Dir. Charles Chaplin
Review By Greg Klymkiw
By his admirers, Charles Chaplin is embraced for the abundance of sentimentality in his work and by those who dare posit themselves as detractors, he is admonished for it. The fact remains that Chaplin would hardly be Chaplin if his work was not sentimental. I, for one, so often find myself in an absolute rage when the word "sentimental" (like "melodrama") is, in a contemporary context, used pejoratively and often with no context. Most critics and artsy-fartsies unfairly (and myopically) jerk their knobby knees oh-so reductively. This simplistic, dismissive categorization of sentimentality in art, displays both laziness and a holier-than-thou intellectual snobbery. Using one word like a cudgel to pound away at a dramatic technique that enhances an audience's emotional connection to theme, action and style is an easy way out for these cretinous curs.
Yes, if executed badly, sentimentality is intolerable. However, when functioning from the highest plane of artistic endeavour, sentimentality is - in form and feeling - one of the most effective ways for an artist to elicit visceral and intellectual responses to their material. No matter how excessively it's employed, if it's right for the material, the period it reflects, the period from whence it came and hewn into the style of the work, there's not a damn thing wrong with it. When worked by expert hands - sentimentality can be effectively used consciously and/or unconsciously (the latter a natural product of period, material and/or style).
In spite of the considerable virtues of sentiment as a legitimate storytelling tool, critical volleys of the word almost always imply that any work with any sentiment is inferior to any work that avoids all sentiment.
Brian Wilkie's great 1967 essay entitled "What is Sentimentality?" notes that the word "sentiment" as defined by both critics and academics in this simplistic fashion is, finally, "unhelpful" and most of all, "misleading." It asserts that this one word is enough and that adequate elucidation beyond using the word is unnecessary.
When Wilkie examined twelve literary style handbooks he discovered that two of them discuss sentimentality at length without explaining or bothering to define the word and that ten of them "define the term in essentially the same way, with some, but surprisingly little variation in wording, emphasis, and illustrative detail." Wilkie goes on to note that "sentimentality, according to the current definitions, violates decorum in a special way: the violation is a quantitative one, an 'excess' [of manufactured feeling]."
Over the course of cinema's history some of the greatest filmmakers have been charged with stylistic overuse of sentimentality - a criticism grounded rather easily and unimaginatively in the realm of Wilkie's aforementioned discovery. To name a few film directors so charged (and the list of literary figures is astronomical - Dickens and Saroyan to name a couple of my favourites) are: D.W. Griffith, Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens and Steven Spielberg.
No slouches in the great filmmakers of all time sweepstakes.
And lest we forget, the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin.
Though Chaplin's comic masterpiece The Gold Rush might be less infused with overt sentimentality than many of his other pictures, it is worth considering the contemporary knee-jerk use of the word in the context of what's present on the Criterion Collection's magnificent new Blu-Ray release of this truly great picture.
Chaplin was a groundbreaker in many areas associated with the development of cinematic storytelling language, but perhaps most notably in his belief that silent cinema and the art of pantomime, could live happily in a world of talking pictures (notably City Lights and Modern Times which in 1931 and 1936 respectively were made after the invention, release and acceptance of "talkies"). That said, Chaplin, erred when he transformed his 1925 version of The Gold Rush into a new form wherein he replaced title cards with his own off-screen narration while additionally rendering cuts and modifications that repressed the film's sentimentality.
I'd like to think that EVERYONE knows what The Gold Rush is about, but what I wish for and what actually is are two different things. It's a simple tale involving The Little Tramp (Chaplin) and his adventures during the title time period in the Klondike. The Tramp happens upon two men in the icy, snow-packed mountains of the Yukon Gold Rush during a massive snowstorm. One is prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) who has discovered a motherlode and the other, Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a dastardly wanted criminal looking for an easy score.
Eventually, The Tramp meets and falls in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale), a beautiful dancehall girl who is attached to the brutish, abusive Jack (Malcolm Waite). Embroiled in a rivalry between Black Larsen and Big Jim, our moustachioed hero with the baggy pants and funny waddle is torn between doing the right thing and making his unrequited desires for Georgia requited.
The movie is chockfull of magnificent Chaplin comedy set pieces: A wind storm that keeps bouncing him in and out of a rickety snowbound cabin; hunger pangs forcing Big Jim to imagine The Tramp as a chicken ready to be gutted, cleaned and cooked; the Tramp staving off starvation and unwanted cannibalism by turning his shoe into a meal; and performing a dance with dinner rolls during one of the most magical dream sequences ever committed to film.
The movie also has a dark side - exploring greed and avarice in American culture (albeit from a historical perspective) and examining the lives of the rich in contrast to the desperation of the poor. Especially poignant is Chaplin's depiction of the "outsider" society of those who have traversed great distances to toil amidst the hardships of the north - desperately clinging to the hope that they'll strike it rich, but more often than not, spending what little gold dust they scrounge up to drown their sorrows in cheap booze at the dancehall.
Georgia Hale's performance is, in particular, quite an extraordinary portrait of an impoverished young woman seeking to make a living in this frigid domain of broken dreams. She is, on the surface, happy-go-lucky, but beneath her spunky smile and somewhat garish dolled-up appearance (that doesn't hide her beauty, but makes you realize what's beneath the visage, both on a physical and spiritual level), we ultimately see a woman who recognizes the sad truth of her station in life - including what will, no doubt, become of her - especially if she sticks with the exploitative misogynistic Jack.
Chaplin in his familiar Tramp role displays a similar duality. He is, of course, Chaplin, the bewildered and seeming naif reacting to every conflict with a plucky determination. Sadly (and alternately funny) is the fact that he's an even bigger outsider in this world of outsiders. Chaplin is nothing short of brilliant here - rivalling the sublime qualities he brought to his Tramp role in City Lights. Moments when his character has no choice but to remove the mask of resilience are, in a word, heartbreaking.
Everyone, in the world of the Klondike seems to wear a mask. Even Big Jim, brilliantly played by the legendary Mack Swain, is at first surly, eventually acquiescent and during a bout of amnesia, desperately befuddled. And deep, deep down he possesses a heart (pun intended) of gold.
The only characters who don't have much in the way of masks (in the tradition of both melodrama and in many instances, life itself) are the villainous (vaguely concealed pimp) Jack and the utterly reprehensible Black Larsen. As played by Tom Murray, Larson's bad to the bone and his only convincing mask of benevolence (if one can call the fake visage even remotely "benevolent") is when he seeks to get something utilizing a strategy that's slightly beyond his usual bludgeon-happy manner.
These performances are great in either version of the film, but in the 1942 recut, they lose quite a bit of their impact (as do the film's stunning visuals) with the annoyingly cloying Chaplin voiceover. While Chaplin clearly laboured upon the recut prodigiously to make a better movie - extending and shortening scenes with alternate takes, his narration quashes the beauty of the pantomime and hence dilutes the story's inherent power.
Worse yet, the love story in Chaplin's preferred 1942 re-release cut is what suffers immeasurably - especially in the final reel where the mad, passionate and yes, sentimental conclusion to the romance between the tramp and Georgia is muted. The movie from 1942 feels like it ends far too abruptly and I defy anyone who chooses to watch the 1925 version first to feel likewise.
For those, like me, whose first helpings were the 1925 cut, the disappointment in the 1942 reworking is extremely palpable. The laughs are still there, but not as funny with the narration and the pure sublime sentimental dollops throughout the film and at the end are either lessened or completely eradicated. I can say quite honestly that even in blasted out 16mm dupes of dupes of dupes of the tattered, abused and forlorn 1925 version, I found myself weeping as hard as I was laughing. The 1942 cut evoked some laughter, but nary a tear was shed.
Still, what's extremely valuable are the complete restorations of BOTH versions and frankly, audiences have the most perfect opportunity to experience both of Chaplin's versions - diluted and undiluted.
Oh, and the glorious sentimentality of The Gold Rush (1925) - so simple, so pure and so lasting. Whether intentional or not, Chaplin muted sentiment in the latter version and I fear that contemporary audiences might prefer 1942's rendering since, as Brian Wilkie asserts, the narrow common definition of the word causes people "to equate sentimentality with all expressions of deep feeling . . . so that, out of an instinct for safety and a fear of ridicule", many will allow themselves "to enjoy only that . . . which is tight-lipped or ironic or in other ways hard-surfaced." In these dark days, when sentiment is embraced on emotional and intellectual levels, it's so easy for individuals to "be hurt and often alienated" when told, in effect, that their "values are meretricious."
Bring it on, I say. Embrace your meretriciousness, load up with a box of kleenex, sit back and let Chaplin's sweet, beautiful and delicate magic devour you whole.
Besides, you're only going to be considered truly meretricious by eggheads and pseuds.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of "The Gold Rush" is a must for all cineastes and certainly all Chaplin completists. Both versions are worthy of in-depth study and the cornucopia of phenomenal extra features provide considerable critical, production and restoration background. This is easily one of the best Blu-Ray discs in the format's history. As per usual, I do provide the following advice. Watch the 1925 version first (it includes a brand new recording of Chaplin's original score) and then watch the 1942 Chaplin-preferred cut. (Many great directors have fiddled with their masterpieces - Charlie's forgiven, though not for the cavalier dismissal of the original prints and elements that were, thankfully pieced together in the best possible presentation here.) After watching both versions, THEN dive into the depths of astounding extra features which will provide considerable illumination.
If you plan to purchase THE GOLD RUSH, please feel free to support the maintenance of this site, by ordering via the clickable Amazon links below: