An Examination of Congruity in "Gold Rush"

After reading several sources on the history of American cinema, I came to the conclusion that "Gold Rush" is hailed as one of Charles Chaplins best films, and even Chaplin referred to it as "the film I want to be remembered by." (Giannetti, p 88.) Having viewed the film several times, I have laughed with its humor, marvelled at its effects, felt sorry for and cheered the Tramp, and even put myself in his place for parts of the movie, understanding what the Tramp must be feeling. Despite its charm, humor, and obvious professionalism, there is one important thing lacking from the film which denies its ability to narrate any kind of story to the viewer, and that is a concrete plot. Although the movie has a beginning, middle, and end (two, actually), and even a (hidden) moral, it does not tell the audience a story; or rather, it tells the audience two stories, one inside the other, very loosely tied together by the characters which span the "sketches", or sections of the film. Instead of being his "greatest work", it comes across as being merely a collage of comical expression, and in that loses much of the power and meaning it might have had.

The film "Gold Rush" opens with the introduction of the Tramp character, and the audience quickly meets Big Jim, the prospector, and Black Larson, the outlaw. Thus, the audience is clued in to the characters which will take them through the first half of the film. The first 5 minutes of "Gold Rush" begins with the introductions of the three individual characters, and ends with their meeting and staying at Black Larson's cabin. The next 20 minutes deals exclusively with the three (and the three becoming two). The starving trio sends Larson out to find food, which he does without any inclination of going back to the Tramp and Jim, who continue to starve. They eventually find food and part company as good friends, ending the first section of the film. Once the main characters (the Tramp and Big Jim) are separated, the entire focus of the film changes, from survival to romance, as the Tramp falls in love with a dancer (Georgia) in a gold rush town. Eventually, the Tramp and Jim meet up again in the town, and the Tramp helps Jim find his lost gold mine, again spinning the focus one hundred and eighty degrees, from romance back to survival as the two get trapped in a cabin teetering dangerously over the edge of a cliff. Once the lost mine is found, the two become rich and the film makes a major jump in time and space to a boat which is where the film finishes up without any overall congruence to the rest of the film except to bring back the romance character (Georgia) and the conflict character from the gold rush town, Jack, who thinks the Tramp is a stowaway and wants to arrest him (before he is rescued by Jim and the media), while Georgia is now in love with the Tramp (for reasons unknown to the viewing audience).

The film is really two separate stories trying to be told at the same time. First the audience is shown the Tramp-Jim story (Story #1), which includes the starving trio and the eventual finding of the gold mine, and the Tramp-Georgia story (Story #2), the romance. The format of the whole film is Story 1, Story 2, Story 1, Conclusion. Each Story has its own beginning, middle, and end, and could very easily have been 2 separate shorter films by themselves had Chaplin not merged them. The fact that there are two definite stories being told, not in sequence but inside one another, leads to confusion by the viewing audience. First they are fearing for the Tramp's life, then they're feeling sorry for him, then fearing for his life, and finally, in the Conclusion, they are fearing for him again (not whether he will live or die, but whether he will be rescued or thrown in jail). This is merely the first cause of audience confusion. The second cause is the humor which is constantly thrown in, no matter what the audience should be feeling. We are afraid that the Tramp might fall with the house off the cliff, but we are too busy laughing at his attempts to escape to worry too strongly about his predicament. The audience is forced to forget about the Tramp's plight, and find his immediate demise humorous, completely contrary to the audience's common sense. The third source of confusion is the jump from story to story. The audience is totally immersed in Big Jim and the Tramp until they part ways. Immediately, the audience must forget Jim and Black Lawrence and concentrate on Jack and Georgia and the new story unfurling. For all the audience knows, they'll never see Big Jim again - the Tramp and the snow are the only things which tie the two stories together. When Jim is introduced into the middle of Story 2, the audience loses its focus on Story 2, wondering what new events will take place concerning Jim. At the end of Story 2, when the Tramp and Jim go off to find the lost mine, the audience jumps back into the ending of Story 1 (although not completely unprepared due to the reintroduction of Big Jim). Finally, in the Conclusion, the two stories are merged completely when the Tramp meets Georgia and Jack again, and the audience is left with many questions, not only concerning what will happen to the now rich Tramp, but concerning Georgia and Jack - why are they on the ship, where are they going, what has caused Georgia to change her mind about the Tramp? Too much is left out for the audience to feel confident in following the story, so instead they just wait for the next gag.

Because of the lack of congruence between the two stories, and because of the actuality of there being two separate stories, the audience cannot completely comprehend what the film is trying to say because they cannot completely follow the film. The film is really telling two stories, but it's trying to tell them as one longer story - that of the Tramp exclusively. If the Tramp's story (or stories) was completely unrelated to the other characters, it would be easier to view the film as one long narrative. But the extra characters (with the exception of Black Lawrence, who is completely unnecessary in the film) become part of the story the audience is watching. When the characters are swapped so blatantly, the continuity of the story is broken. When it is done many times, as during "Gold Rush", the narrative is hopelessly separated between the two stories. The narrative has been replaced by two separate narratives, loosely brought together in the very end of the film. The confusion that the film creates distracts the audience from seeing deeper into the film than just what's on the surface - the Tramp's comedy, Black Larson's malice, Big Jim's friendliness, Georgia's beauty. Whatever meaning the director intended is lost to the audience - as they try to follow the story from jump to jump, they don't have time to comprehend the deeper meaning behind the images they're seeing. The comedy of the film also blocks a more thorough understanding of it. The humor of watching the barrel of the rifle follow the Tramp all around the cabin as Jim and Larson struggle overshadows a message of the danger of human conflict and its effect on innocents (the Tramp in the aforementioned scene). Chaplin is trying to evoke two different emotions with his comic scenes - humor and understanding - but the lasting effect is the humor - the more positive sensation, that which the audience wants to remember. Chaplin's underlying theme gets lost behind his comedy, except to those who are deliberately looking behind the comedy, which, at least in today's society, is a tiny minority of the movie viewing audience.

"Gold Rush" is indeed a funny movie, which is probably largely the factor that makes it such a popular movie. But that comedy that makes it fun to watch also masks the points that Chaplin was trying to make with the film. His scenes describing the problems of human conflict or suffering are invariably infused with slapstick, forcing the audience to read much deeper into the scene to discern the message behind the scene. Making it even more difficult to decipher is the complexness in which Chaplin directs and edits the film, with its multiple concurrent narratives, jumping back and forth between them, the many layers of meaning - the surface, where Black Larson is an evil outlaw, and the understanding, or what Larson represents in society - and the multiple emotions that a scene can elicit from an audience. Because of this complexness, Chaplin loses the true meaning of the film as social commentary, and instead it becomes a funny movie to watch. Chaplin's social efforts are disguised by his cinematic style, making his "greatest work" merely a slapstick comedy for most of his audiences.


Giannetti, Louis. Masters of the American Cinema, Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 1981.

Tyler Jones, September 19, 1993