The Gold Rush ★★★★★

#42 on Berken's Favorite Movies Of All Time

I have to be honest - I never expected Charlie Chaplin to be anywhere near the craftsman he turned out to be. The dependence on mugging and gimmicks, the disadvantage of having to create an industry practically from scratch nearly a century ago, and the mainstream popularity that unfortunately I tend to associate in comedy with comedians that play to the lowest common denominator, all lead me to believe that the love for Chaplin was mostly a result of nostalgia - and, of course, the notion that "well, this was all very innovative for the time", which is great for film historians but doesn't make things any more watchable for first time viewers. Instead, what I found is a blend of humor, pathos, and even the occasional thrill almost unprecedented even a century later.

Chaplin's desire to make audiences genuinely care for his characters is evident in his use of sound - rather than the silly beeps and bloops of low-brow slapstick (beeps and bloops that are unfortunately ubiquitous in modern Chinese TV comedy), The Gold Rush relies on a playful piano riff that has the ability to turn genuinely heartfelt and even melancholy on a dime, which is how it spends most of the back-half of the movie. The protagonist himself, meanwhile, justly renowned for his comic flailing and fidgeting, proves himself equally adept here at grinning bashfully, gazing forlornly, and generally capturing the spirit of an adorable puppy dog. It's no accident that one of the film's most iconic sequences, the "dinner roll dance", takes place in a dream sequence that exists not just to be amusing but to illuminate the true sadness of the situation. Furthermore, at one point when a love letter is written to an unexpected recipient, the movie's audacious willingness to faint towards and then withhold the happy resolution the audience so desires in order to further increase our sympathy for the hero demonstrates that Chaplin wasn't interested in taking the easy route - he wanted to make the ultimate payoff truly count.

Just as surprisingly effective are the production design and set pieces, which incredibly still hold up 88 years later. The whole thing looks as if it was legitimately filmed on location in the freezing mountainous wilderness of Alaska, so convincing are the wind, snow, and fog effects. In one scene, where the side of an icy cliff collapses and takes the individual standing atop tumbling along with it, you could probably convince me with a little effort that Chaplin had simply filmed an actual avalanche and stuck it into his movie. Finally, the climactic set piece is so well executed and physically convincing that it's as thrilling as anything from a modern action movie, while also incorporating Chaplin's trademark physical humor.

In short, this is a movie that I expected to be a one-note gimmick notable mostly for its historical importance and instead found firing on all cylinders, even for a cynical modern viewer like myself. I'm not sure that there's a person in existence who couldn't find at least some level of enjoyment in this, Chaplin's first masterpiece.