At the time when it was still new, Charles Chaplin called The Gold Rush, from 1925, the film he wanted to be remembered for. He's gotten his wish, and then some - we still remember The Gold Rush along with City Lights, Modern Times, The Kid, The Circus, and so on, and will undoubtedly do so as long as there is cinema.

And yet The Gold Rush is still something special. I do not believe that it's anything like the consensus pick for his best film - on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, the best we have for the temperature of current CW, City Lights is more than 100 spots above it, with Modern Times and The Great Dictator also coming in higher - but I wonder if it might be his most beloved, or most famous. It is iconic; beyond a shadow of a doubt it's iconic. The scenes where Chaplin's Little Tramp, here in the guise of a lone prospector in the Yukon, fussily eats a boiled shoe with all the care of a diner in the finest Parisian restaurant, the sublime physical performance of the dinner roll dance, and the mad slapstick of the prospector and his partner, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), attempting to survive a cabin teetering right on the edge of an icy crevasse; these are among the most famous, instantly-recognisable moments in the career of a character and star who's still, a century after his creation, the most perfect embodiment in one person of the whole sprawling concept of "The Movies".

If there's a reason for this, I wonder if it has to do with the film's accessibility and emotional resonance. Nothing in The Gold Rush is as holy and transcendent as the final scene of City Lights - not much in the annals of American film is, of course - but then, not much in City Lights is as breezily watchable as The Gold Rush. The earlier film is perhaps the single best marriage of the two threads that warred with each other for most of Chaplin's career as a self-directed auteur: the desire to make earnest, heavily sentimental pronouncements about humanity and society, and the desire to be a grand, playful clown to make the whole world laugh. The later one goes in his career, the more the balance shifts towards sentiment, particularly in his part-sound and sound films; it was in '25 that he was exactly in the middle, and the result is a film that shifts between registers effortlessly and beautifully, so that we might be in one moment heartbroken to realise, as the little prospector does not quite yet, that he's been taken for a fool by the band of pretty dance hall girls in the nearby town, and just seconds later be transported with the delight of his dancing rolls, performed by Chaplin with an intensely controlled precision of his arms and body, while on his face is the most ethereal of expressions, gazing nowhere in particular as he acts out, for my tastes, one of the funniest bits in silent comedy.

Whatever the case, we have the film, and it's an acknowledged masterpiece of the medium according to almost any source you want to consult. This despite being, in the main, fairly straightforward as cinema (certainly compared to what he made later): like Buster Keaton and unlike Harold Lloyd, among the era's great solo comedians, Chaplin made do with a lot of long wide takes, to showcase his interactions with the the environment around him, whether in an intimate setting like the boot eating, or a spiraling mess like his pratfalls in a dance hall (in this he is unlike Keaton, whose long takes were more like Fred Astaire's, meant to show off the incredible versatility of his body and the choreography he could put it through), and the result, for most of The Gold Rush, is a film with plenty of the stage-like framing typical of much older films - there is one great joke, involving snow shoveling, that's communicated entirely through editing, but this is untypical. It is not, however, an unsophisticated piece of filmmaking, it's just that the sophistication is hiding: in the voluminous use of dissolves to create, for example, the hallucinatory chicken that a starving, cannibalistic Big Jim sees in place of his colleague. Or in the genuinely amazing combination of models, a pivoting set, and double exposure to create the final setpiece on the cliff edge. But the purpose of The Gold Rush was to hide its technique and foreground its comedy, though it took a great depth of talent and ambition behind the camera to make that comedy look so simple.

Besides, there are still moments of outright cinematic greatness: the opening shots, all done on location, showing ragged lines of desperate men crawling through the snow and mountains, a great wide-view consideration of history and the individuals who got caught up in it. Chaplin's desire to make the Tramp an everyman rarely worked as effectively as it does here, in the cut between all of those nameless, faceless figures and Chaplin himself in rags scrambling along an icy ridge. Funny, yes, but there's enough genuine cold and isolation in the film that we never quite forget those opening images, and their intimation of loss and hopelessness. The tramp succeeds, against the odds; he is an aspiring figure, not a downtrodden one. Never before or after The Gold Rush did that success play so richly, as never before or after The Gold Rush did Chaplin make the chance of failure so clear and sobering. And, weirdly, precisely because the stakes are higher here than anywhere else in the Tramp's career, so is his flailing struggle to overcome them funnier than in any other Chaplin film. This is as true of his success in the Yukon as in love; the flirtation between the prospector and the dancer Georgia (Georgia Hale) makes no sense on the level of human psychology, but the Tramp in love is such a sweet, endearing, goofily enthusiastic figure that it feels right emotionally that he'd win in the end. We love him, so why wouldn't everyone else?

17 years after its first release, Chaplin re-cut The Gold Rush, added narration (which he delivered) instead of title cards, and included music throughout. This version was, for years, the only one available, until a reconstruction of sorts was attempted by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (who acknowledge that the results were a version of the 1925 film, not the actual exact film seen in 1925), and even now the Chaplin estate prefers the 1942 release as reflecting the filmmaker's ultimate wishes. That may be, but it only suggests that even Chaplin could be straight-up wrong: the '25 film is better in every way. The removal of title cards, the sped-up framerate, and the tighter editing ruins the pacing of many jokes, making the wonderfully precise physical movements in so many scenes feeling rather too hectic. Worse still, a few shots are removed, taking with them an entire subplot that makes Georgia less complex of a character, and the film's ending is totally wrecked, with the removal of a final kiss and a wonderfully irritated gesture by the Tramp, shooing away a cameraman, in favor of an abrupt close with an insubstantial wrap-up in the narration. I can think of literally no reason to bother with it besides curiosity and completism; the '25 version is warmer and funnier. Of course, in any incarnation, The Gold Rush is a masterpiece, undeniably one of the funniest and sweetest movies ever made.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1925
-King Vidor makes the World War I masterpiece The Big Parade
-Lon Chaney makes his iconic appearance as The Phantom of the Opera in Universal's first true horror film
-The groundbreaking visual effects vehicle The Lost World, with Willis O'Brien stop-motion dinosaurs, premieres

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1925
-Sergei Eisenstein debuts with the unbeatable one-two punch of Strike and Battleship Potemkin
-The first feature-length (and still the longest) adaptation of Les misérables released in France
-The Italian-German co-production Quo Vadis flops, ending the career of producer Arturo Ambrosio, father of the Italian historical epic