Posted by David Kalat on January 30, 2016
For the last several weeks I’ve been circling around the legacy of Charlie Chaplin, with posts about him, his influences, and his contemporaries. This week I return to where I started, the man himself, to look not as Chaplin’s aesthetics but his ethics. There’ s something very important about the little fella I haven’t remarked on, and now is the time.
Let’s just start by saying that The Immigrant is my favorite Chaplin film, but that it got to be that by earning the spot. You see, I used to go around to elementary schools with a 16mm projector and put on an hour-long show of short comedies. I’d originally intended it to be a rotating selection, chosen by my mood at the moment and whatever tied in best with what the class was working on at the time. Sometimes I might include Big Business if it was Christmastime, or some Melies shorts if the class had been studying France, and so on. But very quickly on, I realized that for every class and every time I did this, The Immigrant got the biggest reaction. It became the tentpole of the show, by default.
I’ve had kids come up to me, years later, and recognize me—you’re the guy who showed us that Charlie Chaplin film. I showed a bunch of stuff, but that’s the one they remember. Keaton’s One Week, the two reel version of Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, Harry Langdon’s Remember When—those were fleeting, ephemeral moments. Chaplin’s The Immigrant made an impression on these kids, and I decided to start studying it closely.
The Immigrant came out in June 1917. Now, just four months earlier, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. A hundred years ago, you see, the country was gripped by the same asinine xenophobia and nativism as it is today, and there were politicians then who whipped up anti-immigrant scapegoating for their own benefit.
President Wilson vetoed the thing, but the groundswell of anti-immigrant hysteria was enough to override the veto and get the Immigration Act of 1917 into law. The Act declared most of Asia as a “Barred Zone,” forbidding immigration from the entire region. It enumerated the types of “undesirables” who would be barred from any country: “homosexuals”, “idiots”, “feeble-minded persons”, “criminals”, “epileptics”, “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, “mentally or physically defective persons”, polygamists, and anarchists. And it imposed a literacy test to exclude the uneducated.
Notice how many of those “undesirable” character types describe Chaplin himself, or his screen persona? This did not go unnoticed. The biggest movie star in the world knew firsthand what it meant to be unwanted and adrift, to be hungry and destitute, to be distrusted. He knew alcoholism and madness first hand. He made a living playing criminals and beggars. And so, he made a movie.
It happened backwards. He’d been working on a film about slapstick shenanigans in a restaurant. As he improvised on camera, he hit upon the idea that his character had never been in a restaurant before, and this opened up whole new avenues of jokes. As the thing developed, though, he realized it was funny without making a whole hell of a lot of sense. He needed some context. He needed a first act.
And so, working backwards to justify a situation in which a grown man has his first encounter with a restaurant, he decided his first act would be about watching this guy immigrate to the United States.
But here’s the sheer brilliance of the set-up: Chaplin gets a lot of sharp jokes in about the very things the xenophobes were anxious about. The film shows a boat full of poor people, who don’t speak English, who eat weird smelling food, and bring various diseases and criminal activities with them. If you’ve got a chip on your shoulder about immigrants, this film has jokes that come from your perspective. Only, they don’t quite land the way they seem to be aimed.
Instead of appearing like a mass of dangerous unassimilable others, the immigrants in the film are portrayed as sympathetic people. For all the differences that are depicted, they are fundamentally like us. Audiences had been watching Chaplin cavort through two-reel shorts for three years by this point, and there’s little in The Immigrant they hadn’t seen in one form or another before. These people aren’t so different after all, the film seems to whisper.
I’ve already mentioned this fact: Charlie Chaplin was the world’s most highly paid entertainer. The entire film industry has been reshaping itself around him. Put his name on a film and it will turn a profit, simple as that. He’s so marketable, films that have exactly nothing to do with him are using lookalikes to try to buffalo audiences and cash in on his appeal.
In other words, he has power. He can do literally anything and the audience will follow—so he plays an immigrant. He plays an immigrant who can’t read and has no money, one who is clearly willing to at least consider theft and murder even if he doesn’t go through with it.
Under the law that was just passed, this guy would be barred from entry. The most popular performer in the world uses his bully pulpit to show that, if you’re going to draw up lines of us versus them, he is choosing the “them” side. Chaplin is siding with the outsiders, the excluded, the unwanted. This isn’t casual or coincidental, this is the politics of the personal.
He doesn’t have to do this—he’s already in. He’s safely integrated, he’s rich and powerful and comfortable. If he wanted to, he could poke merciliess fun at those smelly foreigners and their funny accents and we’d all laugh with him, at the powerless and the downtrodden. But this is an artist who has always chosen the path of mercy, and inclusion.
I know that the main reason that the schoolkids I showed this to responded so thunderously in favor was mostly due to the fact that Chaplin was a gifted filmmaker whose sense of pace, composition, and storytelling was finely sharpened. The Immigrant is zippy fun. But, c’mon, seriously—so is One Week or Big Business. I have to think that somewhere deeper in that audience response, the kids were responding to the film’s ethics. Children are still finding their sense of right and wrong, working out their sense of tribalism, who’s in and who’s out, and why. They are acutely tuned to the very ideas that enervate The Immigrant. Every kid I showed this to had at some point, probably fairly recently, known the sting of being on the outside.
It’s something to remember, as we continue to hash out who we are going to exclude, and which mean-spirited and small-minded ways we will choose to do that exclusion. As those debates rage, it helps to think “WWCCD,” or “What Would Charlie Chaplin Do?”
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