The following is Jim Tully’s first-hand account of the filming of the opening scenes of The Gold Rush on Donner Summit near Truckee, CA, early 1924:
As we left the train a great shout of “He’s here–he’s here!” echoed over the snow-white country. It was from Chaplin’s lieutenant, Edward Sutherland, and members of the company who had blazed the trail for the general. The same shout was always given when Chaplin arrived at the studio.
Summit consisted of a general store and a pine hotel perched on a mountainside. Weary of the day, we walked toward the hotel.
Boxes filled with sawdust served as spittoons in the roughly furnished lobby. A battered registry book was open on a garishly painted red desk.
We waited about it until Chaplin had written his heavy signature. We then wrote our names. Teamsters, carpenters, and other men loitered in the lobby. They gazed in awe at Chaplin. As he walked past them in a narrow hallway several men said, “Hello, Charlie!”
He answered “Hello!” cheerily.
The preparation for the trek over Chilkoot Pass had been a long and arduous task. So loyal and efficient were Chaplin’s assistants that upon his arrival every detail had been carried out. He was up at five the next morning, going over plans with Eddie Sutherland, his assistant, and [Chuck] Reisner, his chief gag-man.
At seven that morning the army of hoboes arrived.
As the disheveled 500 vagabonds left the train they marched in a body to the front of the hotel and shouted, “Hurrah for Charlie!” The world’s greatest screen artist listened with a wry smile.
|Chaplin (in middle with back to the camera) with the hobo extras. Lita Grey is at left.|
Sutherland and Reisner were outdoors marshaling the army of nondescripts. The pass headquarters was three miles away, in a white basin of land surrounded by pine-covered mountains. The road was full of drifted snow.
As we emerged from the hotel with Chaplin, dressed in baggy trousers, wearing the derby and holding his cane, another mighty shout went up from the assembled vagabonds, who stood as if at attention. I hurried with Chaplin into a waiting sleigh. The horses dashed through the cold air. Chaplin held his hand to his derby, the men shouting the while, “Hey, Charlie boy!” Hurrah for Charlie–he’s our kind–hurrah–hooray!” Cold, benumbed fingers lifted greasy caps and hats as the horses dashed onward by them.
“Isn’t it great, Charlie–those men love and understand you–hear them cheer!” I said.
As the men marched single file after the sleigh, they resembled a long black string across a white earth. We soon lost sight of them.
|Chaplin is in the middle between Lita Grey and Eddie Sutherland (in black hat).
Jim Tully is on right (in white shirt).
Cameras turned upon the marching men as they drew near the pass headquarters. Feeling a communion with Chaplin, like boys at a picnic, the weary trudgers enjoyed it all. Their gay and life-streaked faces showed it.
The comedian’s energy was indefatigable. He hurried about giving orders through a large megaphone. Chaplin wanted to make his opening shots of this picture “the greatest ever made.” Teams, wagons, sleighs, hauling supplies, came endlessly from Summit.
Within two hours the first march over Chilkoot Pass was started. One by one the men trudged through a narrow pass between two mountains, nearly two miles long. Far up, men scaled the pass. Down below, men clambered upward with lust for the gold which lay beyond.
Chaplin’s original idea for “The Gold Rush” was ironical. The end finally chosen came only after many, many changes, until Charlie had what he felt he had been seeking.
The working hours passed swiftly and were generally pleasant. Chaplin’s energy seemed inexhaustible.
The terrible glare of the sun on snow nearly blinded us at times. It made our skin turn red and blister and caused our eyes to burn through the night.
|Chaplin wears sunglasses to shield his eyes from the blinding snow.|
Time after time hundreds of men walked by the camera uncomplainingly as ghosts and as heavily laden as army mules. Blankets and other paraphernalia of miners were strung across their backs. Chaplin, during this sequence, was one of the men. He would direct it until it came time for him to join the march. He would then hand his megaphone to his assistant director, Edward Sutherland, adjust his battered derby, and fall in line.
As he stepped along with the army of vagabonds, his face slowly and miraculously took on a sad and sadder expression, until, as he neared the cameras, you saw a broken explorer in a lonely moment, worn and heartsick, and trudging onward to a very uncertain destiny. He was able to interpret perfectly his companions’ sufferings on his mobile face. I stood near a cameraman who had photographed the comedian for seven years [Rollie Totheroh]. He sighed as he looked at Chaplin’s face and turned the camera.
Here, indeed, was the man Chaplin great. Here he made you forget all his superficialities and all his sad futilities. He was now a troubadour, two skillets rattling on his back, his derby hat near to falling off, his mouth in little puckers of agony, and his eyes too brave to cry.
You wanted to laugh at his grotesque make-up. But his face kept you from it. He looked about dismally at his companions, who staggered onwards heads down, backs hunched, as if to better bear their loads. On and on they walked, leaning forward like men going up a steep hill. These 500 hoboes–social rebels hating all established order–were now as docile as lambs.
The cameras turned in a steady, monotonous rhythm. Voices yelled to the men “Don’t look at the cameras–keep goin’ on–if you look up at all–look at the narrow pass–pay no attention to Charlie at all–he’s just one of you–don’t even look at him–it’ll spoil the continuity of the action.” Sutherland, the assistant, could be heard now above everything else.
“Come on, men–a little slower–you’re a little more tired–it’s been a long walk, you know–but you’ve got to go on–you’ve got to make the pass before night–your feet are heavy–but you’re game–slow up slowly–so it isn’t too perceptible on the screen.”
As Chaplin reached the headquarters he looked up and beheld his leading lady [then Lita Grey]. Clad in a fur coat, beautiful in contrast to her rough surroundings, she walked straight into the derbied vagabond’s heart. Words were not needed–here was a life-and beauty-starved man. It was all written on his face as he looked at the girl. But as a sore-footed soldier might look at a rose while marching to battle, he dare not stop.
Then came the villain and the mechanics of the screen. Chaplin became the tawdry hero and lost the poignancy of the situation.
At least twenty times the men marched past the cameras. Chaplin alternately watching and walking with them. At last the effect was what he thought he desired. The men rested. In an hour they did it all over again. (Tully, “The Real Life-Story of Charlie Chaplin,” Pictorial Review, March 1927)