Chaplin in the guise of the Little Tramp is a lone prospector during the Great Gold Rush to Alaska in 1898. It's a hard life with intense cold, hunger, disappointment, and perhaps worst of all, loneliness. The story follows him as he interacts with two other fortune-hunters: Big Jim McKay (Mark Swain) and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted scoundrel; and he falls in love with a dance-hall girl (Georgia Hale).
In the spectacular opening scene, a long line of hundreds of prospectors climb up a steep mountain through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass on the way to the gold fields. Charlie soon appears with his familiar cane and bowler, and his absurdly baggy pants, totally unprepared for the rigors of the far North, and he immediately gets caught in a storm and stumbles blindly along. At the same time, Big Jim, a burly prospector who looks like he belongs in the environment, hits pay dirt. The same storm sends his tent flying, pulling him behind. Both men find themselves at Black Larsen's cabin. Larsen is wanted by the law, and we will soon get confirmation that he is indeed a dangerous man.
Big Jim later hallucinates, seeing Charlie as a big chicken. Swain does a wonderful job here, one moment looking deliriously happy, clucking at Charlie to lure him closer, the next frightened by his narrow mistake.
Charlie manages to shoot a black bear, providing them provisions until the storm abates. When it does, the two friends part ways. In the meantime, Black Larsen has killed two police officers and stumbled unto Big Jim's claim. Big Jim arrives and the two burly fellows struggle; Larsen knocks Jim cold with a shovel, but is soon killed in an avalanche--a nifty special effect.
Charlie walks into a mining boom town and meets Georgia, a beautiful dance-hall girl and falls in love. It's never explicit, but she is likely a woman of ill-repute. Chaplin devised a wonderful set here, as the dance hall is just what you'd expect: a great log building with a long bar, unshaven and unkempt prospectors with drooping mustaches who swill beer--brave men with weathered faces who risk their lives, and thus need an outlet. A piano stands in the corner, there is lots of smoke, and plenty of flirty girls, urging the lonely men to buy them a drink. Charlie looks pathetically out of place. He finds a photograph of Georgia and stuffs it in his shirt. To tease another man, she asks him to dance. He struggles to keep his pants from falling and grabs a rope to tie them up, not knowing it's a dog's leash.
Charlie, completely smitten, is lucky to ingratiate himself with another miner who asks him to watch his cabin while he hunts for gold. By happenstance, he meets Georgia again and invites her and her friends to a New Year's Eve dinner. She accepts on a lark after finding the photograph that Charlie had fond and kept hidden under his pillow. The night arrives and Charlie has made elaborate preparations, party gifts, candles, napkins, and a heart-shaped card at Georgia's place with "To My Love" written on it. A chicken is roasting in the oven. While waiting, he falls asleep, beginning one of Chaplin's most famous sequences--"The Dance of the Rolls." To entertain his guests he jabs two French bread rolls with forks and does a pantomime ballet-dance, his face smiling above so it looks like a man with a giant head. It appears as if the rolls are his boots. It is silly to be sure, but creatively pure magic.
Charlie awakens, and it's obvious Georgia has forgotten or was not serious. Heart-broken and feeling foolish, he hears singing and gunshots coming from the town. He walks forlornly to the saloon where revelers are singing "Auld Lang Syne," and sadly stares through the window. The scene hits home for anyone who has ever felt out-of-place or rejected by love. Poor Charlie. Georgia eventually remembers her promise and goes to the cabin, but Charlie is long gone. She sees the table and realizes the effort Charlie had gone to, and feels pity--the first sign that perhaps she has a heart.
There's a wonderful human moment during the song where the director Chaplin conveys real life. Some in the crowd dab their eyes, others look far away, thinking of something or someone from their past. Charlie listens and you see him swallow. It's a reminder that that season isn't always a happy one.
Big Jim has survived Black Larsen's attack. He comes to town still suffering from the blow to his head; he can't remember the location of his mine, but knows it's near his cabin. When he sees Charlie, he excitedly tells him he will make him rich if Charlie helps him locate the cabin. They do, but another storm comes up that night, pushing the cabin to the precipice of a high cliff, where it hangs precariously in balance. In the morning they wake up, blissfully ignorant of their predicament.
Another funny bit follows as the two walk from one side of the floor to the other, nearly tipping the cabin off the cliff. At first Charlie thinks it's his stomach but he soon opens the door to investigate. Fortunately, he clings to the door nob as he hangs there, feet dangling in mid-air until he manages to climb back in to safety. This is another fine special effect for its day and an apparent hair-raising sequence. The partners eventually survive, saved by a pick ax that miraculously gets sunk right where Big Jim's gold lies buried in the snow. They scramble up the floor's steep incline to safety, Charlie just jumping clear before the building disappears over the edge.
The next scene finds Charlie and Big Jim dressed to the nines with silk top hats, spats, mink coats, and puffing on big cigars, enjoying their new lives as millionaires. They are in first-class aboard a ship returning home from Alaska. Members of the Press ask Charlie to pose for a photograph. They want to do a rags-to-riches story. He dons his old ragged tramp clothes and notices his picture of Georgia. He sighs wistfully and a title card reads: "Everything but Georgia." He doesn't know it, but she is on the same boat as a steerage passenger.
While posing for the photographer, Charlie accidentally falls down a stairwell, landing in steerage to find Georgia sitting next to a large coil of rope. When she hears that ship officers are searching for a stow-away, she naturally assumes it's Charlie they are after. She tries to hide him, then offers to pay his fare. He reveals the truth--he is now rich. He takes her in his arms, and implying that she is his fiancee, invites the photographers to take an engagement picture of them. The photographers are pleased. A title card says: "Gee! This will make a wonderful story." The couple pose as long as they can stand it, but their hearts are overflowing and they move to kiss. The photographer shouts at them: "Oh! You've spoilt the picture," as the final image fades. (Note, the 1942 version omits the kiss, as Chaplin had by then long ended his relationship with Hale).