Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (AFI #58)

April 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm (AFI Top 100 in 100 Days)

You don’t have to wait until the end of this review to find out whether I think Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film, “The Gold Rush,” belongs in its space on the AFI Top 100 Films of all time list. It absolutely does. I know for a fact it ought to have a higher rank than some of the films on the list. (I’m looking at you, “Annie Hall.”)

I had never seen a Charlie Chaplin film all the way through, and I’m really glad I decided to watch this one. What Chaplin accomplishes here in terms of special effects, choreographed shots, and body language, for 1925, is monumental. He manages a story with humor and heart, without us hearing a single word. To give you an idea of how ahead of his time he was, he uses guyliner 75 years — a full lifetime — before guyliner became cool.

One of my favorite Johnny Depp movies is “Benny and Joon.” Something Depp’s Sam does throughout the film is to re-create various Charlie Chaplin gags. I knew that the “Oceanic Roll” bit Depp does with forks and bread rolls was something from a Chaplin film, but getting to see it in its original context, by Chaplin, was a treat I did not expect.

I was expecting the visual gags to be corny. What I did not expect was to find myself laughing out loud more than once. I tried to think about who Chaplin’s successors are, in terms of slapstick film stars. Steve Martin? Jim Carrey? Both are really good, but neither have a specific image enduring enough that it can be called truly iconic.

There are places where the film drags. I can’t decide whether that is because in 2011 we are used to more fast-paced films, or whether it’s owing to the limited technology of the day. Taken in conjunction with everything that was ahead of its time in terms of effects (the tilting cabin!) and choreographed slapstick (the bear!), I can’t really fault Chaplin for that.

Here is a case where I got turned on to something cool I hadn’t been exposed to before. I hope there are a lot more like that.

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