The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush (1925) movie poster

director Charlie Chaplin
viewed: 07/09/2014

It was 6 years ago that the kids and I watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (oddly enough, nearly to the day).  For a 12 year old and a 10 year old, that’s more at least a half a lifetime ago, so with the Criterion Collection available on Hulu Plus, I decided to dictate a review of the film.

It’s a great film, of course.  And the kids really enjoyed it.  Clara unsurprisingly didn’t remember it at all.  Felix said he did, but it’s sometimes hard to tell if how much her remembered.

I find the pathos of the Little Tramp a little hard to stomach, though, sometimes.  He doesn’t break my heart, though his foiled New Years Eve party, where all the pretty girls of the town fail to show up, his unwanted love, and joy and sadness are more affecting than other times.

I was glad to see it again.

The Kid (1921)

The Kid (1921) movie poster

director Charles Chaplin
viewed: 01/14/2011

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid, highlights as much of Chaplin’s pathos as much as his humor.  Who knows, maybe even more?

My kids, when queried what they were up for on movie night, said “a classic.”  I’d long been holding back on this, figuring it would do well with them.  It did.

What struck me most were the images of poverty portrayed in the film.  This isn’t the Great Depression, but the stark images of the poor are very  much of their time yet strikingly timeless as well.  Poignant for today’s world perhaps more than one might initially realize.  Most striking for me were images shot on location on downtown Los Angeles’ Olvera Street (I’m a sucker for location shoots, capturing landscapes in place and time as they do.)  More than however dressed up the sets were or the cast was is how the images of need are as commonplace as they are, as simply readable.  From Chaplin’s Tramp’s clothes to the begging, scamming, and other hardscrabble means that people are portrayed as living by.

“The Kid” is Jackie Coogan (who would go on to becoming one of film’s first child stars and eventually become a well-known character actor as well, including notably Uncle Fester from TV’s The Addams Family.)  Coogan’s story is interesting in itself, how his parents spent all his money and left him broke, something that eventually led to laws changing the way that child actors’ money is managed.  But Coogan is as cute as they come and a wily, lively, miniature of Chaplin with his knack for physical humor.

Oddly, and it could just have been the time I was watching it, but I think it’s my favorite of Chaplin’s features that I’ve seen while tracking such things in this film diary.  Not to say that it’s necessarily “the best” of those films, just my favorite.

The Circus

The Circus (1928) movie poster

(1928) director Charles Chaplin
viewed: 09/18/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

When the Castro Theatre announced that it was doing a mini-Chaplin festival, I was pretty keen on bringing the kids down to watch one, if not more, of the films.  But circumstances being what they are, schedules conflicted and as a result, only Felix was free to accompany me to see The Circus.

In the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton debate, I fall more into the Keaton camp.  Not that I think that one by any means excludes the other, but the expectations and enjoyments often play out that way.  And it’s funny, but I’d have to say that it’s pretty consistent.  I actually think Felix would be in the Keaton camp too.

The Circus played with two shorter films, The Idle Class (1921) and A Day’s Pleasure (1919), which, under consideration, I think I may have enjoyed more than the feature film itself.  The Circus isn’t considered one of Chaplin’s major films, and though the Castro is playing several of those such as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936), I thought it would be interesting to see one that I hadn’t seen before.

In The Circus, the “little tramp” becomes the star attraction at a down-on-it’s-luck circus run by a tyrant of a ringmaster.  The ringmaster’s much-abused daughter becomes the tramp’s love interest, and while his natural inventiveness and/or clumsiness leads to his main schtick, he also takes up the tight-rope walking to impress the girl.

There is a lot of fun in the film, and Felix enjoyed the whole show, as did I.  Sadly, in comparison to a couple of years ago when I first started showing the kids silent films, Felix can now read most of the inter-titles himself (not the ones in cursive, however), and so the experience is a little less interactive than it once was.  I’ve been planning to bring over another Keaton film for the kids to watch, and with this under our belts I’m even more encouraged to do so again.

There is something amazing and profound about enjoying a film that is 80-90 years old with a child.  It’s an amazing form of time travel of sorts, looking at the automobiles and other ancient technologies, laughing at gags that persist to be funny throughout so many changes in the world, and to share in such a unique experience.  I have to wonder how he will come to look back on these kinds of memories as an adult.

I was also much brought to mind of the influence of these silent comedies on another “retro” experience that I have with the kids, namely watching old Warner Brothers and other studio cartoons from the Golden Age of animation.   The influence of the slapstick and the outright “borrowing” of jokes and gags never seemed clearer, even with their color and sound and far out lunacy, the basics of physical humor were well captured by Chaplin no doubt straight out of Vaudeville and transformed into the truest elements of cinema.

The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. Charles Chaplin
viewed: 07/11/08

For those 1 or 2 of you that actually read this blog on a regular basis, you know that I am showing both my children and some friends of theirs silent film comedy classics.  It’s been one of the most worthwhile experiments of my life.  Showing the kids the films is one thing, but I read the intertitles to them, explain certain historical or cultural anachronisms, and occasionally help explain the narrative.  The kids have loved it.  Sitting on the couch, talking them through it, hearing their roars of laughter at great, wonderful films made a distance in time that is closing in on a century, I can’t really fully express how amazing the experience of watching these films has been for me.  I enjoy it more than I would on my own, more than I would in an audience of anonymous film fans, more, in some ways,…than anything.

Mostly, we’ve watched Buster Keaton films (The General (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)), which I think I prefer.  But I thought it would be worthwhile to expand to the other masters of silent film comedy, going with Charlie Chaplin, the perhaps more iconic master and going with one of his best-known, best-appreciated films.  Initially, the kids thought that they would prefer Buster Keaton, but as soon as the film got going, it went beautifully.

For me, The Gold Rush is deeply iconic, with the scene of Chaplin eating his shoe for Thanksgiving dinner, the wonderful dance he performs with the forks in the dinner rolls, the scene of the cabin teetering on the brink of disaster.

I also remember my first introduction to this film.  It was in fourth grade, for reasons that I cannot remember, a kid’s father who was a film professor at UF came in and showed us this film…again, I don’t recall the circumstances exactly.  It made an immediate impression.  It’s great stuff.  It is cinema.  It’s the most impressive stuff that you can show anyone.

Frankly, I am still more impressed with Keaton than Chaplin, but that may be a sort of film school prejudice.  But of my recent experience and you can look back through this blog for my Chaplin experiences (Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931)…okay I helped you with hyperlinks there).  But the bottom line for me is that I am totally fucking into silent film.  It’s a beautiful and diminishingly cultural significance that retains a wonder in experience that has a value beyond anything one can imagine.

I tell you, if you have a chance to expose young people, children, to these films, it could be one of the most wonderful experiences of your life.  For you with the film, for you with the kids, for the kids with these films that are so amazing and significant, so far removed from today.  I hope that these things embed themselves in a meaningfulness for their future lives.  I can’t imagine that they will fail to have an effect in their ultimate knowledge and appreciation of things.

I was saying to someone that I feel almost smug about showing the kids these films.  I say that just because I enjoy it so much, I think it’s cool, I think it will develop and influence them in subtle, yet telling ways, so different from the average child of this era.

You can think I am a stupid jerk for saying this, but I love watching these films with my kids.  I love watching these films on my own, but with them it’s so much better.

Hey, if you haven’t seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, it’s your missing piece.  Fill it in if you can, on your own, with a kid, an adult, a retiree.  It emanates from a time that is diminishing in our cultural history.  Yet, it is an art as profound as anything.  See it.

City Lights

City Lights (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Charles Chaplin
viewed: 07/06/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I am not sure exactly when it started, but I have been increasingly been enjoying silent films and have started to dedicate more of my rental queue to them.  Though, it must be said, this hasn’t been reflected yet so much in my viewing, but it is to come.  I have tickets to a couple of exhibitions at the upcoming Silent Film Festival and I know that there will be more here shortly.

Charlie Chaplin, as iconic a figure as he is, I have to wonder how much he’s really seen these days.  City Lights is considered by many his masterpiece work, completed and exhibited in the sound era, with a recorded musical track, has some touching pathos and real beauty to it.  In many ways, the humor sequences aren’t among the best, but the story does have an amusing ride, particularly his relationship with the drunken millionaire who loves him to death when he’s loaded, but doesn’t remember any of it when he sobers up.

The final scene of the film, when he meets up with his formerly blind flower-selling love again after getting out of jail for “stealing” (he didn’t really steal the money) the money that he gave her for the operation to bring her sight back…  It is touching, and in some ways, it manages to redeem the film beyond it’s basics, transcendentally charming and I’d say it could warm even some pretty well-hardened hearts.

All in all, I was a tad disappointed.  I’ve only in recent years seen one other of Chaplin’s films, Modern Times (1936) which was a bit more imaginative.  I recognize that I am on the outside of being well-aware of the silent era’s peaks and lows, but I am eager to start on more, and more will come.

Modern Times

Modern Times (1936) movie poster

(1936) dir. Charles Chaplin
viewed: 12/29/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I really have seen a shamefully small amount of silent film, despite being moderately exposed to it as a child. And despite the fact that the only silent films that I have seen are all pretty much “classics” that utterly recommend seeing more and more. I even know someone who works on San Francisco’s annual Silent Film Festival. I am ashamed and have every right to be.

And actually, when I saw that Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was playing at the Castro, I almost didn’t put it on the schedule to see. Somehow it seems so obvious? Of course, the great irony is that I had never seen it and when hard pressed couldn’t name a Chaplin film that I had seen in even not-so-recent memory. So, I shamed myself into it. And I’m glad. It was fantastic.

Released in 1936, already several years into the age of the sound film, Modern Times is more or less a silent film. Chaplin uses voice over for voices that come from machinery or radio, some sound effects, and ultimately for a song that his character, “the little tramp”, belts out at the end of the film. I don’t know much about this film or enough specific Chaplin history to do justice to the subject here, but I understand that this film was originally going to be a “talkie”, Chaplin’s first, and for some reason, he ended up approaching sound in this particular way.

Large parts of the film, all set in the factory, seem to reckon heavily of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but with art design played for humor rather than wonderful art deco decadence. It shares some themes with Lang’s film (I don’t know that it was an influence, but am positing), the dehumanization of the industrial workplace, some proletarian revolt, and it’s been so long since I have seen Metropolis that I won’t try to push this further.

The use of sound, particularly in the factory sequences, reinforces the notions of mechanization and dehumanization as well.

Chaplin himself is amazingly funny. It’s something to see, not to be read about. I also found Paulette Goddard, “a gamin” is what her character is known as, quite amazing, too. With her hair down and a simple dress on, Goddard looks very contemporary, and extremely beautiful. She is excellent throughout, but has a great introductory scene where she is hacking bananas off of a big banana bunch and throwing them to the poor children. When she is seen and chased, she makes a deft getaway and then stands, feet apart in triumph and eats a banana. Writing it here, sure it sounds stupid, but it’s a compelling image that I would encourage any and everyone to see.