In 1922, after eight years of playing his baggy trousered tramp, Charlie Chaplin declared his vagabond days were over. He embarked upon A Woman Of Paris (1923) with the aim of becoming a great artist. But that lachrymose melodrama was a critical and commercial flop and Chaplin was forced to swallow his pretensions and throw himself into this knockabout comeback, which, ironically, was to prove his mastery of screen poetry.
Initial inspiration for this movie came from two sources: a series of stereoscopic slides, belonging to Douglas Fairbanks, depicting an 1898 Klondike stampede and a graphic account of the infamous Donner expedition, which had ultimately succumbed to cannibalism. Yet there are countless autobiographical references throughout the film (Chaplin's schizophrenic mother, for example, had been a dancing girl), while others relate to his experience in music-hall (including the opening pursuit by a bear, which hailed from traditional English panto).
But there were also significant cinematic influences. In particular, Chaplin was impressed by the comedy of thrills Harold Lloyd had patented while hanging from the hands of a tower clock in Safety Last (1923). So he devised the shack teetering on the precipice edge, which dipped further towards oblivion each time the Little Fellow or fellow prospector, Big Jim McKay, made a sudden movement. If anything, this is more comedy of suspense than heartstopping thrills, as the building see-saws so often that its fate becomes less important than how long Chaplin can sustain the gag and keep it funny.
The illusion was slightly marred, however, by the fact that Chaplin relied on models rather than stunts to achieve his effect. But it had a more obviously human touch than Lloyd's brash daredevilry, as Chaplin initially thinks the lurching is down to his hangover.
With its location naturalism, Erich Von Stroheim's Greed (1924) also left an impression, as Chaplin took his company into the Sierra Nevada to shoot snowscapes. Some 500 hobos were hired to give the trek a sense of scale. But only a handful of location shots found their way into the finished film.
As with many of Chaplin's later films, the comedy is unashamedly worldly. The primary themes are cruelty, avarice, madness and the vagaries of fate, so it's inevitable that the Tramp should seem less frivolous than before. Indeed, he appeared to be openly inviting our pity where once he'd have encouraged us to laugh. Yet, when one considers the circumstances under which the film was made, it's a wonder there's any humour here at all.
The part of Georgia, the dance-hall girl who steals the Tramp's heart, was originally conceived for Lita Grey. However, the teenage protege had to be replaced after Chaplin got her pregnant and she insisted on marriage. It's easy to detect resentment, therefore, in the picture's attitude to the character now played by Georgia Hale.
In the 1942 reissue (to which Chaplin made several adroit alterations and appended a score and a commentary), it's implied Georgia has genuine feelings for the Little Fellow. But this is a bitterly ironic happy ending, as there's no guarantee that the gold-digger who toyed with Chaplin's affections in a bid to enrage a scornful beau has changed one iota.
Although the film predates the Depression, Chaplin never forgot the misery of poverty and frequently used it as a basis for comedy. Melancholy pervades the movie. Yet it also contains some of the best-known set-pieces of Chaplin's whole career. Nearly all of them revolve around hunger.
Most famously, the Tramp boils his boot only to lose the topside to the aptly named Big Jim, leaving him to feast on the laces and the hobnails. The succulence he suggests at each mouthful is pure pantomimic pathos. Yet, the episode proved less enjoyable for Mack Swain, as Chaplin insisted on so many takes that the laxative qualities of the liquorice leather had a devastating effect.
Days later, the still-ravenous Jirr hallucinates that his companion is a giant chicken and chases him around the shack — with Chaplin meticulously miming each barnyard jerk. This scene also includes one of the film's few all-out slapstick moments, as Charlie and Jim jostle for the gun and the axe. Another was a reworking of an incident in A Dog's Life (1918), when Charlie uses a rope to hold up his trousers, only to discover it's attached to a moggy-chasing mutt who hurtles him to the floor. Finally, while waiting patiently for his New Year party guests, Charlie imagines passing an idyllic evening with his beloved, for whom he performs the "dance of the rolls" —with his head bobbing ingratiatingly behind two fork legs with their little bread shoes. It's a sublime routine that deserved more than Johnny Depp's cringingly twee reprise in Benny And Joon.