A likeable prospector in the Klondike Gold Rush attempts to survive the elements and pursue love.
Writer(s): Charles Chaplin
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Co.(s): Charles Chaplin Productions
The Story on the Screen
In the silent film The Gold Rush, the character of "The Tramp" that Charles Chaplin created for the Keystone Studios production Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) joins the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush in the form of a character named The Lone Prospector. Despite the character name, however, the film does not revolve around his actual pursuit of gold. It concerns, instead, an attempt to find and secure love—sandwiched between two episodes related to survival.
When we first meet The Lone Prospector, he has broken away from the long lines of men hiking over the Chilkoot Pass in search of riches.
When we first meet The Lone Prospector, he is hiking alone along a snowy and precarious mountain trail, having broken away from the long lines of men hiking over the Chilkoot Pass in search of riches. His attire (that of The Tramp) is completely inappropriate for the environment—baggy pants, short coat, bowler hat, and cane—and he is oblivious to a bear that follows close on his heels. Soon, however, he finds himself caught in a violent snowstorm and seeks shelter in a remote cabin occupied by a wanted criminal, Black Larsen, who tries (and fails) to throw him out. The two are soon joined by a large, burly prospector named Big Jim McKay, whose tent has dragged him away from a rich gold deposit and blown him into the cabin.
A violent snowstorm forces him to make the acquaintance of a wanted criminal, Black Larsen, and a burly prospector, Big Jim McKay.
After days without food, the three men decide that someone must brave the storm and go in search of help. Black loses a card draw to assign the task and heads out into the storm, leaving The Lone Prospector and Big Jim to fend for themselves until (if ever) he returns. They do so by cooking and eating one of The Lone Prospector's shoes, and they almost come to tragic blows when Big Jim begins to fantasize that The Lone Prospector is a large and tasty chicken. Fortunately, a bear wanders in, which The Lone Prospector shoots, providing them something to eat.
After days without food, Black goes in search of help, leading to the murder of two lawmen who are hunting him and the accidental discovery of Big Jim's gold deposit. The discovery leads to an altercation that leaves Big Jim unconscious and leads to Black's just demise.
Out in the elements, Black encounters two lawmen who are hunting for him. He shoots them both, steals their sled full of provisions, and stumbles onto the gold deposit staked by Big Jim. When Big Jim shows up shortly thereafter, having parted ways with The Lone Prospector, he is knocked out by Black, who escapes with the sled, only to meet justice at the hands of Nature herself when an ice shelf collapses beneath him and sends him plummeting to his death.
Meanwhile, The Lone Prospector arrives in a gold rush town, where he sells his prospecting tools and falls in love at first sight with a saloon girl named Gloria, who is having a spat with her boyfriend, Jack Cameron. Gloria uses The Lone Prospector to snub Jack during their tiff, and in doing so, unwittingly stokes the fires of his affections. And when a falling clock knocks out Jack during an altercation, The Lone Prospector believes he has done the deed himself, which gives him a sense of having been her hero.
The Lone Prospector makes his way to a gold rush town, where he falls in love with a saloon girl named Gloria, who feigns affection with the intention of mocking him.
Through mild cunning and pretense, The Lone Prospector secures a temporary stay in a cabin not far from the dance hall, the owner of which is a good-hearted prospector named Hank Curtis. When Hank and his partner take an excursion to their mine, they leave The Lone Prospector to look after the cabin. Soon thereafter, Gloria and the other saloon girls stumble by in the midst of a snowball fight. The Lone Prospector invites them in and offers his hospitality, and when he leaves for a moment to gather firewood, Gloria discovers under his pillow a picture of her that he found on the saloon floor the day they first met. The picture prompts her to have a bit of cruel fun at his expense, feigning affection and promising to join him, along with the other girls, for dinner and a party on New Years Eve.
When New Years Eve arrives, however, she fails to keep the appointment, having forgotten it in the revelry of the saloon—leaving The Lone Prospector alone and bereft in the cabin, which he has gone to great trouble to prepare for the party. When the clock strikes midnight, she remembers the appointment and invites the others to join her in a trip to the cabin and more cruel fun at The Lone Prospector's expense. But when they arrive, he is nowhere to be found, having gone to the saloon to find her. And when she sees the elaborate preparations he laid out in anticipation of the party, her conscience is pricked to its core and she rebuffs the advances of Jack, whose conscience is not affected in the least.
When Big Jim appears, struck by amnesia, The Lone Prospector helps him return to the cabin—which leads to his rediscovery of his gold claim.
The next day, Big Jim wanders into town, his memory failing because of the blow he sustained in his fight with Black. He knows that he has discovered gold but cannot remember where, which leaves him wandering the streets without hope. When he spots The Lone Prospector at the saloon that night, he rejoices, because The Lone Prospector can help him get back to the remote cabin and from there he can find the gold he wants to claim.
At the same time, the mistaken passing of a note of apology from Gloria enlivens The Lone Prospector with the hope that she returns his love. And when Big Jim offers to share his riches in exchange for guidance back to the cabin, The Lone Prospector jumps at the chance to see his dreams realized—with wealth and the possession of his heart's desire.
Big Jim and The Lone Prospector do find the cabin, but while they sleep inside it, a sudden windstorm blows it to the edge of a precipice and they are forced once again to tangle with matter of survival. In the end, the cabin goes over the edge but they do not, and in the process of their self-rescue, Big Jim rediscovers his great find of gold.
In the end, The Lone Prospector and Big Jim travel by ship as millionaires, where a brief encounter and case of mistaken identity lead to him winning the heart of Gloria.
A brief sequence at the end shows Big Jim and The Lone Prospector as millionaire partners boarding the first-class section a ship departing Alaska. And when a complication involving a press photographer and a brief case of mistaken identity unfolds, The Lone Prospector runs into Gloria in steerage, who mistakes him as poor and offers her help. But it is he who now in position to help her, and now that he is with her again, his joy is made complete.
Behind the Scenery
Like other silent films involving the character of The Tramp, the plot of The Gold Rush is driven by outer circumstances with which The Lone Prospector must deal rather than by an overarching specific intent on his part. Consequently, in grok terms, the film is best classified as a tale rather than a story (see "The Difference Between a Story and a Tale".) Yet each major episode in the tale is, in fact, governed by its own clear type of intent, which serves as enough of a hook to maintain the interest of the audience and elevate its scenes beyond mere things that "happen to happen."
Each major episode in The Gold Rush is governed by its own clear type of intent.
The first and third episodes involve keep intents—specifically those related to survival (keeping alive). In the first episode, they (Black, Big Jim, and The Lone Prospector) employ two different strategies: seeking outside assistance (sending Black out into storm to seek help) and being creative with the tools at their disposal (cooking and eating the shoe). In the third, they (Big Jim and The Lone Prospector) study the problem at hand (one of weights and balances) and figure out how to solve it.
The second episode, however, involves the clearest intent on the part of the main character and provides us-the-audience with a well-defined treasure (possession of Gloria's affections) and type of intent (to gain those affections). And because the goal is clear from the moment The Lone Prospector lays eyes on Gloria, we have a specific measure of progress in the movement, which allows us to easily feel its setbacks and advancements.
In this case, the main character may be reasonably defined by both his resourcefulness and good-natured honorability.
Because the overall plot is not propelled by a clear and constant intent on the part of the main character, however, we must look to his general approach for clues regarding the nature of the issue. In this case, the main character may be reasonably defined, in part, by both his resourcefulness and good-natured honorability, which the storytellers appear to admire. And because those approaches are employed in an effort to improve his position in life, he may be said to be a gain character. In which case, the proposition of the tale may be stated:
- One should attempt to employ resourcefulness and honorability when pursuing his goals, because success in the attempt will result in the victorious satisfaction that Fate awards to honorable behavior.
In the end, The Lone Prospector possesses both the wealth he set out to gain (but did not try very hard to pursue) and the love that he sought in earnest (but apparently forgot about when he became wealthy). We-the-audience are pleased with his success; therefore, The Gold Rush may be classified as a succeed/pleased tale. And because he suffers no permanent scars from his efforts, the ending may be said to be happy.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.