I told Katy it was more a string of comic episodes than a consistent story, but I badly misremembered. Very consistent indeed… almost too consistent, with some mopey bits and plot necessities dragging down the comic momentum. But Chaplin’s goal was presumably not to make just the funniest film, but something both funny and true.
From A. Vanneman’s terrific Chaplin articles in Bright Lights:
Charlie has three big men to contend with in The Gold Rush, Tom Murray as “Black Larsen,” Mack Swain as “Big Jim,” and Malcolm Waite as “Jack Cameron.” Wolf Larsen scarcely has a personality. He is merely a symbol of the savagery of nature. He murders two Mounties and leaves Big Jim for dead, before Nature herself, reclaiming her own, sends him plunging to his death in an avalanche.
Big Jim is Chaplin’s partner/rival searching for gold. They don’t do much searching, really, just hide out in murderer Larsen’s cabin attempting to keep peace and stay alive through the cold and hunger. Among the danger and misery we get Chaplin turning into a chicken, a cooked and eaten shoe and the famous cabin-on-edge-of-cliff number. Big Jim found plenty of gold at the start of the film but can’t get back to it, and when he does Larsen clubs him (amnesia!) before heading for death by avalanche. Jim, dazed, wanders towards town and isn’t seen for 45 minutes.
Charlie takes the second half with a love story, pining for Georgia Hale who makes fun of him, then feels sorry for him, and finally decides she loves him moments before Charlie reveals he’s become a millionaire by helping Big Jim re-find his gold. Not quite a City Lights ending but it’ll do.
“Oh, you’ve spoilt the picture,” exclaims the cameraman when Charlie and Georgia kiss, an inside joke based on the cliché that in Chaplin’s pictures he never got the girl. When Chaplin re-released The Gold Rush with a soundtrack in 1942, he cut out the kissing scene for some reason, although it’s still clear that Charlie and Georgia are going to get married.
Second time I’ve avoided the re-release, which is shorter and supposedly has Chaplin’s bemused voice narrating instead of the intertitles. Sounds ghastly, but maybe I’ll be on a Chaplin completist kick one day and check it out.