#447) The Immigrant (1917)

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#447) The Immigrant (1917)

OR “Charles in Charge”

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Written by Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, and Maverick Terrell

Class of 1998

The Plot: An unnamed immigrant who looks a lot like the Tramp (Charles Chaplin) travels to America by boat. On the voyage over, he meets a beautiful woman (Edna Purviance) and attempts to win money for her and her mother from the ship’s gamblers. Some time later, the Tramp, alone and broke in America, happens to reunite with the woman at a restaurant, where he tries to hide his lack of money from their imposing waiter (Eric Campbell). There’s plenty of comedy, and a little pathos in Chaplin’s earliest NFR entry.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown, highlighting the film’s take on “the uniquely American immigrant experience”. As always, Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance is on hand with an essay.

But Does It Really?: This is definitely what I call a “Stepping Stone” NFR movie: an early film from a prominent director that, while it pales in comparison to their later work, helped set the foundation for them to achieve said later work. While “The Immigrant” possesses Chaplin’s trademark blend of comedy and pathos, neither is at the level we know Chaplin is capable of. A pass for “The Immigrant”; an important stepping stone, if not essential Chaplin.

Everybody Gets One: While appearing in the Broadway musical “Pom-Pom”, Eric Campbell was approached by Chaplin to join his stock company of actors at Mutual. As in “The Immigrant”, Campbell often played the heavy, his large frame towering a full foot over Chaplin’s Tramp. Chaplin intended to take Campbell with him once he left Mutual, but Campbell suddenly died of a heart attack shortly after Chaplin signed with First National.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the idea that America is welcoming to immigrants. We as a nation have definitely dropped the ball on that one.

Other notes

  • Chaplin developed his Tramp persona during his time at Keystone Studios (the Tramp’s first appearance was in a Mabel Normand vehicle). After Mack Sennett refused to give him a raise, Chaplin jumped ship to Essanay Film, where he honed his directing skills and became a nationwide success. In 1916, Chaplin’s Essanay contract expired, and while several studios made him offers, he ultimately went with the Mutual Film Corporation, who gave him his own studio and an annual salary of $670,000 (almost $16 million today).
  • As he would do with his later features, Chaplin improvised the plot of “The Immigrant” as he went along. The second half in the restaurant was filmed first, with Chaplin realizing later that he needed a backstory for how the Tramp and Purviance’s character ended up penniless. Chaplin based the first half of the film on his own experience immigrating to America.
  • To achieve the effect of a ship at sea, Chaplin had the boat sets placed on rockers, and had a special camera mounted on a pendulum. The result is one of the film’s few bits that show the promise of Chaplin’s future career.
  • As with many of Chaplin’s shorts, the leading lady is his real-life partner Edna Purviance. Their relationship dissolved shortly after “The Immigrant”, but she continued to work his Chaplin, even playing the mother in “The Kid”.
  • Practically every man in this movie is sporting the “Jerry Colona” style moustache.
  • I laughed out loud at the Tramp maintaining his gunpoint on his fellow passenger, even while turning around to pick something up.
  • If you didn’t know Campbell was a stage actor, his makeup job is your first clue. Those eyebrows are playing to the back of the house.
  • The sequence of the Tramp trying to pick a coin off the floor is another germ of a great Chaplin bit.
  • I was fine with this movie until the ending. The Tramp forces the woman to get married? That’s not a happy ending at all! She doesn’t even have a name!

Legacy

  • Of his early shorts, Chaplin always cited “The Immigrant” as his favorite. He also considered his time at Mutual the happiest of his career.
  • “The Immigrant” was the 11th of Chaplin’s 12 shorts for Mutual. Following “The Adventurer”, Chaplin left Mutual to form his own production company, with the leap to features not too far away.
  • “The Immigrant” is one of many films whose production is touched upon in Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin”.
  • Unfortunately the most lasting impact “The Immigrant” had was on the downfall of Chaplin’s American career. During the Red Scare of the early ’50, the powers at HUAC were looking for any evidence to single out Chaplin’s supposed un-American behavior, and a scene from “The Immigrant” of the Tramp kicking an immigration officer was all it took. In 1952, Chaplin was denied re-entry in the United States, and while he could have fought it, Chaplin instead vowed never to return to “that unhappy country”, a promise he kept for 20 years.

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