Physical Comedy and Authenticity: The Gold Rush and Greed as Major Cinematic Contributions

        All film makers have made contributions to the history of the cinema, but some stand out above the rest. Charles Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim are two of them. Chaplin brought physical comedy to the big screen while von Stroheim produced one of the longest and most enduring cinematic masterpieces of all time.

        Charlie Chaplin was born in England to music hall entertainers. He began performing as a boy on stage in various music halls, trying to help support his impoverished family. He later remarked about his family's financial difficulties, saying that he and his brother shared a pair of shoes. This prevented them from both going to stand in the food lines at the same time. Chaplin acquired acrobatic skills from his years on stage and joined "an American vaudeville tour" (Cook 173). In 1913, he was recruited by Keystone Film for $150 a week and was given the opportunity to work with Mack Sennett. In 1915, he signed on with Essanay for $1,250 a week. It was during this time that his character, "the little tramp," was virtually perfected. In 1916, he signed on with Mutual to produce twelve films. In 1917, First National hired him for $1 million. He remained with First National until 1923, when he went to work for United Artists.

        In 1925 he acted in The Gold Rush, one of the greatest "little tramp" movies. In this film, his physical comedy was presented at its best. In one of his most humorous scenes, Chaplin proceeds to cook and eat his boot out of starvation. With his knife, fork, and perfect etiquette, he extracts his shoelaces, twirling them like spaghetti on his plate. He eats his boot down to the sole while appearing perfectly content. In the scene where the house in threatening to fall off the cliff, Chaplin attempts several times to run to the stable end, but always manages to slide back down, catching himself on the floorboards of the doorway, dangling above the bottom of the cliff hundreds of feet below. His failed attempts to get it right make this scene extremely humorous.

        Around the time that Chaplin was making films for United Artists, Erich von Stroheim was filming what was originally entitled McTeague for Goldwyn Pictures. After reading the naturalist novel McTeague, von Stroheim wanted to undertake the film adaptation. It took him nine months and over half a million dollars to produce the nine-hour film. He shot on location, unlike many film makers of the time, in the California hills, San Francisco, and Death Valley. These locations gave the film its authentic feel. Though von Stroheim wrote his own script, he was noted to have remained especially true to the novels content. To preserve even more authenticity, he required that the actors all live on the sets. He presented his edited version of the film in 1924 to Samuel Goldwyn who wanted a shorter version. After von Stroheim shortened it to five hours, Goldwyn was still not pleased. Von Stroheim "shipped the film to his friend, the Metro director Rex Ingram, for further reduction." The version of the film resulting was four hours long, divided into two parts. However, Goldwyn had merged with Metro in the meantime, and Louis B. Mayer, the new "executive in charge of production," wanted the film to be even shorter. When von Stroheim complained about shortening it further, Mayer turned it over to Irvin Thalberg. McTeague was retitled Greed and was cut to "one-fourth of its original length" (Cook 196). Devastated, von Stroheim disowned the film and never saw the new version. What remains, though, is a masterpiece that explores human psychology through allegory.

        Therefore, both Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim made major contributions to the cinema. Actor and film maker Charlie Chaplin brought physical comedy and pantomime to the big screen. Von Stroheim produced a nine-hour film with an authentic quality and the amazing capability to examine human nature without sound. Both The Gold Rush and Greed will remain prominent films in the history of the cinema.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

Crystal Parrish

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