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The Immigrant

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

9 Responses The Immigrant
Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : January 30, 2016 9:19 am

“What Would Charlie Chaplin Do?” Nowadays, sadly, he’d probably have a tear streaming down his forlorn but defiant face. But seriously, Mr. Kalat, these are some wonderful and important points made about an all too easily overlooked work (gem) within the Chaplin filmography. I would have loved to see the faces of those kids as they discovered it.

Posted By Mitch Farish : January 30, 2016 2:17 pm

Fortunately for us, Chaplin has brought that same outsider persona to many films. I love The Immigrant, and for the same reason I loved The Gold Rush, which introduced me not only to Chaplin but silent film on Orson Welles’ The Silent Years. As a gawky teenager it was great to see the guy who couldn’t get the girl, the guy who’s a source of amusement for his rivals and the girl herself, turn out to be the hero of the film, and of the girl who comes to appreciate and love him. I understand perfectly what those kids felt when they watched The Immigrant. That’s why Chaplin’s films are timeless. I’m always surprised when I hear some say that Chaplin doesn’t date well compared to Keaton or Lloyd. To me he is the best.

Posted By Harmon : January 30, 2016 2:34 pm

You know, I really hate it when bloggers on cultural subjects insert their personal political – and often uninformed – viewpoints into their writing. It’s not quite like the situation where conductors hijack the opening moments of a concert to make political statements, because after all, everyone is free to stop reading the blog, but it’s the same genre, in that there is unstated assumption that all right thinking people share your views.

You should be aware that some of us don’t share your view that the anti-immigrant hysteria at Wilson’s time is the same thing that is going on today, either from a political or historical perspective. I don’t intend to turn your comment thread into a political debate, but I will tell you that my college major focused on American political history, that my interest in it has continued for 50 years now, and I don’t consider your comparison to be valid, other than on a superficial level.

There are informative observations to be made about the relationship of movies to the political and moral climate of the time they were made. And you have made them in your discussion of The Immigrant. But when you start inserting your contemporary political views into the observations, it draws your objectivity into question.

Posted By Rob Farr : January 30, 2016 4:57 pm

I don’t recall Mr. Kalat ever promising us that his blog would be objective. I hope and trust that it will always reflect his subjective viewpoint. Once it becomes a dull recitation of inarguably objective facts, I will stop reading. Is he not allowed to tie in his view of what makes a film work to the political climate at the time it was made? Should he refrain from drawing analogies to the present-day climate? So you disagree with his conclusions. State so and state why. But don’t suggest that David or any writer should censor themselves for fear of losing their precious “objectivity”.

Posted By Emgee : January 30, 2016 8:07 pm

You know, I really hate it when people object to any viewpoint other than their own. By objectivity they just mean bland conformism.

Posted By Mitch Farish : January 30, 2016 8:32 pm

Odd how people who say they hate political correctness hypocritically demand it of others when they disagree with their opinions. David Kalat has the guts to speak his thoughts without running them past the thought police. That’s a good thing to be encouraged.

Posted By George : January 30, 2016 9:17 pm

There was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment during WWI. It spawned a popular immigrant-bashing song, “Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You.”

If you don’t like your Uncle Sammy,
Then go back to your home o’er the sea,
To the land from where you came,
Whatever be its name,
But don’t be ungrateful to me!

Gene Autry revived it during WWII.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyNM7wUkKAU

Posted By George : January 31, 2016 8:46 pm

I agree with Emgee and Mitch Farish. When someone says “Don’t bring politics into this,” what they mean is “Don’t bring politics I disagree with into this.”

It’s like when people say, “Let’s not play the blame game.” What they mean is: “Don’t blame MY party and MY candidate. Of course, I reserve the right to criticize your party and your candidate all day long.”

Posted By Lyndell : February 2, 2016 11:44 pm

Mr. Kalat, I feel called to point out the following because I was called out by my boss decades ago, and never misused the word again: ” Children …. are acutely tuned to the very ideas that enervate The Immigrant. Every kid I showed this to had … known the sting of being on the outside.” Look up the word ‘enervate’ and you will find that it means the opposite, I take it, of what you meant to say. The word you probably were looking for (as was I those years ago) is energize.

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