Watching The Gold Rush leaves one with many questions: When did The Lone Prospector die? Was he already dead when the film began? Was the entire film just one big hallucination — or just parts of it? Why is a film featuring a character death so tremendously hilarious?
First, let us analyze the most basic and obvious indicator that can help us to make sense of it all: the film color: Blue was used for outdoor scenes in the freezing cold. A yellowish hue indicated indoor scenes. A purple was used for night. The town: almost completely gray. Most important, a red hue was used for hallucinations. We first see this effect when Big Jim McKay sees Chaplin’s character as some form of giant (and, after appropriate cooking, deliciously edible) poultry. The camera is tinted blood red as Chaplin is replaced with a gigantic bird — a bird of size sufficient to provide several meals. Although it is certainly possible that the shoe he had eaten could have produced for him some rather psychedelic side-effects, it is unlikely that The Lone Prospector was hallucinating Big Jim hallucinating him as a chicken.
It is especially unlikely as this would mean that three quarters of the film was used to cover The Lone Prospector’s death — quite a long, and, arguably, quite an unrealistic death. Unfortunately, confusion arrives when he enters the town: the dance hall is also colored with a slight red tint, reminiscent of the earlier hallucination. This would seem to imply he was already hallucinating to some degree!
Indeed, he was: his perception of Georgia was obviously hallucination. The dance hall itself was likely real enough; Georgia likely existed as well. Even the events Chaplin’s character may have taken place — but he clearly must have interpreted incorrectly. While he may have been dead or dying at this point, we must assume that he was not (it would not be nearly interesting enough to analyze in this writing). If we do not so assume, we must instead make ourselves believe that he’s having hallucinations inside hallucinations (possible; hunger and the elements can do terrible things to the mind) and would force us to wonder: did much of the action take place in the eye of his soul, after he had already died? (This would also explain the movie’s silence; his soul’s ears would already have moved on, of course. But this would also imply he had been dead throughout the entirety of the film).
We should just assume he was still alive at this point. At what point, then, did he become dead?
The film’s finale, in which The Lone Prospector is wonderfully rich (along with, of course, his partner), quite obviously occurred after or during his death. The sequence is quite at odds with the previous elements of the story in all ways. The tint was once again a hallucinogenic red, though, being outside, somewhat lighter than before. In addition, the discovery of gold — much less millions and millions of dollars worth — was much too good to be true. Perhaps most important, however, was the difference in Georgia’s behavior: she acted exactly how Chaplin’s character would hope for her to act, and apparently completely inverse to how she had acted throughout the earlier parts.
When Chaplin first meets Georgia, he dances with her. He was, quite possibly, hallucinating this dance. Even if he was not, it was apparent that Georgia was merely taking advantage of Chaplin to annoy Jack, with whom she was angry. The Lone Prospector is not nearly perceptive enough to pick up on this; instead, he believes she genuinely likes him for him. The coloration of the scene is somewhat red, hinting, at the very least, to his misperceptions.
The snowball fight between Georgia and her friends likely did occur. The coloration was neutral, after all, and certainly not red. It is possible tat Georgia and her friends originally intended to attend dinner with Chaplin (though likely just to mock him). In any case, his awkwardness, and, especially, his embarrassing episode celebrating the acceptance of that invitation, would certainly have scared them off. Georgia did appear to feel some guilt when she saw the elaborate efforts that The Lone Prospector had undertaken on her behalf in order to prepare dinner; however, the guilt was obviously not all that significant: she wrote a note apologizing not to The Lone prospector for his wasted effort and emotional turmoil, but instead, to Jack, a man who wished to mock said wasted efforts and tortuous turmoil.
As such, the entire end sequence seems entirely out-of-place. Why would she want to pay his fare if she thought him a stowaway? It is not likely that she wanted to make up for her previous cruelty — judging by her earlier attitudes, she’d be just as likely to try to cause him yet more grief! However, even if she did want to make up for her previous actions, what possible reason could she have for marrying him — especially on such a spur-of-the-moment? There is one obvious reason: his new wealth. Perhaps this was The Lone Prospector’s way of adding a small bit of reality to an otherwise wholly unrealistic vision: even in his deluded subconscious dream state, he knew that Georgia would never marry him for his own merits.
The entire conclusion was entirely too clean and too perfect. It was the opposite of everything leading up to it. He must have experienced the vision somewhere right after or during the cabin’s topple to the ground.
When, then? Pinpointing is difficult. If Chaplin’s character had managed to get out of the cabin in time, he should have survived! After all, Big Jim had wandered off into town from this same location awhile earlier (though, given Big Jim’s body fat, and resultant built-in insulation, if there were any question as to survival, Chaplin’s character would be significantly less likely to survive than Big Jim).
It is more likely that The Lone Prospector did not manage to escape the cabin before it plummeted to its doom. It is even more likely that Big Jim did escape. It is possible he then couldn’t save The Lone Prospector, but more likely, he decided that the gold would be worth much more to him if he didn’t have to split it, and so let The Lone Prospector die in what would undoubtedly be later referred to as a “tragic accident.” There are some hints to such a greedy attitude near the beginning of the film; for instance, when Chaplin has to bribe Big Jim with some meat to stay on his good side and not get kicked out into the storm.
While it is not completely assured that The Lone Prospector did die by this time, this outcome is supported by the sometimes overwhelming theme of the movie: suspense. Chaplin’s character could not die to early, as the suspenseful events would be rather less suspenseful if they occurred after or during the character’s death — even if the audience only knew this in hindsight. This suspense is expressed in several ways. There is, naturally, the aforementioned infamous sequence of the cabin being blown off the cliff. Likewise, the drawn-out part where Big Jim chases the chickenified Chaplin is quite suspenseful. Even the dinner party that never occurred would have been obviously suspenseful, if it was not so quickly apparent to the audience that Georgia and her friends were not coming. Even still, the scene was quite suspenseful, as the audience is left waiting for Chaplin’s reaction, and are disappointed as it never does seem to fully develop.
However, there are also some more subtle elements of suspense: the cameras almost never move. Often, the action ends up taking place just outside the camera’s viewing angle. If a switch of camera angle is needed, there is almost uniformly a suspenseful delay before the switch takes place, leaving a brief moment where some action has occurred which the viewer cannot see.
The death of the main character makes the story tremendously tragic. Why, then, is it so tremendously amusing?
First, the tragedy is dulled. The music, sometimes reminiscent of (except in that it predates) Pixar’s Up, is certainly not deep, powerful, or tragic in any way. Rather, it is light, perky, and, quite often, rather cheery. The lighting was relatively even and non-dramatic — except in the many hallucination scenes — further sapping the drama. The focus was, most often, quite deep.
The ridiculous but tragic events often had their sting taken out of them by the antics of the characters. The expressions — especially Chaplin’s — were not realistic, but instead, quite exaggerated. Dancing and walking often seemed sped up; the chewing of the chew almost certainly was as well. The film is filled with such crazy antics.
The film lacks a need for any context other than the human context. This is a very good thing. It was made in 1925, which appears to be at least a decade after the great rush to find gold. The events were already becoming history; eighty more years couldn’t do much more to dull them. The Gold Rush covered its material in an already-historical context. The only assumptions were that the audience would know what a gold rush was about — which might otherwise be derivable from the very phrase “gold rush” (perhaps a rush for gold), and was covered in the introduction to the film — and that the audience have empathy for normal human conditions.
The heavy focus on elements which are applicable to almost all humanity are what truly makes the film still funny: humans still experience winters. Humans still experience love. Humans still experience greed. Humans still die.
Humans still hallucinate.
Side note: my teacher did not realize this was satire, and gave me a C. After I told her, she suggested I clean it up and send it to a film journal (I never did).