The Immigrant is an American silent two-reel comedy short starring Charlie Chaplin as an immigrant on a ship bound for the United States. Distributed by the Mutual Film Corporation, The Immigrant was released on June 17, 1917, and became one of Chaplin’s most fondly remembered shorts.
The film begins with the steamship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. We are soon introduced to the Little Tramp (Chaplin) catching fish in the open water. Throughout the early sequences, the heavy sway of the boat is effectively used as a humorous device as the crew struggles with seasickness.
The Tramp wins a game of cards, much to the anger of his opponent, and struggles to eat food in the mess hall due to the swaying of the boat. However, the key moment is when he falls in love with a pretty immigrant (Edna Purviance) who has just been pickpocketed. Feeling sorry for the young woman and her ailing mother, Charlie secretly tries to place his winnings into her pocket but is mistakenly accused of being a pickpocket. The young woman awakes, finds the money in her pocket, and successfully pleads for Charlie’s innocence.
As the ship arrives in America, the passengers stare at the Statue of Liberty. The Tramp and the woman say goodbye to each other before they part company.
Hungry and broke, The Tramp finds a coin on the street outside a restaurant. He slips the coin into his pocket but doesn’t realize that his pocket has a hole because the coin falls immediately onto the street.
The Tramp orders a plate of beans from the thuggish head waiter (Eric Campbell), and he is soon reunited with the young woman, who tells her that her mother is dead. The Tramp orders another bowl of beans for the woman, thinking that he can pay for the meal.
The thuggish head waiter and the other staff members physically attack and remove a customer who is short of ten cents in paying his bill. It is then that The Tramp checks and realizes that his coin is lost. What is he to do?
In the first episode of 1983 documentary series Unknown Chaplin, written by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, it was revealed that Chaplin’s original plan was to have the movie set in an artists’ café, but he developed his ideas during the filming. In the restaurant sequence, there is little reference to the artists’ café origins except for the presence of a famous artist (Henry Bergman) who wants to use Edna Purviance’s character as his model.
Henry Bergman was originally meant to play the bullying waiter, but Chaplin decided to use his regular support star and friend Eric Campbell instead. Campbell played a thug character in many of Chaplin’s early shorts.
Chaplin then decided that the first half was to be set on the boat at sea and that the restaurant sequence was to be the setting for the latter part.
His plan worked. The early sequences are funny and touching, especially when Chaplin and the other poverty-stricken arrivals gaze at the approaching Statue of Liberty. They are full of hope as they arrive in the land of Liberty. However, the Tramp faces reality in the first scene of the second half when he is shown as broke, hungry, and alone on a street in a big city.
The Immigrant is a marvelous short that ranks alongside his earlier classic short Easy Street (1916) as a splendid example of Chaplin’s social commentary, using generous portions of very poignant sequences. It is also very funny, helped by a splendid cast, especially Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, and Albert Austin, but the film succeeds because of Chaplin.
Despite the technical limitations, The Immigrant enables Chaplin to display his obvious physical talents and his ability to tell a touching little story with heart and feeling.
Recommended version of The Immigrant includes a splendid score by Carl Davis (see link below).
Read the earlier Classic Film Journal article Chaplin: The Comic Genius of Early Hollywood. Recommended version of The Immigrant includes a fabulous score by Carl Davis.