While the Klondike Gold Rush inspired Charlie Chaplin to write, produce, star in and edit the movie “The Gold Rush,” the fantasy film fell far short of reality.
While based on the stampede of 1898, it was filmed in California and only in suggestion told the story of the people who sought fortunes in the northern goldfields.
Nevertheless the 1925 silent film went down in history as one of the greatest ever produced. Its re-release in 1942 was nominated for Academy Awards for best music and best sound recording. It also is one of six of Chaplin’s films to be preserved by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
Let’s look first at the movie, then come back to the man and his storied but troubled life.
Photographs from the late 1890s Klondike Gold Rush caught Chaplin’s attention, making him aware that the event would interest viewers.
Also getting his attention was the tragic story of the Donner party which was caught in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Truckee. Eighty-seven people in a wagon train had set out for California in 1846 but became trapped by heavy snow and severe cold. More than half of them died during a four-month ordeal. Food supplies ran out and the hungry travelers were desperate. Some of the starving travelers resorted to boiling and eating their shoes. Some even turned to cannibalism.
Chaplin, an entertainer since childhood, saw humor behind the pathos. Instead of portraying actual conditions, he built comedy skits.
He fancied himself joining the stampede. When he and another prospector became stormbound, with supplies running short, the Tramp imagined that partner Big Jim saw him as a chicken ripe for plucking. The Tramp in turn boiled his shoe and ate it as though it were a steak. He also stuck a pair of sourdough rolls onto forks and performed a dance with them. Their cabin was shown on the edge of an abyss, teetering at a precipitous angle. Those fanciful scenes became immortal.
The 1925 movie was remade in 1942, adding sound and eliminating the jerky speeded-up viewing of the earlier version. Chaplin did the narration and inserted a musical score by Max Tarr and sound recorded by James L. Fields.
The pantomimed comedy and pratfalls of the movie entertained viewers for 95 minutes in 1925. Those who saw the new version were treated to music, steadier images, new skits and a new leading actress—all in 23 fewer minutes. The improved film was wildly successful.
Without much differentiation between versions, critics consider both movies to be classics.
Chaplin was often quoted as saying The Gold Rush was the movie for which he most wanted to be remembered.
The 1925 movie cost nearly $1 million to produce and grossed five times that much in its first year worldwide. Chaplin alone was said to have received $2 million. He was also a founder of United Artists, joining Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith in forming that movie production company in 1919. It became a lasting element in Hollywood, representing artists, producing films and handling distribution to theaters.
Although his biggest success came from movies made in Hollywood, the star was not an American citizen. Later banned from the country for his political views, he settled in Switzerland where he lived out his life. He returned, reluctantly, to accept his Academy recognition in 1972.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born April 16, 1889, in London, England.
His parents were music-hall entertainers who were minimally successful. Charles Senior sang while Hannah did some acting. She had an older son, Sydney Hill, who lived in the Chaplin home. The boys imitated their parents and found acting jobs. Charles the elder abandoned his wife and the boys. Hannah was intermittently confined to an insane asylum and twice young Charles was enrolled in schools for paupers. She was to die from the effects of syphilis and Charles Sr. died of alcoholism—neither knowing how famous their son would become.
Charles had his first acting job at 5, filling in for his mother. At 9 he joined a clog dancing group, the Eight Lancashire Lads, touring throughout England for two years. He dropped out of school at 14. Tired of dancing, he wanted to become a comedian, foreseeing a more promising career in that genre.
The youngster contacted a theatrical agency whose manager saw potential. He secured a role in a play as a newsboy. Although the show was a flop, Chaplin was praised by reviewers. He then won a role in a Sherlock Holmes play that was to tour for longer than two years. That led to other parts allowing the up and coming actor to hone his skills.
Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney also continued acting and joined the English Fred Karno comedy troupe.
Sydney arranged for Charles to get a small part. The younger brother did so well he was given a contract. That led to Karno placing him in a troupe that included Stanley Laurel and was scheduled to go on an American tour.
That tour was highly successful and, after a brief return to England, Chaplin came back to the States where he found roles in the budding movie industry. He ended up in Los Angeles under contract to filmmaker Matt Sennett’s Keystone Studio. From there his career skyrocketed. It was early in that period that The Tramp character was perfected. Chaplin was quoted as saying he wanted contrasts as part of his persona—baggy trousers and a tight jacket, a small hat and large shoes. He added a small “toothbrush” mustache to make him look older.
At the end of his contract, Chaplin asked for a salary increase to $1,000 a month.
Sennett balked and Chaplin accepted an offer of $1,250 from Essanay Motion Picture Manufacturing Co. of Chicago. His later films were released through Mutual, First National and United Artists studios. In all, he was to appear in 82 movies, mostly of one reel and all silent except for two with music and sound effects added. His last two films were released in Britain.
Chaplain became controversial after his increasingly liberal views were reflected in his films. He drew the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who accused the actor of being a communist. It was a label that Chaplain denied, saying he was actually a “peace-monger.” The House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Chaplain to appear to answer questions but was not called to testify.
That group thereafter was parodied by Chaplin.
Contrasts in his persona showed in his personal life. Beloved by fans but difficult to work with, he found it hard to be faithful to his wives. His libido was stirred by young women who wanted to appear in films.
Chaplain was married four times—always to actresses. First wife Mildred Harris was 17. They divorced in 1920 after two years. Next came Lita Grey who was 15 when they met; they married quietly in Mexico to avoid a statuary rape charge. That marriage lasted less than three years. Paulette Goddard, wife No. 3, was oldest of his brides at 22. They stayed together for six years. The fourth Mrs. Chaplin was Oona McNeill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. They married in 1943, a month after she turned 18; he was 36 years older, leading to widespread scandal. Oona was to remain with Chaplin for the rest of his life and bore eight of his 12 children. Some of his descendants still tightly control his estate with a desire to protect his—and their—rights.
The FBI charged Chaplin with four Mann Act counts in connection with an affair with actress Joan Barry, 22.
He was acquitted on the charges. However, in a paternity suit he was found by a jury to be the father of Barry’s daughter, Carol. He reportedly paid $100,000 in settlement. It was but one of many large settlements he was to pay.
In response to the negative publicity involving Chaplain, the day after departing for England aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 1952, his permission to return to the U.S. was revoked. The actor then declared his unwillingness to again live in this country and took up residence in Switzerland where he died on Christmas Day, 1977, following a series of strokes.
Chaplin was twice honored by the Motion Picture Academy. In 1929 he received an honorary award for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing, and producing The Circus” in 1929, and a second honorary award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century” in 1972. Many other awards from around the world also came his way.
Chaplin was knighted by England’s Queen Elizabeth II on March 8, 1975, two years before his death on Christmas Day in Switzerland.
His desire to be identified by contrasts reflected his life. A certified genius, he was also a philanderer and today would be called a pedophile. It is difficult to reconcile image with reality. Perhaps that would have pleased the man who found humor in despair.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.