Reviewed by Phil Posner


 "THE IMMIGRANT touched me more than any other film I made".

Charles Chaplin, MY LIFE IN PICTURES.


THE IMMIGRANT was Charles Chaplin's eleventh film for the Lone Star/

Mutual Film Corporation, released on June 17, 1917.  It is considered by many

to be the best (although not necessarily the funniest) of the twelve, two reel

masterpieces Chaplin made for Mutual between 1916 and 1917.  It has an

extremely well integrated form and a logically progressing plotline,

surprising considering what we now know about how the film was shot, due to

the excellent three part series UNKNOWN CHAPLIN, by Brownlow and Gill.  We

learned from that scholarly work that Chaplin came up with the idea for a

Bohemian restaurant scene first, later developing the shipboard segment

that perfectly sets up Charlie's later meeting with Edna.  THE IMMIGRANT is

also obliquely autobiographical, portraying America as at once welcoming

and daunting, probably influenced by Chaplin's own feelings when he was the

immigrant only four years earlier.


In his autobiography Chaplin says, "Even in those early comedies I strove

for a mood; usually music created it.  An old song called "Mrs. Grundy"

created the mood for THE IMMIGRANT.  The tune had a wistful tenderness

that suggested two lonely derelicts getting married on a doleful day."  Mood

does indeed play a large role, especially in the second half of the film,

and the moods of adventure, irony, pathos and hopefulness combine here into

a poignant union.


THE IMMIGRANT is divided into exactly even halves - the ship and the

restaurant.  The film opens on board a ship full of immigrants headed for

America.  We are introduced immediately and comically to the difficulties

they are facing, the worst of which seems to be seasickness caused by the

extreme rolling of the boat.  We see Edna and her mother seated on deck,

mother obviously not well.  We are introduced to the Little Fellow,

Chaplin's enduring character, from the rear, leaning over the ship railing,

evidently succumbing to mal de mer.  In a classic transposition gag,

Charlie turns to reveal the fish which he has been struggling to land.


After losing the fish, Chaplin demonstrates the rocking of the ship with a

dance-like promenade on the deck and temporarily catches a bad case of

hiccups from another passenger (Albert Austin).  The dinner bell

precipitates a stampede into the dining hall where Charlie gets caught up

with a large woman (Henry Bergman) rolling around on the floor, propelled

by the violent rocking of the ship.  As the mess crew distributes the

dinner plates, Charlie and his opposite diner share the plate that slides

between them.  Edna enters and Charlie is captivated, offering her his seat

and casting a longing gaze her way as he exits the mess hall.


Charlie next engages in some gaming, first a dice game, then poker.

Charlie's baseball-pitcher-like windup before he throws the dice is classic

Chaplin.  He wins a nice little bundle mainly from one adversary, who gets

more money for his ante by robbing Edna's mother while she's sleeping.  In

the poker game Charlie drives up the stakes, and buys a pistol from the

violently sore loser so that he may cover Charlie's bet.  As Charlie picks

up his winnings and turns his back on his opponent to pick up his hat, he

stops an attack by pointing the pistol through his legs and turning

quickly, all the time keeping the violent gambler at bay.





Seated next to Edna, counting his winnings, Charlie observes Edna's

distress and without her knowledge slips most of his winnings into her

pocket.  Challenged by a ship's officer who thinks Charlie has picked

Edna's pocket, Edna rescues Charlie from arrest and then breaks down in

tears at his kindness.


The immigrants' "Arrival in the Land of Liberty" is described by Chaplin in

MY LIFE IN PICTURES as, "A first inspiring (and ironic) sight of the Statue

of Liberty."  Inspiring, as portrayed in the hopeful yet apprehensive look

on the faces of Charlie, Edna, her mother and the others in the background.

Ironic, because a moment later the immigrants are herded and roped off like

cattle in preparation for disembarkation.  This was one of Chaplin's first

satirical "social comments" in a film, something that would later become

more prominent in his films and eventually contribute to Chaplin's

political problems.


Some time later we find Charlot broke and wandering the streets.  He finds

a coin on the sidewalk, which promptly falls from his pant leg through a

hole in his pocket.  He immediately proceeds into the nearby restaurant for

a meal.  Inside, he sits at a table next to Albert Austin, and encounters

a huge, intimidating waiter (Eric Campbell), who has a difficult time

communicating to Charlie that wearing a hat indoors is not acceptable

behavior.  Not understanding the menu he pantomimes his order (which

indicates that he doesn't speak English, belied a bit later).  While eating

his beans he looks up and sees Edna seated across from him.  By this time

Austin has left so he invites Edna over to his table. 


At this point one of the magic moments in Chaplin films occurs.  Greeting

Edna, he sees by the black lining on her handkerchief that her mother has

died.  At this moment there is a touching pause in the film in which

Chaplin, with masterful use of face and body, mimes his sympathy and

genuine feelings for Edna "in a quiet, soul-poignant look" (McCabe -

Charlie Chaplin). Just as quickly he wipes the sorrow away with an

optimistic smile.






Food is ordered for Edna, the price of which Charlie calculates on his

fingers, making sure he has sufficient funds.  When he's presented with the

bill,  Charlie comes to the shocking discovery that he's lost the coin.  To

cover his surprise and buy some time he orders coffee for Edna, over her



Charlie and Edna witness a rather brutal beating (largely by Waiter Eric)

of a customer who was ten cents short on his bill.  Charlie asks another

waiter what the trouble was and seemingly has to translate the information

for Edna, suggesting that Charlie can speak English but Edna cannot.


A shabby man finds the coin that Charlie had dropped on the sidewalk

earlier.  He enters the restaurant, sits at Edna's former table and orders

coffee.  When he pays, the coin slips through a hole in Campbell's pocket

this time, and there are a few moments of terrific pantomime as Charlot

attempts to pick up the coin from the floor without attracting anyone's

(especially Waiter Eric's) attention. He now asks for the new bill and pays

with the coin (the same exact coin he had picked up outside).  This time,

seeming to distrust Charlie, the gigantic, menacing waiter inserts the coin

between his teeth and bends it double, proving it a counterfeit.  The

little fellow melts in fear and shock, almost sinking below the table only

to be yanked up again by the behemoth.  He orders more coffee.


Now occurs one of the fabulous strokes of luck that sometimes befall the

Little Fellow, which is as often bad luck as it is good.  An artist seated

nearby (Bergman again) spies the couple and hires them to pose for him,

starting the next day.  Charlie's bill is again delivered, and the artist

asks for his own bill as well.  Charlie, still broke, stares at his bill,

whereupon the Artist offers to pay.  In a perfectly timed and very funny

"Alphonse and Gaston" routine, Charlie protests once too often and again

winds up with the bill.  He cleverly pays it from the change from Bergman's

bill, left as a tip.  Charlie magnanimously tips the waiter with the

remaining dime, while Campbell glowers at the artist indicating how

parsimonious he thinks he is.


Outside on the street, in the pouring rain, Charlie asks the artist for "a

couple of dollars on account".  We see the happy couple outside the

Marriage License Bureau, where Charlie cajoles the giggling Edna into

entering, under the gaze of the straight-laced Registrar.  He playfully

carries her across the threshold, albeit with some difficulty (Edna was

gaining a bit of weight, according to Chaplin), as the picture fades out. 


The ending, very likely portraying Chaplin's real feelings for Edna

Purviance at the time, is one of the rare times in Chaplin's films in which

he ends up with "the girl".  In MY LIFE IN PICTURES Chaplin wrote, "I

thought the end had quite a poetic feeling".  In fact the whole film has

that same poetic feeling.  It is one of Chaplin's first masterpieces.



USA 1917, b&w, silent, 24-30 minutes, 1809 ft.

Written, directed and produced by Charles Chaplin

Cinematography by Roland Totheroh


Charles Chaplin (Immigrant), Edna Purviance (Immigrant), Kitty Bradbury

(Her Mother), Albert Austin (Slavic Immigrant and Diner), Henry Bergman

(Slavic Woman Immigrant and Artist), Loyal Underwood (Small Immigrant),

Eric Campbell (Head Waiter), James T.Kelly (Shabby man in Restaurant), John Rand (Tipsy Diner Who Cannot Pay), Frank J. Coleman (Gambler on Ship, Ship's Officer and Restaurant Owner), Tom Harrington (Marriage Registrar).



(c) Copyright 1996 by Phil Posner