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The Immigrant Experience - TCM Spotlight
Remind Me

The Immigrant

Nearing the end of his contract with Essanay, Charles Chaplin found himself pursued by all the major studios, who were determined to get the popular star on their roster. In February 1916 he accepted a highly lucrative offer from the ten-year-old conglomerate Mutual Film Corporation that made Chaplin the highest paid entertainer in the world. Mutual gave him his own studio, renamed Lone Star, and he began work on what would be a dozen shorts over the next two years, some of the best of his career, including such classics as The Rink (1916) and Easy Street (1917). Chaplin later referred to his time at Mutual as "the happiest days of my life."

For his leading lady in all of the Mutual Films, Chaplin brought with him Edna Purviance, a former stenographer he had cast in her first movie, A Night Out (1915). Purviance worked exclusively with Chaplin over eight years in three dozen films, and by the time of The Immigrant (1917) they had become romantically involved as well, a relationship cut short by his shotgun marriage to Mildred Harris, a teenage actress he got pregnant. Purviance kept working with him, however, through A Woman of Paris (1923), a film he directed but did not appear in. Chaplin hoped to make Edna a star in her own right with that film, but although highly regarded today, it was a flop upon its release. She made only two more pictures before her retirement, A Woman of the Sea (1926) for Josef von Sternberg, and a French film, Education of a Prince (1927). She came out of retirement only briefly for small roles in two later Chaplin films, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). Chaplin remained devoted to her the rest of her life, keeping her on his payroll until her death in 1958.

In The Immigrant, Charlie and Edna meet on an arduous cross-Atlantic voyage, a couple of immigrants seeking a new life in America. The first half of the film takes place aboard the ship, where Charlie uses his card-playing skills to win back money stolen by another passenger from Edna and her ailing mother. The ship sequence concludes with the passengers lined up at the rail, watching in wonder as they pass the Statue of Liberty, a shot--and a sentiment--referenced in many future movies, notably The Godfather Part II (1974). Shortly after that, he is separated from the girl and her mother as they are herded like cattle onto the dock. Chaplin's depiction of this indignity and the immigration officials who treat the new arrivals so gruffly (one of whom gets a kick in the rear from Charlie) was later cited, incredibly, as evidence of his "anti-Americanism" when he was forced to leave America in the 1950s during the Red Scare.

The second part of The Immigrant finds a down-and-out Charlie coming upon a coin in the street that he attempts to use to buy himself a much-needed dinner. The cafe sequence that follows, in which he runs into Edna once again, is a classic example of Chaplin's inventiveness as the coin is lost and retrieved numerous times. Like all his Mutual shorts, Chaplin built his stories through on-set improvisation rather than relying on a script.

The cafe sequence was actually shot first for another film, a Left Bank romance that was never completed. Chaplin at this time was already notorious for production delays, midstream changes, difficulties in completing productions, and ever-inflating budgets that drove Mutual to distraction, especially since they expected a movie a month from their temperamental artist. The opening scene alone took more than a week to film, forcing Purviance to gobble plate after plate of beans. By the time the cafe section was complete, Chaplin had gone through three actors playing the waiter. He then abruptly changed his mind and decided the reason his character was so poor was that he was an immigrant. The cafe scenes were put aside for use at the end of the movie.

Chaplin gave Mutual further heartburn by renting a tramp steamer for $1300 a day and then let it languish in the harbor for ten days before he got around to shooting on it. On the eleventh day, cast and crew climbed aboard, and a team of tugboats towed them out to sea. Chaplin decided at that moment to start with a gag in which his character would be seen from behind, leaning over the rail as if seasick, then suddenly turning toward the camera triumphantly with a fish he caught. Shooting the impromptu idea had to be put on hold long enough for a crew member to row back to shore and purchase the fish that would dangle at the end of Chaplin's line.

By the time Chaplin completed principal photography for what would be about a twenty-minute film, he had shot about 90,000 feet of film, almost equal to the amount of stock D.W. Griffith used to shoot his epic twelve-reel Intolerance (1916). The result, however, (after four days of non-stop day-and-night editing by Chaplin himself) was one of his sweetest and most intimate stories, the first in which his character embarks on a full-fledged romance. Drawing on his own experiences coming to America a few years earlier, he solidified his reputation with the urban working class who were becoming a major part of his audience. Chaplin later said The Immigrant "touched me more than any film I've made," a notable statement from the creator of the heart-tugging The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931).

The Immigrant was shot by Roland "Rollie" Totheroh, Chaplin's favorite cameraman and the one person other than Chaplin's brother Syd with whom he had the longest working relationship. The two met at Essanay Studios in 1915, where Totheroh made his first two films, both Westerns. They joined forces for Work (1915), and from that point on Totheroh worked for no one else, staying on as cinematographer for every Chaplin film through Monsieur Verdoux. He filmed one other picture, the independently produced Song of My Heart (1948), before retiring.

The Immigrant was Chaplin's penultimate film with Mutual. After The Adventurer (1917), he moved to First National. The Mutual pictures, however, were really where he solidified his characters, themes, and directing style, and the twelve shorts he made there were so successful, critically and commercially, they influenced filmmakers for many years to come.

Director: Charles Chaplin
Producers: Charles Chaplin, Henry P. Caulfield, John Jasper
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, Maverick Terrell
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Editing: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Immigrant), Edna Purviance (Immigrant), Eric Campbell (Waiter), Albert Austin (Diner), Henry Bergman (Artist).

by Rob Nixon



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