It may have been Friday the thirteenth, but only good fortune awaited the crowd that had gathered at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion to see the legendary Charlie Chaplin in his classic 1925 silent film, “The Gold Rush.” Chaplin not only starred in the film, but directed it as well. Perhaps just as important, on this occasion, was the fact Chaplin had written the beautifully crafted musical score that was played on stage by the Houston Symphony Orchestra during this screening of the film. The conductor, Donald Hunsberger, has led silent accompaniments with more than 40 orchestras in the United States, Canada and Switzerland. Working with a large television monitor just below his podium, he skillfully directed the symphony’s sumptuous performance. The Chaplin score even included hilarious use of such classical themes as the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” and Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz.”
Before the film began, Hunsberger gave some interesting background information to the audience. He explained that in addition to his talent as a composer, Chaplin was a talented musician, (cello, violin) and had considered a concert career. The image of “the little tramp” with his tiny hat, tight jacket, baggy pants, and large shoes, is well known around the world. But it was interesting for the audience to learn that Chaplin liked to compose music for his films that would be “…elegant and romantic…” and stand in contrast to the pitiful tramp. It would be clear at this brilliant HSO performance that he had accomplished his task very well.
Hunsberger went on to describe Chaplin’s vision of the tramp as “…a gentleman, a poet, but always hopeful.” We learned that Chaplin greatly disliked the “talkies,” but loved mime, and thus, the artistry of silent films that allowed him to use his extraordinarily creative imagination. It was also interesting to be reminded that along with Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin was a founder of the United Artists film company.
Set in the prospecting areas of the Yukon Territory, the opening scenes of vast frozen wasteland are dramatic and visually stunning cinematography for the time. In our first glimpse of Chaplin he is toddling unconcerned along a narrow, treacherous, and icy ledge, on the face of a steep cliff, to the strains of “Coming Through the Rye.” The hilarious misadventures that followed had to do with his encounters with prospector, Big Jim (Mack Swain), villain, Black Larson (Tom Murray), the love interest, Georgia (Georgia Hale), and her boyfriend, Jack (Malcom Waite). It is classic “Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl.”
There are snowstorm special effects that rivaled the tornado scene in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” long before the technical advances that made “Oz” possible. Characters are literally blown in and out of the cabin doors by the force of the winds. Comic highlights include the tramps waltz with both Georgia and a dog. There was more fun when Chaplin creates a “dance” for two dinner rolls he has attached to forks. When two prospectors wrestle with a shotgun there is more hilarity as Chaplin tries to escape the ever-changing aim of the gun. A starving and snowbound Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is a chicken, and a riotous chase follows. The search for food leads to more capers as Charlie boils one of his shoes for dinner.
The strikingly beautiful Miss Hale is alternately cruel and sympathetic as the dance hall girl Charlie longs for. There are more laughs as Charlie holds up his falling britches with his cane handle while dancing with her, and then confronts her mean boyfriend, Jack. Then our hearts break when Georgia and the dance hall girls fail to show up, as promised, for Charlie’s carefully planned New Year’s Eve supper.
Another technical triumph was the scene with the tottering house on the edge of the cliff. But all ends well when Charlie helps Big Jim locate his lost gold strike, and the two sail away as millionaires on a cruise ship that, happily, has Georgia aboard. She finally realizes the kind and gentle tramp is the one for her, and their final kiss sweetly closes the film. The audience sensed the emotion. Woodlands resident and Conroe Symphony member, Andre Molnar and his wife Carol were on hand as ushers, wearing cute black “Chaplin” hats. Said Mr. Molnar, as Chaplin’s film ended: “My heart was pounding for him!”
In the outdoor pavilion, with many lucky children present, this night had the atmosphere of my childhood trips to the Drive-In movies. But I can tell you this: In the intervening years the prices at the concession stand have really changed! How about $2.50 for a very small package of potato chips? What a perfect spot for dieting! Never the less, I am already looking forward to next year’s show, and more sweet sounds from the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
(The Courier 7.22.01)
(The Villager 7.25.01)