smallest gesture can exite.
Many have seen the ending of this film as a cop-out: at last the Tramp hits the big time, gets rich, and gets the girl. But I suspect there is more here than meets the eye. Watch Chaplin’s movements, his gestures. Watch how he quickly scratches his back as he enters his room with Big Jim. Or how he picks up a used ciggarate from the ground. Or simply his very quick, very tense movements. The Tramp is clearly uneasy in this setting, and I suppose that Chaplin is finally driving home his theme when we see the image of Georgia, now framed, for the last time. “Everything but Georgia,” a title says. Charlie, in his discovery of the reality, has lost the dream. And God, how he much prefers the dream. We soon find out that Georgia is actually on the steamer, and they meet, and they live happily ever after. But again, there is much more to this than it appears. Watch Georgia’s face as she finds out that Chaplin is now one of the richest men in America. Her gestures suddenly change, from pity to exitement. She’s all ready to use him again. They go upstairs, and have their picture taken, and Charlie has at last found his dream, but has lost contact with reality. It’s a very subversive ending, and I think Chaplin expected that people may have understood it differently, which would lead to him using the title, “Oh! You’ve ruined the picture!”
I don’t need to elaborate very much on the “dance of the rolls”. What is there to bring up? Even Chaplin himself was dissapointed when interviewers from late in his career would bring this up. What’s most interesting here is what comes right after Charlie wakes from his dream. It is his first real contact with reality. Chaplin’s shot selection and mise en scene is superb in this sequence as well, as we move through wide and medium shots of the crowded dance hall on New Years Day, and go to close-ups of people, people who are hoping for the best of the new year, people watching, and people singing, before we suddenly cut to a wide shot of Chaplin. He stands at the doorway of the cabin and looks out, while the table is all set for the New Years Party that never was.