Fever Dream

THE GOLD RUSH, part two.

The storm ends, and Big Jim and the lone prospector go their separate ways, Jim to get clonked on the head by Black Larsen, transforming him into a glazed amnesiac, and the lone prospector to become properly lone again.

(Red is then disappeared from the story by a conveniently yawning crevasse. His dog has previously disappeared, as Fiona noted with concern.)

The reconstructed silent version (as opposed to Chaplin’s post-war sonorized cut) includes a scene of Charlie pawning his shovel, so he’s given up being a prospector so we can’t call him that anymore. Chaplin’s performance in this one shot seems shaky, uncertain, and it looks to have been shot outdoors, so maybe the cold was affecting his performance or his perfectionist (it’s hard to strive for perfection when you’re freezing to death), leading to his decision to reshoot in the studio. He flashes the camera, is what he does, and it’s not an example of the Little Fellow’s ability to share a joke with his chums in the audience, it’s Chaplin breaking character to shoot a glance at Rollie Totheroh, asking if the move from the pawnshop balls to his face had worked…

We meet Georgia, the “saloon girl” (we know what THAT means), collecting some glossies from the photo shop, and we meet the awful Jack (Malcolm Waite), her steady guy. Jovial Jack is MUCH more hateful than Black Larsen, though he doesn’t actually murder anyone. That we know of. Funny that Chaplin’s films have fairly often opposed his character with more classic leading man types, and he loses the girl to one in THE TRAMP, but they haven’t been portrayed as horrible until now. (Jack will also disappear from the movie, unmourned, and with no explanation whatever.)

Georgia is Georgia Hale, discovered working as an extra by Sternberg, who cast her in THE SALVATION HUNTERS. She’s the first Sternbergian woman, and she puts on her eyebrows with a used matchstick in that film, the way Dietrich did for real later. Chaplin hired both her and Sternberg, but it’s fair to say the Sternberg thing didn’t work out: he walked off his first assignment after aiming the camera at the ceiling, and Chaplin burned his second one, the Edna Purviance vehicle A WOMAN OF THE SEA.

Hale’s career went nowhere after this, though she acted until 1931, and Chaplin considered using her again in CITY LIGHTS when he was having trouble getting a performance from Virginia Cherrill. Sternberg blamed alcohol for her decline. She appears lucid when interviewed in later years. And if the 1926 GREAT GATSBY had survived, we could see her in another major film.

Georgia is the one obvious anachronism, with her silvery patterned twenties dress, but I’ll overlook that because it’s a great dress.

Dance hall: Charlie’s arrival here, and this whole first sequence of him meeting Georgia, is the greatest evocation of loneliness in a crowd I’ve ever seen. The shots of him entering the joint are among the most beautiful of Chaplin’s career.

This whole sequence is skating on thin eyes, pathos-wise. Chaplin’s previous successful use of pathos in THE KID centres the heartbreaking emotion on Charlie’s relationship with the Kid. Here, we have to feel sorry for Charlie alone, while also being able to laugh at him. Well, feeling sympathy for a comic character is nothing unusual — it’s a trick to pull off, no doubt,, but one that we frequently see done successfully. Keaton thought the sympathy was an essential ingredient. But Charlie comes close to being pathetic here, a stooge rather than a lord of misrule. It’s a delicate operation. I think what helps is our position in the narrative — it’s OK for the laughs to be fewer and quieter in the middle of a film, and Chaplin has another raucous cabin scene lined up for his big finish.

Charlie gets to be naughty here once — stealing a drink — and funny when he has trouser trouble dancing with Georgia. An elaborate Freudian explanation could be concocted for the situation where he ties up his baggy pants — suddenly a problematic fit in proximity to The Girl — only to find himself tethered to a dog which then takes off after the resident dance hall cat…

Fiona got quite impatient with Georgia — she’s genuinely hard-hearted, which is a first for a Chaplin film and a rarity for silent comedy in general. But she will eventually melt. Chaplin has to pull off one of his cleverest narrative tricks to convince us she has a heart at all.

Interestingly, she’s softened slightly in the voiced-over version, since Chaplin is able to report her thoughts.

The eternal triangle drawn up, we follow Charlie to Henry Bergman’s cabin, where he feigns hypothermia (back to his trickster self) and is taken in as help. So that Jack MacGowran could play frozen rigid in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Polanski had him encased in a chickenwire exoskeleton under his costume. Chaplin does it by musclepower alone. Well, that’s why they pay him the big money.

Then Georgia and her girlfriends happen by, setting up the idea of the Hogmanay dinner party. Here, Charlie’s tongue-tied intertitles feel a little awkward — all that “Yes mam,” stuff doesn’t feel like him. I think a better effect could be achieved with actual wordlessness. But Georgia’s discovery of the tattered photo Charlie’s saved and keeps under his pillow is a lovely moment. What stops us hating Georgia is probably the music.

Charlie’s street-sweeping routine sees him back in character — turning the performance of a social good into a racket, sweeping one doorfront in order to bury the one next-door, then charging five times more to clear that one. It’s as good as a scam as the window-breaking glazier act in THE KID.

Then comes the bleak “party,” and Chaplin’s best dream sequence. It doesn’t matter too much that the bread roll dance is stolen from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle —

— although it always comes as a shock when you find out.

In any event, Chaplin’s version is far more elaborate, far more illusionistically convincing, funnier and greater. He saw the potential in a brief amusing bit and turned it into a whole performance. Johnny Depp, who had to copy this routine in BENNY AND JOON, talked about how difficult it was. “It’s all in the shoulders,” he said. And, I would add, in the eyes. The solemnity and inwardness of Charlie’s performance is what cracks me up, along with the fact that he alone makes you SEE him as a giant Mardi Gras head with fork legs and bread roll feet, dancing.

You’ll notice that “creative” camera angles and cutting don’t help here — they basically wreck it. Chaplin’s simplistic, stagey decoupage was CORRECT.

Then there’s the beautiful Old Lang Syne sequence at the dance hall, which makes Georgia yearn to see her absent friend, but she STILL hasn’t become, in the term of another festive comedy, “a mensch,” she presents the idea of a post-midnight visit to Charlie as a chance to prank him. She can’t admit to the sentiment this film celebrates. Anyway, Charlie and Georgia miss one another in the dark, and she sees into his private lonely world again when she finds the Marie Celeste dinner party.

Then Big Jim arrives, still amnesiac, recognises Charlie — who is understandably terrified by his manner — Mack Swain is the only one doing operatic silent movie acting in this film — and the movie prepares for the big finish…

TO BE CONTINUED

7 Responses to “Fever Dream”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    Fatty’s bread roll dance looks like a parody of the Tramp walk to me. Especially that little kick on the turn. I have a memory of interviews from contemporaries, maybe in The Unknown Chaplin or one of the biographies that the bread roll dance had been a Chaplin party piece for years before The Gold Rush, so it is possible that Fatty saw it, too. Just speculating, but might explain why Fatty seems to be doing a Little Tramp pastiche.

  2. Grant Skene Says:

    As Dawson City: Frozen in Time makes clear, Sid Graumann was one of those people seeking their fortune in the Klondike. I would love to hear the stories he told Chaplin that may have snuck into this part of the film. I would like to think the snow-clearing scam had historical antecedents.

  3. The rolls make perfect splayed-out big shoes, so yeah, I think you might be right. Means Charlie sat on that routine for eight years!

    Yes, Grauman was a gold-digger. And Friedrich Trump may well have been Georgia’s boss.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    The narrated version always annoyed me. The persuasively rough and cruel world onscreen is undercut by a self-consciously clever and slightly effete-sounding Englishman talking down to his audience. How could Chaplin be that tone-deaf?

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. Because I saw it first, it probably infected my thinking a bit: that voice to me does capture a major aspect of the Tramp, his assumed or inherent gentility, and overlaying it on rough reality as a kind of insulation is exactly what the Tramp does.

    But it’s pretty disastrous in terms of enjoying a silent film, agreed. It may be that Chaplin tried using less of it, and found that the voice coming and going was a distraction, so his solution was to keep up the patter constantly. Basically there are no good options for adding voice to silent film, but I’m sort of glad we have his benshi performance for the record. What’s regrettable is that we don’t have a pristine version of the silent because he chopped it up.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

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