The Immigrant (1917)
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell
Synopsis: Charlie is an immigrant who endures a challenging voyage and gets into trouble as soon as he arrives in America.
Although the nationality of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is never stated in The Immigrant, the heavily-bearded guy with the hiccoughs who sits next to him wearing a bulky fur coat and a hat similar to a cossack’s has a distinctly Russian look about him. It seems strange to think that, had we been able to hear the character that won the hearts of filmgoers around the world, he might well have spoken with a thick Slavic accent. Senator McCarthy certainly thought The Immigrant proved conclusively that Chaplin was a dirty Commie, citing the moment when the Little Tramp kicks an immigration official in the backside as irrefutable evidence of Chaplin’s plan to undermine the American way of life. The good senator chose to ignore the fact that the official was an officious jerk who was treating the country’s latest arrivals like restless cattle…
The Immigrant is really two movies in one, with Chaplin writing the second reel before the first. He’s on a boat, on his way to a new life in America when the film opens. Unaffected by the sea-sickness that appears to have afflicted many of his fellow voyagers, the Little Tramp spends much of his time trying to avoid that big guy I mentioned earlier who constantly looks as if he’s about to throw up. In the ship’s restaurant he spies Edna Purviance (The Cure, A Woman of Paris) and is instantly smitten. When a thief steals a purse full of money from Edna’s sickly mother, Charlie coincidentally wins it back in a card game. Taking pity on the distressed Edna, he sneaks his winnings into her pocket.
The second half of the movie has a penniless Charlie finding a coin in the street with which he buys himself a hot meal in the nearby cafe. The cafe’s menacing waiter is played by Eric Campbell (The Cure), a burly, imposing figure with flyaway eyebrows who was Chaplin’s regular foil until his untimely death in a car crash in 1917. Apparently, Campbell’s ashes lay unclaimed for 35 years after his cremation before being buried in an unmarked grave. Anyway, The Tramp once again makes the acquaintance of Edna, but loses his recently found wealth through a hole in his pocket, a misfortune which looks like triggering a violent confrontation with his brawny waiter.
Although the first half of The Immigrant is the section that’s instantly recognisable to filmgoers, it’s the second half that contains the most laughs, thanks to Chaplin’s comical antics around the menacing Campbell. Edna Purviance never looked lovelier than in this one, and although Chaplin succumbs to his habitual sentimentality in the last minute of the movie, he manages to keep the mood light and carefree.
(Reviewed 26th August 2014)