Easy Street & The Immigrant: The Satire of Charlie Chaplin
One hundred years ago, Charlie Chaplin, a wealthy comedian, brought the plight of poverty and the struggle of immigrants to the world stage with two masterful short comedies, Easy Street and The Immigrant. Technically primitive by today’s standards, black and white, silent, displaying a theatrical artificiality, these films are masterpieces of the kind of social satire told from the perspective of the downtrodden that is mostly absent from comedies today.
Born in April 1889 in London, Charlie Chaplin was the child of two entertainers, one of whom, Charles Chaplin Sr. was an irredeemable alcoholic who would die shortly after young Charlie’s twelfth birthday, and the other, Hannah, who would float in and out of mental institutions for the rest of her life. Young Charlie would have to make it on his own at an early age and quickly became adept at entertaining for pennies and never being quite sure from where his next meal would come. Chaplin experienced a kind of poverty that today’s comedians can barely imagine, and he never forgot it.
Even as success came on the stage with Fred Karno’s troupe, which toured internationally, Charlie Chaplin never forgot his roots. It was in 1914 that unprecedented fame would knock upon the door Mack Sennett discovered him. Sennett was a pioneers who made a name for himself with his Keystone Comedies, which in their primitive form invented the language of comedy in the cinema. Many of the characters in these films were anarchists in spirit and reflected the frustrations of the working class and immigrant audiences for whom these early motion pictures were targeted, the latter of whom were captivated by the silent art form for which knowledge of English was not required. Authority figures, such as the Keystone Kops, primarily existed in these films as objects of mockery.
It was only in his second film for Sennett in 1914 that Charlie Chaplin came up with the Little Tramp costume, and while the look and manner was rough and evolving, he was an immediate smash. This dirty little man captured audiences’ imaginations. For despite their primitive approach, these films were giant successes thanks to their contempt for authority.
It didn’t take long for Chaplin to realize he was severely underpaid given his growing fame and adoration, leaped to Essanay Studios in 1915 and spent a year there before signing his record-smashing contract with Mutual Pictures in 1916, signing up to write and direct 12 two-reel films for the total of $670,000. Such seemingly instant fame and success was unprecedented. Given the worldwide scope and reach of Chaplin’s films, it’s not a stretch to say Chaplin was the most recognized and famous man who had ever lived at that point.
How much this responsibility weighed on Chaplin is unknown. But it was clear when he made these films that he was not concerned with just making people laugh. His ninth and eleventh films of his Mutual contract, Easy Street and The Immigrant, displayed a new sophistication in characterization and satiric approach.
Easy Street, released on January 22, 1917, opens with a title card that proclaims “A new beginning,” followed by a shot of a homeless Chaplin – identified as The Derelict – sleeping outside the steps of a Mission. When awakened by singing, he is drawn inside, gives the donation bin a glance, and then joins the singers instead, finding himself attracted to Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s frequent leading lady, leading the choir at the piano. The moment is a parody of Victorian reformation melodramas with which Chaplin was familiar, with The Derelict joining the missionaries, a moment of sentimentality followed immediately by a gag to break up the schmaltz: Chaplin is asked to hold a woman’s baby and he mistakes the spilling water bottle for the baby peeing all over him.
It is the first example of Chaplin punctuating a sentimental moment with humor to soften the blow of too much message. He does it again moments later when, inspired by faith, he shakes the hands of the missionaries and leaves to do good...but not before apologetically removing the donation bin from his jacket and returning it.
Chaplin’s new-found faith results in his taking a job as a cop in the slums, where he must deal with a superhuman giant bully played by frequent Chaplin foil Eric Campbell, and the neighborhood set is a T-junction street set inspired by Chaplin’s South London upbringing, an unflinchingly dirty place where husbands beat wives, dope fiends attempt rape and a giant bully wreaks havoc on law and order. This is where the Derelict and the Bully do battle, and it’s a remarkable piece of slapstick that ends the movie, when Charlie Chaplin accidentally sits on the dope fiend’s needle and acquires the superpowers required to defeat the Bully.
The Immigrant, released on June 17, 1917, opens with a long shot of a steamship and cuts to a rather mournful tableau of shoddily-dressed immigrants packed like sardines, attempting to sleep on the deck of the ship, and then cuts to a poor migrant daughter attempting to comfort her old mother. It’s a rather odd way to open a comedy with brief shots of despair and discomfort, but then Chaplin introduces his character by showing him seemingly wretching over the side of the ship, only to see him stand up and reveal he’s really just catching a fish.
The most striking moment in the film is one of Chaplin’s finest moments of pure cinema. A shot of the Statue of Liberty – representing the freedoms these immigrants have staked their lives upon – is immediately followed by customs officials rounding them up with a rope, packing them in like sardines, anticipating the conditions in the tenements where they will likely live. It’s a remarkable moment for a silent comedy in an age of anarchic slapstick. Here, Chaplin is contrasting America’s ideals with its reality. However, rather than make the audience feel harangued or lectured, he creates deft, comic situations for these characters to allow the audience to empathize with them. Charlie Chaplin had, after all, emigrated to the U.S. just three years earlier and knew what they experienced.
These two Charlie Chaplin masterpieces age surprisingly well, because they are an example of an artist who experienced poverty, who experienced the fear of an immigrant in a new nation, and was able to translate those experiences eloquently on screen. It is the kind of comedy that is entirely absent from the screens of today that feature sometimes middle-class and usually upper-class protagonists. The paths for comedians, after all, today require thousands of dollars available for training and few knew the desperate straits comics like Charlie Chaplin had experienced, leaving an entire worldview and experience absent from the screen.