Desperate Elegance: Old Black-and-White Films: The Gold Rush, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, and The Artist

By Daniel Garrett

The Gold Rush, Director Charles Chaplin; Original Silent Film 1925; Revised, with sound 1942, Janus Films

Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, Director Christopher Munch, Artistic License Films, IFC, 1996

The Artist, Director, Michael Hazanavicius, The Weinstein Company, 2011

Imagination can be wedded to ideas, and the proof can be seen in work that has become part of our traditions of art. Tradition is not always known or respected, and it takes time to learn its value for knowledge and pleasure, or to accept that if we ignore the accomplishments of the past the things that we do are as likely to be forgotten by those who come after us. Ignorance itself can become a tradition; however, becoming acquainted with great black-and-white films is one antidote. Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1942) is a narrated black-and-white film about a solitary man in a competitive society amid an indifferent nature (ice and snow, and a bear), a film focused on Chaplin’s great character the little fellow, also known as the little tramp. With thick curly hair above his large head, the little tramp is oddly attractive in his tattered clothes, with his white shirt and stringy tie. The Gold Rush has clear imagery, great sets, beautifully dramatic music, sublime natural coincidences and gritty social facts. The story is centered on the search for gold in Alaska, the great brave American quest for fortune, and the brutal struggle of each against all, with a few collaborations and truces: those are the assumptions of the facts of life that deepen the film’s appeal. The prevalence of violence is not ignored. Chaplin’s work has its ideals but it is not shallowly sentimental.

In Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, his little fellow’s casual theft of others’ food and drink and his manipulation of them are part of his survival. He is not the only person in need, and shares a hungry Thanksgiving day with a fat man, Big Jim, in an ramshackle cabin in the snow, and for dinner is a boiled leather shoe, which the large man gets most of, before beginning to imagine the little tramp as a large bird, a chicken. The hallucination, suggesting a desperately instinctive cannibalism, is genius, really showing how circumstances change men’s minds. One brutal man, Black Larsen, falls to his death when caught in an ice break, one of several instances when the film viewer can see a morality of consequences. When the little tramp and the cabin dweller Big Jim wake to find there has been a high wind and snow drift, and the cabin teeters at the edge of a cliff, a comedy of danger and foolishness is created. Often the imagery in the film suggests basic human awkwardness, the precarious nature of existence (pratfalls are awkwardness given form). Later the little tramp sees a woman working in a dance hall, Georgia, and he becomes infatuated, but seeing how shabby he looks, she uses him to insult another man, by dancing with the poor man. The other man, stout and proud and resentful, tries to intimidate the little guy and a large clock falls on the bully. Eventually, the little tramps works clearing snow to earn enough money to get a decent holiday dinner for himself and the dance hall woman, Georgia, but when New Year’s Eve comes around he is alone, and he dreams of her visit (he creates a charming dance of bread rolls to amuse her and her friends); but, waking alone and disappointed, he goes out and, thus, when she does visit he is out. They meet again after the little fellow and his new partner find gold, become rich men, and take a ship; and the ending is happy, with genuine affection, as the girl offers to pay the little fellow’s fare when she thinks he has no money, a quite happy ending.

Some films are like dreams or secrets, complex, delightful, strange, and revealing; and one inclination is simply to savor them in silence and another inclination is to share them with those you feel close to: and, the black-and-white sound film Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is like that, a dream, a secret, original, gorgeous, and wise. It focuses on a beautiful, shy young man obsessed with trains, the half-Chinese John, played by Peter Alexander, and whom through dedication, persuasion, and a short-lived loan takes possession of a train station and train in America’s Yosemite park, where he meets an old man who shared the same craze, the longtime station manager played by Henry Gibson, a dedicated train clerk, conductor, and meets the younger assistant station manager capably played by singer-songwriter Michael Stipe, and a Native American park guide and teacher, played by Jeri Arredondo. Peter Alexander’s John is very attractive, really boyish, charming, sweet, and that lends some of his relationships ambiguity and possibility, even dangerously so: watching him, it is not clear whether his relationship with his sister is too close, or whether the affection the young male station clerk has for him will sprout into an erotic affair, as does John’s relation with the female Native American park guide. This intriguing and satisfying black-and-white film, full of natural splendor and sound, also touches on the history of Chinese immigration and how Chinese laborers were used to help build the rail lines extending the western part of the country to the east—and then how railroads became essential and then much less necessary. John works hard to bring the rail station back to operation, but that is difficult; and observing his experience, we can see the importance of personal dedication and the limits of it.

Michael Hazanavicius’s well-received silent film The Artist (2011), the French film made in America, and focused on the transition in Hollywood films from silent films to talking pictures, is a story of art, personal integrity, business imperatives, and the possibility of creative collaboration and generous love. A great silent film star—confident, handsome, mature, sensitive—meets a vivacious and pretty young woman, whose charisma is rooted in energy and joy and who becomes first an extra on a cinema project, charming him, and then becomes a very popular star in the new sound era; meanwhile, as the established male actor has much pride in his silent film work and is skeptical of talking pictures, his career and marriage begin to fail. He finds himself in great despair; and in his life we can see how changes occur, how someone looks when he is at the top and also at the bottom and what goes on beneath the surfaces: there is a scene in which the troubled present and the gloried past come together—when the faded, shabbily dressed man walks to a clothing store window and looks at a tuxedo, and in the glass’s reflection his face rises above the tux’s collar as if he wearing it. The male film artist, in his small apartment, tries to destroy his now disrespected work in a rage, injures himself, and is cared for by the rising woman star as both a man and a creative person: she really does respect his accomplishment, and feels connected to it, and they find a way of working together. The film’s scenario has traces of A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. The story has a fairy-tale quality, but there is no need to condescend to it, as the drama—the story and acting and the cinematography with which they are presented—is smoothly, even unexpectedly, seductive. It’s nice to be reminded that black-and-white film is not dead, only slumbering.

Great art endures, even when its medium is ephemeral: The 1925 original of Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is a silent black-and-white film, and was popular, and its revision in 1942, in which Chaplin made changes, was a cultural event—and Chaplin allowed the original to move beyond care and favor, but that silent version was reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in the early 1990s. The beauty of black-and-white films can be bleak or bold—see Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, as well as Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day and The Artist—and evidence that an invention or technique does not have to be new to be exciting. Of course, Charlie Chaplin was a truly distinguished artist. It is fascinating that Chaplin rose in the world’s awareness by playing a downtrodden man, a lone, poor, wandering man; and in his dramatic comedy The Gold Rush, he is a man in a mismatched suit, with a bundled right foot, cane, backpack, and frying pan, a man without a home, a prospector looking for gold in a snowy land. The original silent film, as restored, has a music score of classical and popular references and note cards or inter-titles, but without the spoken narration of 1942 the images seem to enter the eyes and the mind more deeply, more easily; and the film can be seen as one of struggle, mockery, friendship, love, and success. It is terrible to be poor alone, but worse to share poverty: the anger and frustration lead to cruelty, and here there is violence, men struggling over a gun, and, subsequently, one man bluntly considering cannibalism. The lighter, though still melancholy moments have the wandering little fellow admiring a dance hall girl, and when she dances with him, another poor man is impressed (especially as the dancing girls might be available for a price, something not made explicit, though, of course, the little fellow has no money or mind to pay). The little fellow’s beltless falling pants form a reinscription of his poverty, as poverty perpetually reveals itself in look and sound and hindrances; and his keeping his pants up with his cane and a dog’s leash is the ingenuity of need. The dance hall girl’s decision’s to visit the little fellow in his shared cabin was still part of her making fun of him, rather than an intended friendship—and it is seeing his solitary, warm New Year’s Eve preparations that soften her. (Why is it amusing to be cruel? Is that a way of feeling strong, for no good reason: strong in relation to someone we do not care about, as opposed to our inability to be strong regarding someone or something that we actually care about?) The film’s holiday commemoration has a communal singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” and that has surprising effect, as the acting—the looks of consideration and regret—of the crowd is good, as the acting throughout the film is good, especially from Chaplin, an entertainer and artist who could be talent, tenderfoot, torrid lover, and totem. The homeless man is a symbol of twentieth-century culture, alone among millions, poor among riches, the state from which one rises, the state to which one falls, the past and the future.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics