The Gold Rush and The General
by Karl Bowman
Rather than pacing the Blockbuster Video aisles searching for the least offensive release, delving into film history is a good way to find wholesome material and broaden our entertainment horizons. Crack open any video rental guide, go straight to the five star movies, and you may be surprised at how many great movies you have never seen. This review focuses on two gems from the pioneer days of cinema: Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film The Gold Rush and Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General.
THE GOLD RUSH
It’s 1898. The Klondike Gold Rush is on and amateur prospectors are coming to Alaska in droves for a chance to strike it rich. “Three days from anywhere,” a Lone Prospector a.k.a. the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin), makes his way into the hostile land, taking refuge in a cabin with a wanted criminal, Black Larsen (Tom Murray), and a lucky prospector, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). When the blizzards finally subside, the Tramp goes into town where he falls in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale), a beautiful dance-hall girl. She doesn’t see anything of interest in the shy prospector, but with little else than his wits, the Tramp sets out to win her heart.
The Gold Rush is one of Chaplin’s most enduring comedies, both for its scope and for its original comedy sequences. He takes his fragile Little Tramp, plants him in the most alien terrain he can find, and milks the resulting situations for all they’re worth. From the first moments, the Tramp’s trademark amble is put to good use as he teeters on icy precipices, unknowingly followed by a giant bear.
It is fascinating to watch how Chaplin uses the tiny, restricted cabin as the inspiration for complex visual gags. The intimidating Black Larsen refuses to share the cabin, but every time he opens the door to kick the Tramp out, fierce winds blow him back inside! The Tramp just shrugs as if a higher power wills that he stay in the cabin. Later, when Big Jim struggles with Larsen, they fight over a loaded rifle that constantly points straight at the Tramp no matter where he moves. A well-known sequence involves the cabin being blown halfway off the edge of a cliff during the night. When Big Jim and the Tramp awaken, they trudge through their morning rituals with no clue to the danger. Chaplin plays with our expectations as he carefully choreographs the character’s movements to balance out the cabin. But when both characters end up on the wrong side, the cabin tips dangerously and the characters just can’t figure it out! Only when the Tramp opens the wrong door do they realize the awful truth and climb all over each other (literally) to get to safety. Even with special effects that are over 75 years old, this is a convincing and thrilling sequence.
Other classic scenes derive from the characters’ lack of food. On Thanksgiving, still trapped in the cabin, the Tramp cooks up his own boot to share with Big Jim. As Jim watches in disbelief, the Tramp carefully eats the leather sole and shoelaces as if they were the finest delicacy. Days later, Big Jim begins to hallucinate, imagining the poor Tramp as a large, feathered chicken. This imagery may seem cliche, but when we realize that this could be the first time the device was used, we begin to appreciate Chaplin’s talent a little more.
Chaplin is not all about slapstick comedy, though. His jokes are always constructed around a serious social and/or emotional concern. Georgia is in a different social circle than our lowly hero and she treats him rather rudely. In a final effort to win her affection, the Tramp sets up a magnificent New Year’s Eve dinner for her and her friends (with another man’s property, of course). Georgia promises to come, but as the hour grows late, the Tramp falls asleep at the table. In his dreams, he imagines himself as a huge success with the dinner. The girls laugh, enjoy themselves, and ask him for a speech. Instead, he picks up two dinner rolls and performs a dance with them (yet another classic scene) to everyone’s delight. When the Tramp awakes, he realizes that Georgia is not, and was never, coming. With a heavy look at the table he has painstakingly prepared, Chaplin makes us feel like bawling. Just as he pushes comic gags to the extreme, he is not afraid to yank our heartstrings. This ability to swing the viewer from crazy laughter to bitter tears is another testament to Chaplin’s genius. No words are necessary.
When the Civil War breaks out, railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) hurries to enlist in order to impress his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). He is turned away because he is more useful to the South as an engineer. Of course, no one bothers to tell Johnny the reason, and Annabelle and her family consider him a disgrace. But when his train, The General, is stolen with Annabelle inside, Johnnie bravely goes behind enemy lines to rescue both of his loves.
Like The Gold Rush, this story is based on a true event. Keaton retains the basic skeleton of “The Great Locomotive Chase,” but fleshes out the story with his own brand of humor. Keaton’s trademark is his “Great Stoneface.” By maintaining a deadpan expression no matter what ludicrous events happen, we strangely identify with his character and root for his success. However blank his face, we can somehow read the exact thoughts behind his eyes and body language. For example, after Johnnie loses the respect of his sweetheart, he sits on the crossbar that runs between the large train wheels. He stares at the ground, with his hands held in his lap, a dejected man. In the background, we see the assistant engineer get in the engine and start the train. Johnnie still sits, lost in thought. The train begins to roll away, moving him up and down as the wheels turn. Still Johnny stares at the same spot on the ground. It is only when the train enters the wheelhouse that Johnny awakes from his reverie and realizes his dangerous predicament.
The General is Keaton’s most ambitious film. The majority of the film is a thrilling chase involving three real trains. In order to catch his train-nappers, Johnnie takes off in another train. Unfortunately, the car containing his Confederate comrades is not attached and he leaves the soldiers behind in his haste. By the time he realizes he is alone, it is too late. Just like Chaplin’s technique, Keaton uses the physical restrictions and dynamics of the train to inspire his comedy. Johnnie, the one-man crew, runs all over the moving train, chopping wood, feeding it into the steam engine, and driving. With amazing ease he leaps from the wood car, grabs the top of the engine, and swings himself into the cab of the engine. In a masterful use of the motion picture frame, he stands on top of the wood pile chopping wood, while a retreating Confederate Army passes in the field behind him. Then, a whole Union army passes by and Johnnie is clueless to the danger.
When Johnnie finally catches up to his enemies, he runs to the end of the train, where a huge cannon is attached. His aim is to use the cannon to force his rivals to stop. On his first try, he loads too little gunpowder and the cannonball shoots ten feet before dropping into his own train. So the next time, he loads a ridiculous amount of gunpowder into the cannon. But when he’s climbing to the next car, a rod from the cannon car snags his leg and won’t let go. To make matters worse, the train hits a bump, jarring the cannon and lowering its muzzle directly at him. He has only seconds of life left, but gets tangled in another chain! At the final moment, the track curves and the cannonball shoots right past Johnnie’s head and straight at the desired target. This is merely one highlight of the film and a example of Keaton’s careful coordination and flawless execution.
The enemies know they are being followed and they throw heavy railroad ties into his path to derail him. Johnnie gets out on the very tip of the train, hoists one of the heavy ties and uses it to knock the upcoming obstacle off the track. The enemies use obstacle after impossible obstacle to stop him, but our hero overcomes everything with extraordinary sense and sometimes plain luck. Even the fortuitous moments, like the cannon scene, are so carefully planned and executed that we are always surprised at the outcome. Rest assured, this kind of “effortless” entertainment is the hardest to put on film.
In the climactic moments of the film, one of the trains crashes through a burning bridge and plunges to the water below. This is not a miniature, but a real, working train. Now you understand why this is also Keaton’s most expensive film!
It is not easy for media junkies like ourselves to watch black and white, and in these cases silent, movies. Sometimes the camera jiggles, the editing jumps, and the lack of synchronized sound forces us to pay more attention than we are used to. The danger is to dismiss these early films as boring or unimportant. Certainly, we can’t expect The General and The Gold Rush to be as polished as the latest Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza, but by keeping our minds open, we will discover those qualities that transcend time. This is the challenge, but also the fun, of old movies. Under what we would consider primitive filmmaking conditions, these two “silent clowns” accomplished epics of incredible spectacle which still profoundly move and entertain us. The humbling realization is that even with our state-of-the-art digital effects and booming soundtracks, there will likely never be another Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.