Whenever Chaplin dances—by which I mean, whenever the scene is framed in such a way that we are permitted time to savor his movements—the hilarity is overwhelming. He was able to confer extraordinary expressiveness on gestures without undue exaggeration. It’s quite a gift.
For example, the scene where Big Jim wrestles Black Larsen for control of a rife. As the guys go about their fight without regard to him, Charlie is alarmed when he realizes the rife is pointed at him, and scurries to another part of the cabin. But the struggle continues in such a way that the barrel of the rifle follows him. Charlie scurries to another corner of the cabin, but the rifle finds him there, too. And so on: everywhere Charlie runs to avoid the barrel of the rifle, it finds him. It’s uproariously funny, but it’s also poetry, and poetry of menace. That year—1925—was also the year of Eisenstein’s Strike, The Great Gatsby, and Berg’s Wozzeck.
Much of Chaplin’s dancing takes place inside a single cabin. The set is nothing to look at—deliberately—but every element functions, i.e. contributes to gags: the doors, the stove, the table, the beds. And when he’s exhausted the possibilities of the furnishings, Chaplin tips the whole thing at a 45-degree angle. And then drops it off a cliff. It’s a masterpiece of set design, much more so than the flashy expressionist (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and deco (L’Inhumaine, Aelita) design extravaganzas from earlier in the 1920s.
The other thing that was so striking about Gold Rush was how clearly and directly every bit of narrative—every nuance—is communicated. Everything necessary for the story to unfold is presented with indelible clarity … and nothing else. None of the characters have backstories. None of that rubbish clutters the screen. The dialog consists of a few exclamations—“You brute!!!”—and doesn’t drag us down into quagmires of fake verisimilitude. According to Cocteau’s diary (April 11, 1953), “In 1935, Chaplin told me that after finishing a film he shook the tree. ‘I made everything not solidly attached to the branches fall.’”