This legendary comedy stands as one of Charlie Chaplin's great achievements, a seamless blend of humor, romance, suspense and social commentary, all packed into an 18-minute running time! It's especially impressive when you consider that only three years earlier Chaplin was a complete novice at movie making, cranking out reels of often crude and chaotic slapstick for Mack Sennett. But in The Immigrant, Chaplin displays a self-assured command of contemporary film-making skills (i.e. cinematography, editing, and basic story structure) equal or superior to that of the era's top directors. Most impressive of all is Charlie himself: his iconic character is in full bloom, fresh and funny and full of life. He's a marvel, and a joy to watch. The first half of this film is set on the sort of beat-up, wildly rocking cattle boat that served as passage to America for an entire generation of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it's certain that many of the people who saw The Immigrant when it was new could relate to the experience first-hand. Charlie is one of a large group of voyagers, seemingly of Eastern European origin (although this is never specified) emigrating to the United States. Some viewers may find the humor in these scenes vulgar, what with the relentless sea-sickness motif. The very first shot of the film suggests that Charlie is already suffering from a violent bout of mal-de-mere, although a surprise twist reveals we've jumped to the wrong conclusion. Whether you find these gags amusing or not, they're based on harsh reality only slightly exaggerated for comic effect; after all, before he was famous Chaplin himself came to America with the Fred Karno comedy troupe in a boat not unlike the one seen here, and his memory of that experience must still have been fresh -- unpleasantly so. In any event, the highlights of the shipboard sequence include Charlie's attempts to navigate the slick floor of the dining hall, his meeting with Edna and her mother, and a game of cards with fellow passengers, including one burly guy with a very bad temper. The first half closes with one of Chaplin's most famous gags: as the immigrants get their first view of the Statue of Liberty the camera lingers for a moment on their expressions, at which point they are suddenly pushed back behind a rope line and then herded through customs like cattle by brusque, uniformed officials. As this takes place, Charlie sneaks a quick look back at the horizon, as if wondering whether Miss Liberty is really out there after all, and then he manages to give one of the rude officials a swift kick. A most satisfying moment, that. The second half of The Immigrant takes place in a restaurant, and this sequence is a comic tour-de-force in and of itself. Charlie, hungry and broke, enters the restaurant thinking he has at least enough money to pay for an order of beans and a cup of coffee. When he realizes he's mistaken about his ability to pay, his prime objective is to escape the wrath of enormous waiter Eric Campbell, who is almost as menacing here as he was playing the bully in Easy Street. Campbell is a huge factor (so to speak) in making this sequence work so beautifully, as he had a knack for portraying comic villainy in a way that was both funny and genuinely frightening; Charlie's fear at what may happen if he fails to pay his check feels very believable. The many ingenious devices Charlie contrives to avoid facing the music make up the rest of the show, and as the suspense mounts the gags get funnier. (It was interesting to learn from the documentary "Unknown Chaplin" that this sequence was written and filmed first, and that the lead-in material on the boat was devised afterward.) It's in the restaurant that Charlie also reunites with his shipboard sweetheart Edna. Their relationship feels natural, touching, and real, and provides this wonderful comedy with an appropriately poignant finale.
Comedy / Drama / Romance / Short
Comedy / Drama / Romance / Short
Charlie is an immigrant who endures a challenging voyage and gets into trouble as soon as he arrives in America.
June 16, 2020