Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chaplin's 'Gold Rush' Even Better With CSO

This past Friday night, I had the privilege of attending the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.”

The 1925 silent classic was projected on a screen above the orchestra members, who were seated on stage and provided the score. Conducting was Timothy Brock, a man who has restored several film scores for live performance, including “The Gold Rush,” “Modern Times,” and Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.”

“The Gold Rush” finds Chaplin’s The Little Tramp as a prospector searching for gold. The film begins with a startling recreation of the men snaking up the Chilkoot Pass, all hoping they will be the lucky ones to strike it rich. Then we see the prospector making his way around the jagged mountain cliffs. Even a bear following him can’t take the familiar spring in his step as he twirls his cane.

Meanwhile, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) discovers gold and nearly weeps for joy. However, a massive blizzard forces both the prospector and Big Jim to seek refuge in a cabin occupied by Black Larsen (Tom Murray), who is wanted by the law. As the storm rages on, and the food runs out, the three men (below) grow hungry. Black sets out to find food but ditches the two men to fend for themselves.

Once freed from the cabin, the prospector makes his way into town, penniless, spirits dampened. In the local dance hall he falls for a girl. But Georgia (Georgia Hale) finds him silly and begins to toy with him. The prospector invites Georgia and her friends for a New Year’s Eve supper, and they accept. He’s elated, but they have no intention of attending.

Later, Big Jim, who has been knocked on the head, wanders into town, lost and unable to find his claim on the mountain. He spies the prospector and begs him to take him back to the cabin, from which he’s sure he can find his claim.

“The Gold Rush” is the second feature-length film featuring Chaplin’s The Little Tramp, after the success of “The Kid” in 1921. In between he directed the drama “A Woman of Paris,” a film that only briefly featured himself. Although well-liked by critics, the film failed at the box office and fueled Chaplin’s ambition to do his best on “Rush.”

And did he ever succeed. From the opening shots of the Chilkoot Pass, Chaplin creates a realistic setting. Today it would have been accomplished digitally, because why hire that many people to hike up a snow-covered mountain for what appears on film for a minute or so. Apparently 600 extras were brought into the Sierra Nevadas so Chaplin could film them climbing up the 2,300-foot pass through the snow.

The initial cabin sequence is quite long, and yet there’s so much taking place on what is a small set. There’s a beautifully choreographed bit of hilarity involving a struggle between Big Jim and Black Larsen over a shotgun that’s constantly pointed at prospector. No matter where Chaplin goes in the cabin – up, down, under furniture – the other two inadvertently manage to point the gun at Chaplin the entire time.

Chaplin’s famous shoe-eating scene – as if he’s dining at a fine restaurant – is followed by an equally famous scene of Big Jim thinking that the prospector is a giant chicken. It’s Chaplin in the chicken suit, as no one else could mimic his mannerisms or properly mimic a chicken.

One of my favorite shots comes when the prospector enters the dance hall for the first time. Chaplin is in the foreground, his back is to the camera, and he’s mostly dark while the music and dancing and drinking take place in the background. The way he places his hand on his hip and leans on his cane is a beautiful contrast of weariness and loneliness with the cheerfulness and camaraderie he’s watching.

There are many other classic bits – the dinner roll dancing scene, which apparently was first done by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the 1910s, and the cabin positioned precariously on the ledge of a cliff. What Chaplin always does so well is mix that comedy with great emotion. His adoration of Georgia is heartfelt. He opens himself up to Georgia, and despite her many rebuffs, he returns to her, always hopeful.

As for Georgia herself, apparently Lita Grey – who had a small role in Chaplin’s “The Kid” – was playing the leading lady here. But Chaplin and the teenage Grey found themselves expecting a child (which forced them to marry), so Chaplin quickly found Hale (below, with Chaplin), who brings a fresh, unmannered approach to the film. It’s a shame she never did much more, retiring from the movies when sound was introduced.

Another player worth mentioning is Swain, a veteran vaudeville and stage star who had worked with Chaplin on film in the 1910s before finding success on his own. When his career started to fade, it was Chaplin who came to the rescue, first with the short “The Pilgrim” and then with this movie, in which he’s delightful.

What made the Friday presentation especially memorable was the music. The score was written by Chaplin, but he did so for the 1942 re-release of the movie (his first attempt at a full-length score was for his film “City Lights,” released in 1931). In fact, “The Gold Rush” reissue removed the title cards and replaced them with narration from Chaplin himself.

In 1992, the Chaplin estate commissioned a restoration of “The Gold Rush,” implemented by famed historian Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. The 1942 music was used. In the mid-2000s, conductor/composer Brock – commissioned by the Association Chaplin – was working on a restoration of the score. According to the liner notes from the CSO’s program, Brock undertook massive research, discovering that last-minute changes to the music in 1942 were made not on the full score or conductor’s score but on the music used by individual parts.

The results were outstanding. “The Gold Rush” was presented as part of the CSO’s successful “Friday at the Movies” series, which consists of three movie-related concerts per season. I’m a regular of the series and especially enjoy the silent movie presentations. What always strikes me about these nights are the positive reaction from the audience and the beauty of the CSO’s performance. Their live accompaniment never overpowers the film. While I will sometimes close my eyes and listen to them playing (since I’ve seen these movies several times), the music draws you in where it’s an integral part of the film itself. Both work together, and that’s the way it should be.

The next CSO movie concert on Feb. 25 features film critic Roger Ebert. As for “The Gold Rush,” it never feels old no matter how many times I watch it. If you live someplace where this film will be screened with live symphonic accompaniment, I strongly urge you to attend and experience it.


  1. Sounds wonderful. I wish I could have been there. I know it's heresy, but I actually prefer Chaplin's 1942 sound re-edit of the movie to the original. That could be because it's the first time I saw it.

    I'm curious as to what kind of crowd they had, and what was the audience response?

  2. Another fantastic film getting it's due with a night to shine once again! I'm certainly jealous of your ability to see Gold Rush in such a beautiful atmosphere. I love Chicago and the Arts that you can partake in any day of the week.
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.

  3. Hi Kevin: The CSO was packed, which was great to see. And the reaction was very positive. I think since this was the third or fourth silent film that has shown as part of this series, it demonstrates fan support and they know what to expect. The CSO did "Modern Times" either last year or two years ago, and they've done two Buster Keatons: "Sherlock Jr." and "The General." I hope they consider Harold Lloyd next!

    Hi Page: Thank you for the reply. I agree with you, and if you live in the area, consider attending one of these presentations.

  4. What a treat to watch Chaplin on the big screen with live music. I had the opportunity back in the 1990's when I lived in Atlanta to see CITY LIGHTS with a live orchestra. It is a great experience.

    This is one of Chaplin's masterpieces with so many classic moments which you cover so well. It is one of those films that can be watched multiple times and each time you discover something new.

  5. I bet "City Lights" was great. And I agree ... I'm always picking up new things. I hadn't seen "Gold Rush" in years, and there were a few bits that I had forgotten about.