Written, directed by, starring: Charlie Chaplin
Rated: — (unrated)
Length: 95 min. 1925 release / 72 min. 1942 re-release
Age: 5 and up Commonsense Media sez: 8 +
Scary Factor: Little Tramp menaced periodically for comedic effect; two men struggle over a shotgun which is always pointing at the Tramp; he is also chased by starving, hallucinating miner with a gun and then an axe; cabin tipped precariously on edge of precipice; all threats are treated comically and violence is bloodless and kept at a distance
Intense Scenes: a wanted criminal shoots and kills two police officers before perishing in an avalanche
Other: a bear is shot offscreen for food; some smoking and drinking
Interests: old movies, silent movies, arctic adventure, history
Versions: restored 1925 print is 95 minutes long, with piano music and title cards; 1942 sound release is 69 minutes long, has an orchestral score, no title cards, narration written and performed by Charlie Chaplin
Next: other Chaplin – Modern Times, City Lights
See also: Top 5 Silent Movies for Preschoolers
A hapless little Tramp (Chaplin) joins the Klondike gold rush in the 1890s. During a blizzard he and two rough characters are stranded in a small cabin. Starvation looms. After cooking and eating one of the Tramp’s boots, Big Jim starts hallucinating and chases the Tramp around thinking he’s a chicken. The other man, Black Larsen, shoots two policeman and steals Big Jim’s gold, but then perishes in an avalanche. The Tramp finally makes it to a frontier town and falls in love with a dancehall girl named Georgia. The other girls laugh at him but Georgia slowly comes to admire his gentle ways. Big Jim reappears to enlist the Tramp’s help in locating his lost gold mine. After a harrowing experience in a cabin tipping precariously on the edge of a precipice, they find the gold and become millionaires. On a ship bound for home the Tramp is happily reunited with his lost Georgia.
This is a fantastic film, required viewing for anyone interested in film history. Epic in imagination and scale, and yet the action and excitement is balanced nicely with the more intimate scenes of sentiment and heartbreak. The most famous comic scenes include the cooking and eating of the boot (twirling the laces like spaghetti), the dance of the dinner rolls, and the tipping cabin. Chaplin is really at the top of his game here, every move, every nuance is absolutely perfect. Who else but Charlie Chaplin would be inspired by accounts of the Donner Party to make a comedy? (And who else but Chaplin could deliver?)
Any child who doesn’t like guns might have trouble with this movie; it’s a rough and ready frontier tale. Rifles and shotguns are everywhere, brandished and used, the worst scene being the killing of the two policeman, however it happens bloodlessly, at a distance and is not dwelt upon. The murderer is quickly dispatched by an avalanche. When Big Jim, driven crazy with hunger, hallucinates that the Tramp is a big chicken and chases him around with a gun and an axe, well, it sounds frightening but it’s actually pretty funny. You just have to get past the danger and guns and see the humour behind it all. You’ll have to be the judge of how well-equipped your child may be to do this and enjoy this movie.
History: Besides learning about silent movies and film history, the information at the start about the Klondike Gold Rush and the recreation of the famous photograph of men toiling up the Chilkoot Pass might spark further interest in this topic among school-age children.
Role-Modelling: The Tramp is gentle, thoughtful, polite and (shabbily) genteel, in direct contrast to the violent, crude, rude and selfish behaviour of the other men, and it is his gentle side that finally wins the heart of the beautiful Georgia. (Note too that Georgia is lovingly glad to see him at the end, even before she learns of his newfound wealth.)
The Versions: Warner Bros.’ “The Chaplin Collection” DVD was the one we watched, and it includes both the 1925 and 1942 versions. Cinema purists (without kids) may condemn the 1942 narration as some kind of crime against silent movies… but this release was fully supervised by Chaplin himself, who narrates with great charm and wit. (I for one loved hearing Chaplin’s voice!) The narration is not too heavy-handed either, only appearing for clarification or to provide the occasional bit of dialogue. This is the version I watched with my five-year-old and it was nice not to have to read all the title cards to her! Plus, without the visual interruptions of the cards it seemed to flow a lot better. The score is lovely too – you may recognize the Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty melody which occurs when Chaplin dances with Georgia in the saloon.
The 1925 original version is longer but not substantively different. A few minor shots run longer, scenes have an added detail or two, but the story remains the same. The biggest difference is the very last shot – viewers of the 1925 version are treated to a passionate kiss, whereas the 1942 release ends with them merely exiting frame together. At any rate, kids who can read the cards for themselves might appreciate the 1925 version as truer to the original silent movie experience (especially with the old-fashioned piano accompaniment).
DVD extras: Introduction (6 min.) gives some interesting details about Charlie Chaplin and the filming of the Gold Rush. Children will be interested in the building of a massive snowy mountain on a sweltering Hollywood backlot. The 26 minute “Chaplin Today” documentary gives even further background, with interviews.