In 1925’s The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin transforms his most famous character, the Little Tramp, into a Lone Prospector, wandering the Klondike in search of gold. In the film, Chaplin masterfully finds comedy in tragedy, starvation, and loneliness: The Little Tramp is stalked by bears, plagued by hunger, and narrowly avoids tumbling off the side of a cliff—only to find himself, in the relative safety of an Alaskan frontier town, falling head over heels for a beautiful dance hall girl who wants nothing to do with him.
The film, which Chaplin re-released with sound in 1942, features some of the most famous—and oft-parodied—images in film history: the Little Tramp eating his shoe and making bread rolls dance. After its 1925 premiere, Chaplin told the press, “This is the picture I want to be remembered by.” Here are 12 fascinating facts about The Gold Rush.
1. IT WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY THE DONNER PARTY.
The Gold Rush has some pretty dark origins. Inspiration first struck Chaplin during a morning brunch with fellow movie stars and United Artists co-founders Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. After a leisurely breakfast, Chaplin decided to look at some stereoscopic cards, and discovered a particularly striking image of a lengthy line of prospectors during the 1898 Klondike gold rush, struggling to climb the Chilkoot Pass. Later, Chaplin read a book about the Donner Party, the American pioneers who turned to cannibalism after finding themselves snowbound in Sierra Nevada. The book also described members of the Donner Party eating their own moccasins, an image Chaplin would borrow for The Gold Rush.
2. IT WAS BANNED BY THE NAZIS.
Long before Chaplin directly ridiculed Hitler and the Nazi party in The Great Dictator, he was considered an enemy of the Nazis, who believed him to be Jewish (he wasn’t, though his half brother Sydney was). In Chaplin: His Life and Art, biographer David Robinson explains:
“The Gold Rush was banned from the early years of the Third Reich, and Chaplin figured in a hideous publication attacking prominent international Jewish intellectuals. Along with Einstein, Mann, Reinhardt, and others, Chaplin’s portrait, crudely retouched to emphasize its ‘Hebraic’ features, was printed with an accompanying caption which dismissed him as ‘a little Jewish acrobat, as disgusting as he is tedious.’ Chaplin’s riposte, in The Great Dictator, was to play an overtly Jewish character, and to say, ‘I did this film for the Jews of the world.’ By this time he was adamant in his refusal ever to contradict any statement that he was a Jew. He explained to Ivor Montagu, ‘Anyone who denies this in respect of himself plays into the hands of the anti-Semites.’”
3. THE BOOT CHAPLIN ATE WAS MADE OF LICORICE.
A notorious perfectionist, Chaplin had 20 pairs of licorice boots made for the scene in which the Lone Prospector and Big Jim McKay feast on a single shoe for their Thanksgiving dinner. The scene took three full days and 63 takes to capture and, according to Robinson, caused both actors to experience some “inconvenient laxative effects.”
4. CHAPLIN HIRED 600 EXTRAS FOR THE OPENING SHOT.
For the opening shot of The Gold Rush, Chaplin decided to faithfully recreate the photo he’d seen of miners crossing the Chilkoot Pass, not with miniature models or special effects, but by hiring hundreds of extras to hike an actual path. He brought his entire crew to Mount Lincoln in Colorado, where they cut a 2300 foot path through the snow. He then, according to writer Jim Tully, hired the Southern Pacific Railway to hire 600 drifters to hike the pass. Chaplin and every other member of the crew not actively engaged in shooting the scene hiked alongside them.
5. THE HIGHEST PAID EXTRA WAS A DOG.
While most of the extras in The Gold Rush were paid a base rate of $7.50 a day, one extra made nearly five times that. The dog who drags The Tramp around in the dance hall after he mistakenly uses its leash as a belt was paid a whopping $35 a day, and was on hire from Hal Roach Studios.
6. THE NEW YEAR’S EVE DREAM SEQUENCE WAS INSPIRED BY AN INCIDENT FROM CHAPLIN’S YOUTH
The scene in which Chaplin is stood up by the dance hall girl and her friends on New Year’s Eve was, according to Robinson, inspired by an incident in Chaplin’s past. When the young Chaplin first began touring with a theater company as a young man, he “invited the members of another juvenile troupe, working another theater, to tea. The manager of the troupe would not let them go, but nobody informed Chaplin, who vainly waited for his guests.”
7. IT’S BEEN PARODIED AND REFERENCED IN MOVIES AND TV—A LOT.
Chaplin’s instantly iconic dance of bread rolls has been homaged by Johnny Depp in Benny & Joon (1993), Amy Adams in The Muppets (2011), Curly in the Three Stooges film Pardon My Scotch (1935), and even Grandpa Simpson in The Simpsons. The scene in which Chaplin is mistaken for a chicken by his starving companion, meanwhile, was lifted by animator Chuck Jones for several Looney Toons sketches. Perhaps most remarkably, however, after losing a bet to documentarian Errol Morris, director Werner Herzog recreated Chaplin’s boot-eating sequence by eating not a licorice boot, but his own leather shoe.
8. AT THE GERMAN PREMIERE, AUDIENCES CALLED FOR AN ENCORE.
Encores may be a normal occurrence at concerts, but they’re essentially unheard of during movie screenings. Nevertheless, at the Berlin premiere of The Gold Rush, audience members were so enamored with the dance of the rolls, and so vocal in their appreciation, the theater manager raced up to the projection box and replayed the scene to “tumultuous applause.”
9. IT WAS PART OF A BIZARRE BBC RADIO BROADCAST.
Berlin wasn’t the only city to give The Gold Rush a unique reception. In London, the BBC paid strange tribute to Chaplin by broadcasting audio from its premiere at the Tivoli Theater over the radio. But instead of broadcasting audio from the film itself (which was silent with live musical accompaniment), the BBC decided to broadcast the laughter of the audience during “the 10 most uproariously funny minutes of the new Charlie Chaplin film.” The BBC described the event as “a storm of uncontrolled laughter, inspired by the only man in the world who could make people laugh continually.”
10. CHAPLIN RE-RELEASED IT IN 1942.
Chaplin re-released an updated version of The Gold Rush in 1942, adding his own narration and a recorded musical score. In the updated version (which also cuts a few scenes, including the film’s final kiss), Chaplin, himself, provides not only narration, but dialogue for his characters.
11. CHAPLIN LATER PERFORMED THE BREAD ROLL DANCE FOR PABLO PICASSO.
On a visit to France in the 1950s, Chaplin visited Pablo Picasso in his art studio. The two didn’t share a common language, so instead of chatting, Picasso gave Chaplin a tour of his latest works-in-progress, while Chaplin in return performed his famous dance of the rolls for Picasso.
12. THE NEW YORK TIMES CALLED IT A “MASTERPIECE.”
In its 1925 review of The Gold Rush, The New York Times wrote, “Here is a comedy with streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness. It is the outstanding gem of all Chaplin's pictures, as it has more thought and originality than even such masterpieces of mirth as The Kid and Shoulder Arms.”