Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s last comedy short The Pilgrim (1923).
We associate western comedies with nearly every major classic comedian but Chaplin: Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and scores of others we wrote about starting here. Despite a few formative months at Broncho Billy’s western studio in Niles, California, and of course The Gold Rush (which is more of a “Northern” than a western), Chaplin seldom springs to mind in relation to the sub-genre. And yet, that’s precisely what The Pilgrim is.
The Pilgrim is essentially a remake of Chaplin’s earlier pictures Police and The Adventurer, fleshed out with an exotic locale (south Texas) and a high concept premise: escaped criminal Charlie masquerades as a clergyman in a small western town in order to evade the law. In one of the film’s most praised scenes, Chaplin’s escaped criminal finds himself in the position of having to deliver a sermon. He tells the story of David and Goliath to us — in hilarious pantomime. When his old cellmate shows up and robs the old lady he boards with, Charlie heroically retrieves the money. Still, the law insists on punishment. The sheriff offers him a choice: back to jail, or freedom in Mexico – which appears to be a hotbed of rampant violence. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Charlie ends the film by making his usual exit down the trail, this time with one foot in each country. A symbolic statement to make for an author who was himself divided, one part moral reformer and one part lawless anarchist.
Later, Chaplin went back and wrote a score for the film, including an adorable cowboy theme song, which I think of as an indispensable part of the experience. Some might debate that, at 46 minutes in running time, The Pilgrim is closer to what used to pass for a feature, rather than a short (shorts were usually defined as two reels or shorter, about 20 minutes max). Let us just say, appropriate to the themes of this film, it lives in No Man’s Land.
Also in the cast are Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Mack Swain, Henry Bergman, Tom Murray, Chuck Reisner, Loyal Underwood, and, as a special surprise, in an uncredited cameo as one of the parishioners, Marion Davies!
For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history, including great Charlie Chaplin classics like “The Pilgrim”, don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube