EASY STREET (Charles Chaplin, 1917, USA, 19m, BW)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Edward Brewer (technical director)
Produced by Henry P. Caulfield
Written by Charles Chaplin
Starring Charles Chaplin
Cinematography Roland Totheroh
George C. Zalibra
Edited by Charles Chaplin
Distributed by Mutual Film Corporation
January 22, 1917
19 min USA,
Germany 24 min (restored version)
Country United States
Language Silent film
Charles Chaplin ... The Derelict
Edna Purviance ... The Mission Worker
Eric Campbell ... The Bully
Albert Austin ... Minister/Policeman
Lloyd Bacon ... Drug Addict
Henry Bergman ... Anarchist
Frank J. Coleman ... Policeman
William Gillespie ... Heroin addict
James T. Kelley ... Mission Visitor/Policeman
Charlotte Mineau ... Big Eric's Wife
John Rand ... Mission Tramp/Policeman
Janet Miller Sully ... Mother in Mission
Loyal Underwood ... Small Father/Policeman
Erich von Stroheim Jr. ... Baby
In a slum called Easy Street, the police are failing to maintain law and order. The Little Tramp is sleeping rough outside a mission near the streets of a lawless slum. He is reformed somewhat at the mission where there is singing and religious education. His religious awakening is inspired by a beautiful young woman who pleads for him to stay at the mission.
Spotting a help wanted ad for a job at the police station, the Little Tramp accepts and is assigned the rough-and-tumble Easy Street as his beat. Upon entering the street he finds a bully roughing up the locals and pilfering their money. The Little Tramp gets on the wrong side of the bully and following a chase the two eventually come to blows culminating in the Little Tramp inventively using a gas lamp to render the bully unconscious.
The bully is taken away by the police but manages to escape from the station and returns to Easy Street. After a long chase the Little Tramp manages to knock the bully unconscious by dropping a heavy stove on his head from an upstairs window. On returning to his beat on Easy Street the unruly mob knock the Little Tramp unconscious and drop him into a nearby cellar where he manages to save the aforementioned beautiful young woman from a nasty drug addict after accidentally sitting on the drug addict's needle. Supercharged by the effects of the drug he takes on the mob and heroically defeats them all and as a consequence restores peace and order to Easy Street.
Easy Street is a great Chaplin short. Briskly paced, and with a lesson on redemption, it is the perfect vehicle to show off the Tramp. Made before the Hayes code, this movie even contains a scene that truly shocked me. The Tramp wanders into a church after hearing a hymn. After services he is saved by the preacher and the piano player, Edna. He even puts back the collection box he had taken. Now reformed, he joins the police force and is assigned to Easy Street, where a particularly large bully rules the neighbourhood.
Chaplin and the Bully get into a fight, with Chaplin coming out on top. The Bully is arrested, but soon escapes. Chaplin runs into Edna, but while he has to deal with the bully returning, she gets thrown into a basement, and locked up with a heroin addict. It actually shows this guy with a needle shooting up. After getting high, he decides to rape Edna. Chaplin of course comes out on top, and rescues Edna, but not before sitting on the heroin needle himself. Drug use in old films is very rare. The Girl from Missouri (1934) mentions cocaine. The Hayes code put a stop to that, and drugs became a taboo subject in movies. Drugs did not go mainstream again until Frank Sinatra played an addict in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955).
Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well.
Most indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.”
This is Chaplin's most urbane comedy. Some critics claim it to be his most perfectly composed film, with shrewdly chosen ingredients of minimal pathos, well developed characterizations, the Tramp’s quintessential antagonist and his most frequent leading lady, balanced slapstick, drug addiction, attempted rape, domestic violence, mockery of status quo, with social and political satire thrown in as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Easy Street is evolved Chaplin: a series of astute contrasts in this, his ninth and final Mutual short.
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