The Immigrant (1917) A Silent Film Review

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance play a pair of immigrants fresh off the boat who are trying to make a go of it in the United States. Their obstacles: Snotty waiters, thieving fellow passengers and a very large plate of beans. A delicate balance of humor, emotion and social commentary. One of Chaplin’s finest short films and one of his personal favorites.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Blu-ray.

The waiting game.

Charlie Chaplin’s rise to fame and popularity is the stuff of Hollywood legend. An unknown when he started with Mack Sennett’s rough Keystone crew, Chaplin almost immediately created his iconic tramp persona and shot to the top of the ranks of film comedians. However, his professional and creative situation was less than ideal. Chaplin spent the next few years jumping from studio to studio, always seeking better pay and more control over his films.

Chaplin's new home.
Chaplin’s new home.

Keystone had been a training ground but the notoriously tightfisted Sennett was not about to tie himself to an expensive star system by paying Chaplin’s salary demands. Chaplin’s next studio was Essanay and it was during this period that he found his best leading lady, the talented Edna Purviance, and began to incorporate more emotional (as opposed to strictly comical) romance into his pictures.

The contract with Essaney ended with lawsuits, tampered films and general unpleasantness. Chaplin departed for Mutual and took Edna Purviance with him. Chaplin described his time with that studio in his autobiography:

“Fulfilling the Mutual contract, I suppose, was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, twenty-seven years old, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me.”

Free and unencumbered.
Free and unencumbered.

(Chaplin’s memoirs are a frustrating blend of egocentrism, name dropping, score settling, and very strange anecdotes. I had a heck of a time finishing the book. If you can get through it without wanting to throw peanuts at his head, you’re a better person than I am.)

The Immigrant tells the story of an immigrant ship making its way to New York. Chaplin’s Tramp is one of the passengers and he falls in love with Edna Purviance, who is travelling to America with her sick mother. She begins to love the Tramp as well after he recovers her stolen savings. However, the pair are separated by callous immigration authorities.

The parting.
The parting.

Purviance and Chaplin reunite in a restaurant. Our hero offers to buy his lady love’s lunch but quickly realizes that his money has fallen out of a hole in his pocket. This is awkward as the burly waiter (Chaplin’s usual heavy, Eric Campbell) has a habit of thrashing people who attempt a dine-and-dash. Chaplin spends the rest of the short trying desperately to find a way to pay for his meal and win lovely Edna’s hand.

The Immigrant is one of Chaplin’s most popular and most reviewed short films. Because too much discussion of the mechanics of comedy ruins to fun and because the background of this movie has been thoroughly covered elsewhere, let’s just quickly look over why this is quintessential Chaplin.

A classic in every sense.
A classic in every sense.

Romance

This has been called Chaplin’s first fully-realized romance. Whether you agree with this statement or not, The Immigrant is definitely a more delicate direction for Chaplin. I have often stated that of all the major silent comedians, Chaplin was the most fortunate in his leading ladies. In Edna Purviance he had a partner who was the requisite screen beauty but she also had the spark and liveliness to make the love story believable.

A talent in her own right.
A talent in her own right.

Purviance is sometimes described as Chaplin’s muse. I dislike the phrase because it dehumanizes women and turns them into some sort of totem for a man’s creativity. That being said, Chaplin was certainly inspired to create something more tender once he started working with Edna Purviance. However, I must emphasize that she was a talented actress in her own right and brought plenty of charm, humor and fun to her roles.

Her hero.
Her hero.

The Immigrant features the sort of sweetness that would become Chaplin’s trademark. While he is a trickster of the first water, the sight of Purviance brings out the gentleman buried in him. This conflict between crook and lover is illustrated when he tries to return her stolen money. He slips the cash into her pocket without her seeing but then thinks again. He may need some cash of his own. He dips back into her pocket to peel off a few more bills.

Pathos

The word “pathos” is a risky one to use with Chaplin. Is it overused to the point that it has lost its meaning? The word is defined as “an element in experience or in artistic representation evoking pity or compassion” by Merriam-Webster. And here is where we have an issue. The definition is perfect. Pathos is overused because there is no better word for describing what Chaplin accomplishes in his comedies.

Pathos.
Pathos.

The Immigrant doesn’t venture into The Kid or City Lights territory but there is a definite hint of melancholy. Chaplin notices that Purviance is using a black-edge handkerchief and both he and the audience realize that her mother is dead. The scene is handled exquisitely, underplayed by both performers.

Social Issues

First, a bit of background. Chaplin was not breaking new ground by discussing the not-so-warm welcome that awaits the passengers in The Immigrant. The plight of new Americans and the perils of their journey and integration into a new culture had been a popular topic for films in the ‘teens. Chaplin’s blending of physical comedy with real social issues is what makes the film so memorable.

The promised land?
The promised land?

The most famous social element in The Immigrant is the ironic cut between the Statue of Liberty and the passengers being herded like cattle. A little later, the Tramp kicks an immigration officer. Chaplin was reportedly nervous that his inclusion of these elements would offend his audience but was quickly reassured that everything was handled in good taste.

Anti-American?
Anti-American?

I have read multiple articles that claim this film was used as evidence of Chaplin’s anti-Americanism in the 1950s. However, I cannot seem to locate an original source for these claims. It is entirely possible that this was the case as the Red Scare had fear-mongering bullies digging deep into the pasts of writers, performers and directors. However, since I cannot find a proper reference, I must consider the theory suspect. So much has been written on Chaplin that it is possible that I missed something. If you are aware of a proper, high-quality source (newspaper article from the 1950s, scholarly study with proper citations, an interview with Chaplin, etc.), please let me know.

(Please, no politics. We’re here for movies, not bickering.)

Audience Expectation

While there is much to love, one aspect of The Immigrant that appeals to me most: Chaplin’s delicate ballet of expectation and delivery.

Our first view of Chaplin…
Our first view of Chaplin…

Chaplin had an instinctive grasp of what would please and intrigue a motion picture audience. This is apparent from his very first Tramp film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, a plotless little picture that entirely consists of Chaplin trying to insert himself into a newsreel being filmed. While we are looking at the picture with a century of hindsight on our side, I don’t think anyone can deny that there was magic at work. Movie audiences fell in love and while the romance has had its ups and downs, it’s still burning a century later.

What will he come up with next?
What will he come up with next?

In The Immigrant, Chaplin made a conscious effort to play with audience expectations and the payoff that he delivered. Most famously, we see him leaning over the side of the ship, his legs kicking. Seasick, surely. But no, he was actually trying to catch a fish.

Chaplin continues this fan dance around our expectations for the rest of the short. When he realizes that his money is gone and he has no money to pay for his lunch, he goes to find the coin. Someone has already picked it up but another coin falls out of waiter Eric Campbell’s pocket. After considerable effort, our hero is able to scoop it up without the waiter seeing. He grandly offers to pay the bill, Campbell bites the coin—a counterfeit.

The formidable Mr. Campbell.
The formidable Mr. Campbell.

Chaplin’s balance between suspense and relief is exquisite. While his direction is simple (sometimes even called crude) I think it is best described as invisible. Chaplin has a wonderful rhythm going and there is no need for camera tricks or anything else that will distract the audience.

After rewatching the film for review, I came away feeling like I had just seen a particularly elegant dance production. This elegant mix of emotion, movement and suspense is the real secret to Chaplin’s lasting appeal. He wasn’t in it for just the gags and giggles, he aimed for more and he hit to mark to perfection in this short. Further, his audience trickery is not mean or snide. He pulls his tricks on us again and again and we are delighted to have been had.

Always a delight.
Always a delight.

The Immigrant is a delightful mini masterpiece from one of the screen’s finest comedians. Do take the time to see it. It’s famous for a reason.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½

Where can I see it?

The best way to see this film is the recently released Flicker Alley set Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies. It comes with both DVD and Blu-ray discs so you are covered whether you have gone HD or not. It’s spendy but well worth the splurge if you can manage it. Otherwise, there are dozens and dozens of bargain editions out there.

6 Replies to “The Immigrant (1917) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Elegant is the perfect word for this film. And thanks for giving the lovely Edna some recognition. Charlie never had a better on-screen partner.

  2. This is a lovely short film. And I sorely wish that Edna Purviance would have become a star in her own right; she was so talented. What do you think of A Woman of Paris?

    1. She was truly splendid!

      It’s been a while since I have seen A Woman of Paris but seem to recall that I found it a bit… oh, what’s the word… drawing room-ish? Anyway, I should probably rewatch it as my opinion on several films has changed upon rewatching.

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