Chaplin’s “The Immigrant”: a fragment from “The Gospel of Scarface”

Promotional photograph for "The Immigrant" (1917).  Credit:  J. Willis Sayre Collection, University of Washington Library.

Promotional photograph for “The Immigrant” (1917). Credit: J. Willis Sayre Collection, University of Washington Library.

The Immigrant (1917) tells about the mythical origin of the Tramp—someplace in Europe (Chaplin said: “a composite picture of many Englishmen I had seen in London during the years of my life in that city”[1]), coming to America with other immigrants on a ship in which everyone was seasick at times and old ones were dying. People had trouble with the simplest things, especially walking and eating at table given the rolling motion of the ship. They had to live through the crossing among pickpockets and sitting next to furious card and dice games that broke out into quarrels. As if they had entered a psychic zone of dislocation in which the world had become topsy-turvy.

Then the immigrants see the Statue of Liberty.

They rush to the ship’s side to see it and there are two shots forever memorable: 1) the Statue of Liberty passing as the ship sails by and 2) a remarkable portrait of the faces of the immigrants watching. No music; it’s a pre-soundtrack movie. No jokes now, no gags, no funny business. This moment is serious stuff.

But no sooner do they pass the Statue of Liberty that the immigrants are pushed by policemen, shoved into a corner, roped off from a table where a proto-INS officer fills out papers that decide whether they come in or stay out, and all the immigrants (tagged with a name and number) are examined one by one.

Here is the difference between comedy and tragedy. The Tramp becomes angry, indignant that he is being pushed around, does not like it, does not submit to it suffering meekly until the opportunity for revenge appears. The Tramp gives the policeman who shoved him a portentous kick in the ass that echoed mightily through the hearts of all immigrants who ever saw this movie and still echoes through the years in the souls of all those who came here on a ship or a plane or just walked in anyone at all whose ancestors had to face the official guardians of the New World’s gates. It was a good one too, a nasty kick in the ass upon this world’s obnoxious cherubims. It disturbed the moral sense of all those who thrive on order and the preservation of privilege. In 1927 a number of French artists and intellectuals, defending Chaplin against the Lita Grey lawsuits, published a signed declaration in which they claimed that Chaplin had revealed in The Immigrant the lie of the American dream. The movie showed

the brutalities of the law’s representatives, the cynical examination of the emigrants, the dirty hands fumbling the women on arrival in their land of prohibition, under the classic statue of Liberty lighting the world. What the lantern of this particular liberty projects through all his films is the threatening shadow of the cops who run down the poor, the cops popping up at every street corner, full of suspicion.[2]

The film is based on Chaplin’s own immigrant experiences. The second part of the movie happens in a restaurant. The dream is a lie, the crossing is a failure and the Tramp once again meets the girl he gave his money to on the ship. She’s alone now and broke just like the Tramp in the New World. They are saved from their predicament by (luck, deus ex machina) art, in the person of a painter who hires them to pose as models. The only victory is love, the only permanence is to be found in a generous heart, and the immigrants marry on a sad, rainy day. In the end Chaplin shot nearly 40,000 feet of film for The Immigrant (an 1,800 feet movie), and spent endless days in the cutting room. When he finished, exhausted and emotionally drained he said: “The Immigrant touched me more than any other film I made.”[3]

The Tramp is always defined as an exile, wandering through an urban landscape. He is an Innocent Abroad, a Stranger in a Strange Land but he never surrenders, never gives up, never gives in, never sells out, exists in noble tension with the forces arrayed against him, survives through a comic attitude, and occasionally, in certain instances, is victorious in carving out a space for himself.

OG

[1] Donald McCaffrey, Focus on Chaplin (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1971), 49.

[2] “Hands Off Love: A Surrealist Manifesto,” Summer 1927 issue of transition. Signed by Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Robert Desnoes, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Ives Tanguy and others, as quoted in Joyce Milton, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 279.

[3] Charles Chaplin, My Life in Pictures (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1975), 150.

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