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
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
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