The Immigrant (1917)
This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.
This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.
The next section of the movie emphasizes the rolling of the ship, which was accomplished both by rocking the set, and by a special device to rock the camera on its tripod. The exaggerated rocking at times threatens to make the audience seasick as much as the cast! I believe that Chaplin’s cameraman, Roland Totheroh, can be credited with the successful visual effect, but the fact that the cast manages to rock convincingly, rather than scattering randomly like members of the Starship Enterprise during battle, is to Chaplin’s credit as director. The first of these scenes demonstrates that Charlie does not suffer the ill effects of travel to the degree as his fellow passengers. Indeed, one gets the impression that the Little Tramp’s funny walk is actually of benefit to him in navigating the rocking deck, while others stagger to lean over the railing and threaten to throw up on him. There is a scene that emphasizes the rocking especially strongly, in which we see the passengers taking their meals, with the bowls sliding from one side of the table to the other, each person sharing with the person sitting across from them.
During the voyage, Charlie wins a great deal of money gambling with other passengers. Part of this recalls his dice-scene from “Behind the Screen,” although in this case his character is a big winner. The passenger he plays with is much larger, and gets angry, but Charlie outwits him and keeps the money. Then he runs into Edna Purviance who has lost her mother’s money. Charlie is too shy to give her the money outright, but slips it into her coat pocket when she’s not looking. Then, having second thoughts about how much he will need, he pulls a few bills back out. Unfortunately, this is seen by one of the ship’s crew, who accuses Charlie of being a pickpocket and calls Edna over to check if she has lost any money. Finding the money in her pocket for the first time, she is overjoyed, and assures the crewman that all is well.
Finally, she ship arrives in the Land of Liberty, and we are treated to a view of the Statue of Liberty as seen from a ship. Then, an immigration agent shows up and shoves all of the waiting immigrants into a line behind a rope, and puts tags on each of them. Charlie is indignant at this behavior, and kicks the agent in the bottom when he’s not looking. After this, the immigrants are processed relatively quickly, and Charlie says farewell to Edna, and goes off into the city to seek his fortune.
An intertitle tells us that Charlie is now “hungry and broke” in the New World, and we see a rainy street corner. Charlie spots a large coin on the ground, and puts it in his pocket, then goes into a nearby restaurant. Unbeknownst to him, the coin slips out of a hole in his pocket immediately, and continues to lie on the ground in front of the door. He takes a seat with Albert Austin, who is enjoying a bowl of soup. Eric Campbell comes up as the waiter and tries to motion that Charlie needs to take off his hat, but Charlie doesn’t understand and keeps putting it back on. Finally, he gets the message and hangs it on a hook. He orders coffee and a plate of beans, which he eats one at a time with a fork, to the consternation of Albert and Eric.
Now Charlie sees Edna across the crowded room. She is also broke, and apparently her mother died without leaving her any of the money Charlie won (maybe it was spent on the funeral). Charlie invites her over and orders a meal for her as well. Now, we see another man (John Rand) who has apparently tried to welsh on his bill. He is caught by the hulking Eric and beaten, and as if this isn’t bad enough, all of the other waiters join in as well. Charlie asks what all the fuss is about and Eric informs him the man was ten cents short. Charlie is nervous, and tries to calculate how much his meal will cost, then checks his pocket to make sure the coin is big enough, but it isn’t there! He starts to practice his boxing moves, and orders another coffee to stall for time.
Another patron comes in brandishing the coin from outside, and Charlie realizes what has happened. He makes multiple attempts to retrieve it without being seen by the waiter (who will find out that he is broke if he does), and keeps failing. Finally, he gets the coin back and tries to pay, but the waiter bends it and discovers it to be fake. Things are looking grim, but Charlie manages to stall a bit more until an artist (Henry Bergman) comes over and offers to pay Charlie and Edna as models. They agree, and the Little Tramp acts as though he can pay the bill, which the artist at first offers to cover for them. Unfortunately, Charlie grabs the bill back just one too many times, and the artist pays his own bill without paying for them! Charlie thinks fast when the change comes, and uses it to pay his own tab, making the waiter believe that the artist has stiffed him for the bill.
Once outside again on the rainy street, Charlie gets an advance on their salaries for two dollars and takes Edna to the marriage licensing office. Edna refuses, but is shyly smiling. Charlie knocks on the door and a bureaucrat comes out, and Charlie picks Edna up and carries her inside the office.
This is probably one of Chaplin’s most discussed films, and partly it derives from that little kick the Tramp gives the immigration official on board ship. You see, when Chaplin was banned from the US in the 1950s as consequence of anti-Communist paranoia, this one clip was used as evidence of his “anti-Americanism.” What is missing from that view is perspective: If this had been a court, and Chaplin had a defense team, they could have shown hundreds of clips of such kicks used by and against Charlie in all kinds of different contexts – this one kick was, at best, a drop in the bucket of a general anti-authoritarianism, not a specific attack on the United States or its officials. But, the decision was made while Chaplin was out of the country, by Attorney General James P. McGranery sitting in sole judgment, and no defense ever happened. Chaplin simply decided not to return to the US at all.
There are plenty of more interesting aspects to this movie anyway. For one thing, it can be cited for having a social message and a protracted romance between the leading characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is “the first” time Chaplin evidenced either of these (though some do), it seems to me that we see both developed in “The Bank,” “The Vagabond,” and “Easy Street,” although perhaps not as successfully. I do wonder if the portrayal of the working poor and immigrants in “Easy Street” (and perhaps earlier films such as “Dough and Dynamite”) may have troubled Chaplin, and fed into his desire to show them sympathetically. He definitely does draw on some of his own experiences as a newcomer to the US, although he was for the most part not as hungry as we see here. He was, by his own account, “terrified of waiters” when he first arrived, and that’s easy to imagine – he was raised in poverty in class-conscious Britain and not at all used to being served. He projects those terrors wonderfully into the character of Eric Campbell’s authoritarian waiter. The first scene between him and Eric also reflect the difficulty in cross-cultural communication. Eric thinks he’s being rude in not taking off his hat, and Charlie can’t for the life of him understand what’s wrong. Even where no language barrier exists, these issues can arise between people from different backgrounds.
I don’t want to end this without a brief mention of the ending, which today comes across as both ironic and perhaps a little inappropriate. Charlie Chaplin never married Edna Purviance in real life, although the two had an affair that lasted for years, and Charlie continued to support her career long after they had stopped being a couple. So far as I know, she never would have resisted his proposal as her character in this movie does, and at any rate Chaplin certainly never tried dragging her to the altar! Today, this sequence makes us a little uncomfortable. I believe we are supposed to understand that Edna “really” wants to marry Charlie, but since she never actually gives in and says yes, his actions come across as forcing her into it against her will. It doesn’t quite ruin the sweetness of the rain-soaked proposal, but it does seem like a sacrifice of the romantic side of the movie for a cheap gag.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Roland Totheroh
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, John Rand, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman
Run Time: 25 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).