P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
True genius transcends any limitations of form. That’s what makes it timeless. Yet Charlie Chaplin, for all his megalomaniac tendencies, failed to grasp this important point.
How else could the auteur himself take that pivotal, bittersweet scene where the popular ladies’ man allows the tragi-comic hero to believe a cryptic love-note was intended for him, and strike it from his movie? Here the complex pathos of Chaplin’s performance underscores the profound irony of how ridicule masquerading as love can somehow metamorphose into the real thing. The scene, in its narrative context, represents a delightfully subtle metaphor for the power of art and, in the end, the resilience of the human spirit. Yet in 1944 Chaplin condemned it to the cutting-room floor for a new, ‘improved’ version of his timeless classic.
It was the golden age of the ‘talkies,’ the ravages and privations of war notwithstanding, and Chaplin began to see some of the technical qualities of his silent films as rudimentary, perhaps even risible. Drastic measures might be required to preserve his legacy – and his self-respect. Thus in 1944 he took an editorial butcher’s knife to his own personal favourite, The Gold Rush, originally released in the heyday of silent film, in 1925. The sacrilege is all the more incomprehensible for having been perpetrated by the artist himself. Scenes that, to my mind, are absolutely critical to the integrity of the work were unceremoniously axed. Worse, the whole movie’s comic rhythm was compromised in a misguided effort to adapt the frame-rate to the norms of ‘modern’ filmmaking!
Cultural history is full of such puzzles. It was only a friend’s betrayal, after all, that preserved Franz Kafka’s The Trial, published posthumously in 1925. Entrusted with the task of destroying this and other unfinished manuscripts on the occasion of the author’s death, Max Brod thankfully placed his obligation to posterity before the wishes of his friend. Maybe this is why Roland Barthes famously declared the author dead. Great works have a strange way of transcending the mere mortals who created them. They do so at the very instant of their creation. It cannot be assumed that the author Chaplin is the authority on Chaplin’s work – let alone Chaplin’s family who, according to the capitalist madness of modern copyright law, continue, around a century later, to hold his oeuvre in their suffocating proprietorial grasp.
Among other things, it means The Gold Rush can only be accompanied by Chaplin’s own original score. Don’t get me wrong! The score is wonderful, and it was great to have it performed – in near perfect sync with the action – by Tromsø’s accomplished symphony orchestra, but such restrictions mean that this masterpiece of the silent era is rarely screened.
Why should Chaplin’s score be the only permissible accompaniment anyway? Like any great work, the film is a resource to be enjoyed in a rich variety of ways. Such promising raw material naturally stimulates creative play and improvisation, as well as emulation, hence its huge influence on subsequent filmmaking. Such creative ‘abuse’ can be a great way to expose the work to a broader audience, by piquing its curiosity at the prospect, let’s say, of ‘Chaplin Meets Noise Rock.’ Must we wait another century before we get to experience such exotic diversions?
There is a double pleasure at the heart of any contemporary screening of The Gold Rush. On the one hand, we see the precedents for so many filmic devices subsequently sewn into the fabric of popular culture, like the cabin excruciatingly balanced – with its initially unwitting, then terrified occupants – on the edge of a cliff. At the same time, the devices appear to us in a new light, for all their familiarity. However copied and worked over, the charm of the original renders the familiar fresh again. Its enduring quality determines that it will never become as trite and tired as many of its imitators. In other words, it does not decay into a dated curiosity, of limited historical interest. It retains its kinetic, somatic power, the kind that moves the hearts and minds of men and women. You don’t have to be a student of the history of film to be moved by The Gold Rush. It’s probably enough to be flesh and blood.
The brilliance of Chaplin as an actor is a big factor. The comic force of the famous scene where the tramp and his companion, facing starvation, sit down to dine on a leather boot, would be nothing without the absurdist panache, the sheer ironic relish, with which Chaplin goes about his task. The real synergy, and genius, however, is in the way Chaplin the director harnesses the comedic mastery of Chaplin the actor. The scene where the tramp bears witness to the struggle for control of a loaded rifle is a small masterpiece of comic choreography in and of itself. A perfectly believable struggle for the rifle miraculously keeps the weapon trained at all times on the ‘innocent bystander,’ wherever he may duck or hide.
The Gold Rush is more than comic entertainment, however. It succeeds in speaking eloquently to our own troubled times (as it surely will to others) on the themes of insecurity and alienation. Albert Camus himself could not have wished for a more eloquent evocation of the lot of the outsider than the sight of the tramp entering the scene of merriment at the town saloon. The powerful impression of his abject invisibility, as if excluded from the tumult of life by some unbreachable divide, is abruptly punctured by the unexpected attention of a beautiful woman. It’s a simple mistake, of course. She has recognised someone who happens to be standing beside him. The immediate exposure of the pathos of his hopeful error now makes the oblivion of invisibility seem like a precious refuge from the agony of public humiliation.
The work has a sort of reflexivity, which at times verges on the postmodern. By highlighting the way art and artifice – catalysed by technology – have achieved a thoroughgoing occupation of everyday life (and every human feeling it contains), it problematises the line we like to draw between the authentic and the superficial, between something genuine and mere playacting. The final scene, in this regard, is masterful.
Reflexive Chaplin gives us film within film, as the hero and heroine pose for the camera to illustrate a charming newspaper story of an unlikely rags-to-riches romance. We watch them in close-up, half in and out of the pose, as they seal with a kiss not just a media fairytale, but the ‘real’ loving union portrayed by the film. In this encounter with the technological interface, they seem startlingly contemporary. I look forward to a remake of The Gold Rush, which will conclude with the lovers posing for an awkward yet charming selfie, artlessly executed with quavering selfie-stick, for instant posting on their Facebook timelines and other social-network platforms.
Revealed in such an epoch-defying scene is an important – and timeless – truth: all human life is a performance. It’s just that some of its roles are a darn sight more appealing than others. ‘Life is a cabaret, old chum! Come to the cabaret.’ The melancholic ennui of 1944 condemned even this iconic, closing scene to the cutting-room floor. Happily, friends of posterity, the ‘Max Brods’ of this world, saw its value, as they restored each element of the near-perfect original to its proper place. So rest in peace, Charlie Chaplin! Your works are alive and kicking.