Saturday, November 21, 2015

Stubs – The Immigrant (1917)

The Immigrant (1917) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Written by Charlie Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, Maverick Terrell. Produced by John Jasper. Run Time: 20 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Comedy, Silent

By the time Charlie Chaplin was 26, he was one of the most famous people in the world and arguably the biggest film star. Having started in film only three years earlier with Making a Living (1914) and Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), he had gone from making $150 a week to an offer by the Mutual Film Corporation to make $670,000 a year in 1916. The films he made that first year include The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M., The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen and The Rink. But in 1917, Chaplin demanded more time and produced only four shorts in the next 10 months, including Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer. Chaplin would later consider this to be the happiest period of his career.

Like many of Chaplin’s films at this time, he would start filming with only an idea and see what would develop from there. In this case, he started to make a movie set in an artist’s café. He quickly abandoned that idea and started to work on a film still set in a café, but about a man who had never been in a restaurant before, displaying poor table manners until he meets a girl played by Edna Purviance and shapes up almost immediately.

Realizing he needed more plot, he developed the idea of them both being immigrants and shot a sequence about arriving in America. He then reshot the café scenes to make it more consistent with the new plot line. Once filming was completed, Chaplin stayed awake for four straight days to edit the film for release on June 17, 1917.

The short has three acts. The film opens on board a steamer on its way to America. The opening sequence features several misadventures of an unnamed immigrant, the Tramp (Chaplin). We’re introduced to the backside of the Tramp as he is leaning far over the rail.

Our first view of the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) in The Immigrants.

From the convulsions his body is going through, we assume he is having a bout of seasickness, but he’s not. He’s been trying to catch a fish, which he pulls on board, only to have it land next to a sleeping man on the deck.

The Tramp catches a fish off the side of the ship.

The Tramp tries eating in the mess, but the pitching of the ocean has the bowl of food sliding across the table to the Tramp and then to another unnamed immigrant. Each takes a bite of food when the bowl is in front of him. It is in this sequence that we’re first introduced to the unnamed immigrant portrayed by Edna Purviance. The Tramp notices her as soon as she enters the hall and offers up his seat at the table for her.

When Edna enters the room, the Tramp notices her right away.

Out on deck, the Tramp seems to win easily (and a little showy) at dice, ending up taking another immigrant’s money. The gambler (Tom Wilson) looks more like a reject from a western than a European, but he wants to try and win his money back. And when he sees an ailing woman (Kitty Bradbury) with an envelope of money around her neck, he is not above robbing her, so he does.

But he doesn’t want to play dice anymore, rather poker. The Tramp is nervous, especially since the man has a gun. The Tramp shuffles the cards after a fashion and two other shipmates join in. When the man with the gun can’t match the Tramp’s ante, the man sells his gun to the Tramp. And when the Tramp wins he uses the gun to ward off the angry gambler.

The Tramp is forced into a game of cars with gambler with a gun (Tom Wilson).

We find out that the money belonged to Edna’s mother and it is their life’s savings. The Tramp realizes perhaps that the money he’s won was taken from them and he slips some money into Edna’s coat pocket. Then he thinks about how much he’s giving and takes a few back; then reconsiders that amount.

Realizing the money he's won has been stolen, the Tramp returns some
of it to its rightful owner, Edna's mother. (Kitty Bradbury).

All the time he’s got his hand in and out of her pocket, he’s being observed by one of the ship’s officers (Frank J. Coleman), who accuses the Tramp of being a pickpocket. The official calls Edna over and tells him what he’s seen, but she knows there was no money in her pocket to steal. All is forgiven and a hint of blossoming romance is shown.

But the ship is about to land in America and after a panning shot across Lady Liberty, immigration officials board the boat and process everyone. Edna and her mother are the first off and even though the Tramp is processed right after them, we get the feeling they’ve been, perhaps forever, separated.

The Tramp, Edna Purviance and her mother all glimpse the Statue of Liberty as the ship arrives in New York City.

The second act picks up the Tramp’s story later when he is now broke and hungry. Outside a restaurant, he finds a coin on the street and goes inside to eat. He orders a plate of beans, which comes with a yard long piece of bread. While he’s eating he sees Edna who is now all alone. He has her join him and orders beans for her as well.

His burly waiter (Eric Campbell) patrols the restaurant floor like a vigilante. When a patron (John Rand) is short 10 cents on his bill, Campbell and the other waiters wail on him before forcibly ejecting him from the restaurant. It is about now that the Tramp realizes he has a hole in his pocket and the coin he was going to use to pay for dinner is gone. The Tramp is terrified of getting the same fate as the other patron.

When another patron pays for his dinner, the same coin the Tramp had found. He tries to be nonchalant about picking it up, but Campbell returns and stands on it. The Tramp makes many failed attempts at picking up the coin before retrieving it. However, when he pays the waiter, the coin turns out to be a fake.

The Waiter (Eric Campbell) demands payment from the Tramp.

The Tramp is saved when a visiting Artist (Henry Bergman) notices the couple and comes over to talk to them about posing for a painting he’s doing. The artist seems more interested in Edna and talks to her while the Tramp tries to figure out his next move. The artist offers to pay for their meal, but the Tramp makes a show of refusing the help. The artist offers again, but the Tramp again waves off the offer. This goes back and forth until the Artist withdraws the offer and the Tramp is once again on the hook.

A visiting Artist (Henry Bergman) provides the Tramp with a way to pay his restaurant tab.

The waiter returns and the Artist pays his bill. The change which the Artist meant as a tip, the Tramp notices, is enough to cover his meal. While the waiter is busying attending to another customer and the Artist is chatting to Edna, the Tramp slips the tip off the table and offers it to the waiter to settle his bill, tipping the waiter the much smaller change as a tip.

Outside the restaurant, the Artist thinks everything is settled, but the Tramp asks for a few dollars up front. It is raining heavily now and the Tramp escorts Edna over to the Marriage License office, where the Marriage Registrar (Tom Harrington) is waiting. The Tramp steals a kiss from Edna and apparently proposes marriage. The film ends with the two going into the office to start their new life together in their new country.

The Tramp steals a kiss from Edna as the two start out on their new life in America.

The film shows how far Chaplin had come as a filmmaker from his earliest slapstick Mack Sennett films. The Immigrant has a mixture of comedy and pathos that would characterize his best films including The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). We laugh at the antics of the filly and willy Tramp, but we see when he is down on his luck, too. There is nor a promise of a rosy future for the Tramp and Edna, but we're pretty sure they will get by somehow.

Edna Purviance had an entire career just appearing in Chaplin films. In 1915, She was working as a secretary in San Francisco when Chaplin was looking for a lead actress for his second film under his Essanay contract, A Night Out. Discovered at Tate’s Café by an associate of Chaplin’s, he gave her the part. Romantically involved with the director from 1915 to 1917, she would appear in 33 of his short films made under his Essanay, Mutual and First National contracts, including The Tramp (1915) and A Dog’s Life (1918).

She would also appear in The Kid and The Pilgrim (1923). In A Woman in Paris (1923), Edna was the lead and while Chaplin wrote, directed and produced the film, he did not appear in it. The film was not a commercial success and her career was virtually over. She would make another film with Chaplin, A Woman of the Sea, in 1926, but the film was not released and is now considered lost. Purviance is credited with appearing in a French film, Éducation de Prince (1927). Even though she stopped appearing in Chaplin films, she remained on his payroll until her death in 1958.

Eric Campbell, the hulking headwaiter with the severe devilish eyebrows had a similar film career. A fellow member of the Fred Karno act, Campbell moved to the U.S. in 1914. Chaplin saw him in a play in 1916 and asked him to move to Hollywood to join his cast of actors. Campbell appeared in 12 of the Mutual films for Chaplin. His first appearance was in The Floorwalker (1916) and he was prominently featured in Easy Street (1917). Like Chaplin, Campbell had impersonators, including Oliver Hardy. Campbell’s last film was Chaplin’s final Mutual film, The Adventurer. He would die in a car crash in 1917.

Chaplin, who had emigrated from England only four years earlier, never did become a U.S. citizen, even though he lived and worked here until 1952. Despite his support of the Liberty War Bond drives during World War I, Chaplin was accused of being a communist for publicly supporting opening a Second Front to aid the Soviets and various Soviet-American friendship groups during World War II.

Chaplin denied accusations that he was a communist, insisting he was instead a “peacemonger.” Subpoenaed to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was never called to testify. But anti-Chaplin feelings got so bad that when he left to premiere his film Limelight (1952) in London, Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked Chaplin’s permit to re-enter the U.S. Chaplin moved to Switzerland and severed all business connections with the U.S. when he sold his last shares in United Artists in 1955.

There is a lot to like in this short and I would definitely recommend it. One of the problems with films from this time period, at least for the modern viewer, can be the over-the-top makeup the actors wear, especially villains. The harsh eyebrows of Campbell’s waiter character seem to be in stride with the sometimes very absurd facial hair that one sees in comedies from the silent era. Men have beards that had to exist only in the movies. I’m not sure if that’s a hangover from vaudeville or a shorthand the audiences at the time understood. But it is worth getting past that and it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of The Immigrant.

For reviews of other silent films, please see our silent film review hub here.

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