Today is the anniversary of the release date of the classic Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917).
Nowadays this film is almost always talked about in terms of its social commentary: shots of eager immigrants on a ship being manhandled like cattle, vs. the ironic image of the Statue of Liberty just across the harbor. It’s there, just as Chaplin’s humanity is always there. But what we are apt to forget is that what’s even more present is slapstick! It opens on a seasickness joke, then moves on to the first act’s main set piece which involves a bunch of guys trying to eat their soup in steerage on the violently rocking boat (the effect of course created by a violently rocking camera). Immigrant Charlie of course falls in love with immigrant Edna.
Which leads of course to the second act, in which he meets Edna again in a restaurant and we have the almost unbearably harrowing scene of Charlie (having lost his money) trying to buy time before the burly waiter (Eric Campbell) can learn that he is unable to pay for their meals. Spoiler: they will be bailed out by an artist (Henry Bergman) who wishes to paint the beautiful Edna. It all seems so simple and elegant, but watch Kevin Brownlow’s Unknown Chaplin doc to learn how much work it took Chaplin and his company to get to the finished product.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, don’t my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.