Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Alaska Issue

Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush

Two decades after the Klondike Gold Rush, Chaplin recast the hardships of prospectors as comedy

Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe in The Gold Rush (1925). (Public Domain)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

The Gold Rush was the most lavish comedy produced in the silent film era. And it was arguably the most ambitious. Restaging iconic stereoscope pictures of prospectors ascending Yukon’s steep Chilkoot Pass, its director, writer, and star Charlie Chaplin had 600 men sent by train to the Sierra Nevada to climb a snowy mountain peak. A miniature mountain range was constructed in Hollywood. 

But the film’s verisimilitude only went so far: The real gold seekers who embarked on the Klondike odyssey between 1897 and 1898 suffered hardships, from brutal cold and famine to grueling footslogs. Nonetheless, when rumors of riches in Nome surfaced, many undertook the 774-mile journey.

Chaplin plays The Lone Prospector. Wandering through the wilderness of Alaska, he shacks up with a greedy criminal and a lucky prospector to escape an Arctic blizzard. Bears, avalanches, and starvation are never far away. But true to Hollywood happy endings, Chaplin’s tramp gets the gold and the golden girl. The film premiered in 1925 at the Egyptian Theatre, owned by Sidney Grauman, who had himself trekked north in search of gold, only to come up empty.

About Sasha Ingber

Sasha Ingber is associate editor for the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly. She is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and has also written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine and NPR.

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