Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush

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

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Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe in The Gold Rush (1925).

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.

This article is a selection from the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Alaska Issue

Discover the culture, history, and breathtaking geography of this far frontier and what it reveals about America in the 21st century