If you have seen only a few silent film classic comedies, chances are you still might remember the Little Tramp eating his shoe (actually made out of licorice), and turning into a chicken in the mind of a starving Big Jim McKay played by Mack Swain. Then there was the famous dance of the dinner rolls after falling in love with the dance hall girl. These are three of the many memorable scenes in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film “The Gold Rush.”
Chaplin was inspired by the stories of the Donner Party and their fame as occasional cannibals, and by photographs of the Klondike gold strike. He saw stereoscopic pictures of the Donner Party, Donner summit and the Klondike while visiting Douglas Fairbanks and Mark Pickford for lunch. They were three of the four members of United Artists and hadn’t see each other in awhile. He became fascinated by the suffering of the gold prospectors and this interest lies behind the plot he created.
“The Gold Rush,” (1925) was one of Chaplin’s most successful films and by many is considered his greatest full-blown masterpiece. But Donner did not just serve as an inspiration, but the legend or reality of cannibalism and Klondike snow actually brought him back to film in Norden/Soda Springs, near Truckee in the winter in the deep snow. It physically was a challenging shoot and was also touched by scandal when he married Lita Grey who had been slated to play the female lead. The scandal was her age. But we are jumping ahead of the story.
After developing the comic routines and ideas, Chaplin says in his autobiography he actually started filming without a finished script ( or scenario.) In February 1924, he and technicians and friends including Cinematographer Rollie Totherow, Chuck Riesner (set designer), and Charles D. Hall visited Truckee and more specifically the areas about 7 to 9 miles west.. It was bitterly cold but Chaplin vowed to return in April. With an average snowfall of over 30 feet, he knew there would still be snow by then. They were to use the Summit Hotel for their basecamp
After shooting several scenes back at the studio, and hiring Lita Grey as the female star they returned to the area today near Soda Springs. Lita’s name was Lilitta MacMurray and was already familiar with Chaplin because she had a role in “The Kid” as the “Age of Innocence” girl. (There’s irony there someplace.) When she saw and ad that Chaplin was going to be filming a “Klondike” story, she applied. He immediately recognized her, and even though she was only fifteen years and nine months, was clearly attracted to her. No one around him was impressed with her looks or ability but by March 2 she had a contract and her name was changed to Lita Grey.
When the cast and crew arrived at Donner Summit, the next day they were ready to film because of the pre-production that had been accomplished. Later one of Chapin’s closest allies remembered that at the Summit Hotel Charlie’s room was between Lita’s and her mother’s. Before the movie team had arrived, there had been a blizzard. A construction gang from Sacramento was brought in to create a nine mile trail through dense woods and snow drifts to the railroad line. The conditions did not add to the mood the star was in.
That first day was the scene of the prospectors climbing the Chilikoot Pass, an image that Chaplin carried with him from those stereoscopic views. Jim Tully wrote a somewhat exaggerated view of the building of the trail the prospectors were to use. It was a 2300 foot creation with a 1000 foot ascent, all at 9850 foot elevation. Tully continues, “To reach this spot, trail was broken through big trees and deep snows, a distance of nine miles from the railroad, and all paraphernalia was hauled through the immense fir forest. There a construction camp was laid for the building of the pioneer’s city.” Chaplin biographer David Robinson (“Charlie Chaplin: His Life and Times”) continues quoting Tully, “To make possible the cutting out of the pass, a club of young men, professional ski-jumpers, were employed to dig steps in the frozen snows, at the topmost point, as the pass is perpendicular and the ascent was made only after enormous effort.”
After building this set and trail, the company asked Southern Pacific Railroad to bring in 2500 men for the action. So they got as many of the derelicts as they could from Sacramento. Tully remarked, “A more rugged and picturesque gathering of men could hardly be imagined. They arrived at the improvised scene of Chilkoot Pass in special trains; and, what is more, special trains of dining cars went ahead of them….”
He continues, “They trudged through the heavy snows of the narrow pass as if gold were actually to be their reward, and not just a day’s pay. To them what mattered [was]: they were to be seen in a picture with Chaplin, the mightiest migrant of them all. It would be a red-letter day in their lives, the day they went over Chilkoot Pass with Charlie Chaplin.”
Robinson reports that Chaplin was very concerned “to sustain morale in the discomfort, bitter cold and tedium of Truckee. On Monday he shot one scene of the cabin sliding down the mountainside. Then, while the carpenters were making changes to the cabin set, he joined the unit in bobsledding and ski racing.” The result was that Chaplin the following day was confined to bed with a chill.
It was now the shadow of scandal began to grow. Lita had learned through actor Henry Bergman (who as Kenneth S. Lynn in his biography “Charlie Chaplin and His Time” describes as “ever eager to serve Chaplin in no matter how demeaning a capcity”) that Charlie expected her to drop by his room. Lynn continues, “She found him reclining in his red silk pajamas reading a book about Napolean. He told her that she resembled Josephine. Following a few more idle remarks, he ceased talking and threw himself upon her.” She began to resist and scream and Chaplin ceased his attack as it was clear that other guests could hear her. Lynn states, “Before Lita left, he tried to get her to agree to submit at some later date.”
By November, after much sordid detail, Lita was sixteen and pregnant. They married in a scene out of a movie having fled across the back roads of Guaymas, Mexico. The marriage ended two years later in one of the bitterest divorces but not before they had two children.
While a lot of footage was shot in the waning days on location, much of it did not make it into the final movie. Still much of the footage that did is clearly near Truckee in the area we now know as Soda Springs and in the shadow of the summit of Donner Pass.
As a coda to these legendary events, in April 2005 the Totherow family, Rollie’s son Jack and his Grandson Dave returned to where Rollie had shot the scenes for “The Gold Rush” in 1924 at Donner Summit.. They went to the very site where the scene of Chilkoot Pass was filmed. The visit was reported in the book “Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin,” by John Bengtson.)
Dan, another grandson, who lives in Inyo County and serves now as a County Supervisor, did not get to go. He reported what Rollie was like as his grandfather. “He used to tell us all these great stories but we didn’t believe him.” Rollie was a great storyteller about his years with Chaplin. One time he told a story about being strapped to a plane with a leather belt, filming for a movie. The family figured it was one of grandfather’s whoppers. “After he died, we discovered a picture with him on the fuselage and Chaplin saying good bye.” Now they wonder how many other of the wonderful stories were actually true. Dan tells me with great pride how his family celebrates and acknowledges the work of their grandfather Rollie to this day.