What does it mean that Charlie Chaplin wanted to be remembered by The Gold Rush?
I'll simply say that the silent version, abandoned and later "destroyed" by its creator—thank heavens Chaplin failed in the attempt—possesses a stark Beckett-like quality that does not date, though it does open doors to my own past. Looking back on childhood frights, I realize how many of them were symbolized by a key figure and his antics. Eminently sane, the Little Tramp nonetheless evokes madness when he takes his famous turn on one foot at the edge of a bottomless abyss in the man-eating Yukon. It's the kind of madness that little kids register in their gut and it's implied by every jot and tittle of The Gold Rush—the comedy, the romance, the history...even the production itself.
The entire film is founded in a stereo-optical image discovered by Chaplin. Cameraman Rollie Totheroh replicates the composition with a remarkable degree of accuracy in his opening shot, which has enough sweep and peril to give the audience permanent agoraphobia. A seemingly endless ribbon of gold-hunting prospectors buck a stiff grade, disappearing into distant mountain peaks. Ultimately, to re-create this image, 500 hobos, working as extras, would be trundled by locomotive to a location near the shoot, where they’d dutifully trek Chilkoot Pass for Chaplin. It's an unsettling sequence in which one man collapses from exhaustion, and nobody stops to help—nor does the film have a moment to grieve over casualties.
Panic-ridden comedy from a stereo-optical image: The Gold Rush is founded in...realism.
An enormous chunk of the credit goes to Chaplin's right-hand man, who saved the production after extreme weather conditions had knocked out the crew and the director with illness. Rollie Totheroh's ingenuity, in its many forms, combines naturalism with magnificently executed glass shots and exquisitely crafted miniatures—they're a legit source of wonderment and jitters. I'm awed by this conflation of trick photography and historical truth, each with its own technically precise logic, one building on the other in seamless and self-delusional cinema. No wonder Chaplin was beloved by experimenters like Dudley Murphy, Fernand Leger, and Jean Epstein!
If you're wired anything like me, you may see the Little Tramp in your mind's eye as a free-floating entity, magically disassociated from the real world. Well, that could be a consequence of Totheroh's splendid double-exposures having a reverse effect. We're seeing the illusion and the stagecraft behind it. The Gold Rush implies a kind of comic nihilism; the metaphor seems personal to everyone who sees it, but I'm not sure if that unites us as an audience, or if it plunges each individual into the void with a twisted, soundless laugh.