The Gold Rush (1925)—First We Recognized Love

I am writing about movies of the 20th century. But I feel as though Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent movie The Gold Rush offers a glimpse just as much into the 19th century. People living harder lives much nearer to the start of the 20th century, and nearer to the knowledge or the fear of privation, had senses of humor that do not entirely translate, seemingly because the sense of humor was harder as well. The movie’s setting and context are themselves from the 19th century, the Canadian Yukon gold rush of 1896 to 1899, an event to which many of the viewers of this film would have been contemporaries. And while the comedy in this ostensibly light-hearted movie is heavy with sadness, a Chaplin signature, the comedy also is sometimes harrowing. One of the comedic scenes is founded on starvation.

Chaplin as the Little Prospector and his companion Big Jim (Mack Swain) are snowbound in a remote cabin by a Yukon blizzard. As days pass without food, Chaplin turns to cooking and serving his footwear while Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is a chicken. The repetition of these images by cartoons of later decades has turned them into tropes, but consider that this humor, when it debuted, could only work for an audience well-enough acquainted with severe hunger to be able to relate to these strange ideas and laugh at them.

Humor elsewhere in the movie is based in cruel mockery. In multiple scenes, groups encountering the Little Prospector suggest, “Let’s have some fun with him.” The audience is invited to laugh at the taunting and trickery toward the movie’s protagonist.

For Chaplin’s character, there is no besting of his tormentors. Nor is there any show of pain on the part of the hero to draw out sympathy from the audience. The only inner life we are allowed to see is his love for the character Georgia (Georgia Hale), whom he encounters as a dance hall girl. He keeps a photograph of her under his pillow. He accepts her as a party to some of the mockery directed to him in order to have her near.

Georgia intercedes for
the Little Prospector
Victory in this movie does not consist of a defeat of mockers. The Little Prospector and Big Jim become wealthy at the end of the movie with their discovery of gold, but we do not see any of the Chaplin character’s tormentors witness his having become rich. Victory instead is Georgia making clear she at last loves him through a selfless act. Discovering they are traveling on a ship together bound to the United States, she mistakes the Little Prospector for a stowaway and moves to protect him from the ship’s crew, discovering only later he is wealthy, and a luxury passenger.

Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which seeks to discover why violence has declined so dramatically only in recent human history, describes the relatively recent development of a widespread appreciation for the inner lives of others. He credits this in part to the invention and spread of printing, which enabled the spread of literacy, which enabled the spread of essays and novels allowing people to cultivate the habit (which we forget is a habit needing cultivation) of seeing the world through others’ points of view. Proceeding slowly, this line of development would not have been far along at the beginning of the 20th century, and the invention of cinema would serve to hasten it. Thus, the humor of this early movie seems to have been designed to entertain a more callous audience, and yet it has had a lasting impact, an impact transcending its time, perhaps because of the way the object of callousness is the very hero of the story the audience is invited to revel in and follow.

And we see this character fall in love. If I am correct in borrowing Pinker’s view to theorize that the movie audience of nearly 100 years ago was harder and hasher to some extent, and less inclined to imagine the inner life of another, then that theory reaches its limit when it comes to the romantic yearning of this character. The story takes it for granted that the audience could fully recognize and appreciate this silent movie’s portrayal of the intensity of meeting, falling for, becoming captived by, and pining after an object of one’s heart.

In other words, the movie seems to expect the audience will be cavalier and unsympathetic to the Little Prospector as the victim of suffering and torment, but it also seems to expect the audience will recognize and fully appreciate the experience of falling deeply in love.

In this contrast, is there any sense of a trade having been made?

I don’t know that the following is true, but I feel that less of our art and fewer of the products of our popular culture today are about falling in love and experiencing romantic love. If I looked at the top of the pop music charts from a given week in the 1950s or 60s compared to a week within the current decade, wouldn’t I find that this topic—the strange but common fact that people find themselves falling in love—is less a focus of our art now than it was in the past? (Superficially at least, the answer seems to be yes, based on an internet search of pop music charts and what I able to infer from the titles of songs I don’t recognize.) And if indeed our culture has come to this—valuing one another more but being moved by romantic love less—then likely there is some cord of explanation that connects the one development to the other.

Perhaps it is this: If we are more safe now from material need, and if we are more safe now from the psychic trauma of mockery, could it be that the desire is quieted that might otherwise pine more ardently for a soulmate?

I live in the most fortunate part of the world. That is, I live in the modern world that is experiencing the most gentle times there have ever been. In this world, have we been spared the blows that would otherwise soften our hearts into crying out their deepest yearnings?