IMMIGRANT, THE (Charles Chaplin, 1917, USA, 20m, BW)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Produced by John Jasper
Written by Charles Chaplin (scenario)
Vincent Bryan (scenario)
Maverick Terrell (scenario)
Starring Charles Chaplin
Music by Charles Chaplin
Cinematography Roland Totheroh
George C. Zalibra
Edited by Charles Chaplin
Distributed by Mutual Film Corporation
June 17, 1917
Country United States
Language Silent film
Charles Chaplin - Immigrant
Edna Purviance - Immigrant
Eric Campbell - The head waiter
Albert Austin - Seasick immigrant / A diner
Henry Bergman - The artist
Kitty Bradbury - The Mother
Frank J. Coleman - Ship's Officer / Restaurant Owner
Tom Harrington - Marriage Registrar
James T. Kelly - Shabby Man in Restaurant
John Rand - Tipsy Diner Who Cannot Pay
The Immigrant is a 1917 American silent romantic comedy short. The film stars Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character as an immigrant coming to the United States who is accused of theft on the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and falls in love with a beautiful young woman along the way. It also stars Edna Purviance and Eric Campbell. The movie was written and directed by Chaplin.
According to Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's documentary series Unknown Chaplin, the first scenes to be written and filmed take place in what became the movie's second half, in which the penniless Tramp finds a coin and goes for a meal in a restaurant, not realising that the coin has fallen out of his pocket. It was not until later that Chaplin decided the reason the Tramp was penniless was that he had just arrived on a boat from Europe, and used this notion as the basis for the first half. Purviance reportedly was required to eat so many plates of beans during the many takes to complete the restaurant sequence (in character as another immigrant who falls in love with Charlie) that she became physically ill.
The film begins aboard a steamer crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and initially showcases the misadventures of an unnamed immigrant, the Tramp (Chaplin) who finds himself in assorted mischief while, among other things, playing cards, eating in a mess hall, and avoiding seasick passengers. Along the way, he befriends another unnamed immigrant (Purviance) who is traveling to America with her ailing mother. The two are robbed by a pickpocket who is losing in gambling. The Tramp, feeling sorry for the two penniless women, attempts to secretly place his winnings from his card game in the woman's pocket, but ends up being mistakenly accused of being a pickpocket. The woman manages to clear the Tramp's name. Upon arrival in America, the Tramp and the woman part company.
Later, hungry and broke, the tramp finds a coin on the street outside a restaurant and pockets it. He doesn't realize there is a hole in his pocket and the coin has fallen straight through and is back on the ground. He enters the restaurant, where he orders a plate of beans. There, he is reunited with the woman and discovers her mother is dead. The Tramp orders a meal for her.
As they eat, they watch the restaurant's burly head waiter (Campbell) and other waiters attack and forcibly eject a patron who is short 10 cents in paying his bill. The Tramp, intimidated by the waiter, checks and now realizes he has lost his coin. Terrified of facing the same treatment as the man he saw thrown out, the Tramp begins planning how he will fight the huge man. Soon, however, he finds the same coin fallen from the head waiter's pocket onto the floor and makes many failed attempts to retrieve it without notice. He finally retrieves the coin and nonchalantly pays the waiter only to be thunderstruck when the waiter reveals the coin to be fake.
Once again, the Tramp prepares for the fight of his life. Just then, a visiting artist spots the Tramp and the woman and offers them a job to pose for a painting. The two agree. The artist offers to pay for the Tramp and the woman's meal, but the Tramp declines the offer several times for reasons of etiquette, intending to eventually accept the artist's offer; however, he's dismayed when the artist does not renew his offer to pay at the last moment. The artist pays for his own meal and leaves a tip for the waiter. The Tramp notices that the tip is enough to cover the couple's meal and, without the artist noticing, palms the tip and presents it to the waiter as his own payment for his and the woman's meal. As a final riposte, he lets the waiter keep the remaining change - one small coin - after paying his bill. The waiter thinks the artist himself has given no tip whatsoever, and is clearly upset at this supposed action. Afterwards, outside a marriage license office in the rain, the Tramp proposes marriage to the woman, who is coy and reluctant until the Tramp physically carries her into the office while she waves her arms and kicks her feet in protest.
For his leading lady in all of the Mutual Films, Chaplin brought with him Edna Purviance, a former stenographer he had cast in her first movie, A Night Out (1915). Purviance worked exclusively with Chaplin over eight years in three dozen films, and by the time of The Immigrant (1917) they had become romantically involved as well, a relationship cut short by his shotgun marriage to Mildred Harris, a teenage actress he got pregnant. Purviance kept working with him, however, through A Woman of Paris (1923), a film he directed but did not appear in. Chaplin hoped to make Edna a star in her own right with that film, but although highly regarded today, it was a flop upon its release. She made only two more pictures before her retirement, A Woman of the Sea (1926) for Josef von Sternberg, and a French film, Education of a Prince (1927). She came out of retirement only briefly for small roles in two later Chaplin films, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). Chaplin remained devoted to her the rest of her life, keeping her on his payroll until her death in 1958.
In The Immigrant, Charlie and Edna meet on an arduous cross-Atlantic voyage, a couple of immigrants seeking a new life in America. The first half of the film takes place aboard the ship, where Charlie uses his card-playing skills to win back money stolen by another passenger from Edna and her ailing mother. The ship sequence concludes with the passengers lined up at the rail, watching in wonder as they pass the Statue of Liberty, a shot--and a sentiment--referenced in many future movies, notably The Godfather Part II (1974). Shortly after that, he is separated from the girl and her mother as they are herded like cattle onto the dock. Chaplin's depiction of this indignity and the immigration officials who treat the new arrivals so gruffly (one of whom gets a kick in the rear from Charlie) was later cited, incredibly, as evidence of his "anti-Americanism" when he was forced to leave America in the 1950s during the Red Scare.
The second part of The Immigrant finds a down-and-out Charlie coming upon a coin in the street that he attempts to use to buy himself a much-needed dinner. The cafe sequence that follows, in which he runs into Edna once again, is a classic example of Chaplin's inventiveness as the coin is lost and retrieved numerous times. Like all his Mutual shorts, Chaplin built his stories through on-set improvisation rather than relying on a script.
The cafe sequence was actually shot first for another film, a Left Bank romance that was never completed. Chaplin at this time was already notorious for production delays, midstream changes, difficulties in completing productions, and ever-inflating budgets that drove Mutual to distraction, especially since they expected a movie a month from their temperamental artist. The opening scene alone took more than a week to film, forcing Purviance to gobble plate after plate of beans. By the time the cafe section was complete, Chaplin had gone through three actors playing the waiter. He then abruptly changed his mind and decided the reason his character was so poor was that he was an immigrant. The cafe scenes were put aside for use at the end of the movie.
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.
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.
The Immigrant (1917) opens, after establishing shots of a ship and huddled passengers, with the Tramp's rear end shaking as he bends over the ship's side. We're meant to think he's vomiting - he pulls up and we see that he has caught a fish. (Chaplin would continue to use comic misdirection of this sort over the years, to good effect.) The entire shipboard sequence, with the passengers being thrown here and there by the vessel's lurching motion, is a tour de force of comic timing. At one point, a single bowl of soup slides back and forth across a bench, with the Tramp downing a spoonful followed by the person sitting opposite. A game of craps is even more inventive. Once they reach America, the film settles down into a simple story of the Tramp's pursuit of a girl he met on the boat (Edna Purviance) and his struggle with a big brute of a head waiter (Eric Campbell). While some of the gags are less effective than others, Chaplin has by this point clearly developed his persona and style. A scene where the Tramp kicks an immigration officer actually caused a bit of controversy at the time - since Chaplin was not a citizen, some humorless souls took this as an affront to America.
This legendary comedy stands as one of Charlie Chaplin's great achievements, a seamless blend of humor, romance, suspense and social commentary, all packed into an 18-minute running time! It's especially impressive when you consider that only three years earlier Chaplin was a complete novice at movie making, cranking out reels of often crude and chaotic slapstick for Mack Sennett. But in The Immigrant, Chaplin displays a self-assured command of contemporary film-making skills (i.e. cinematography, editing, and basic story structure) equal or superior to that of the era's top directors. Most impressive of all is Charlie himself: his iconic character is in full bloom, fresh and funny and full of life. He's a marvel, and a joy to watch.
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