Monday, March 13, 2017

Charles Chaplin | Easy Street, The Cure, and The Immigrant

three chaplin mutuals
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, and Maverick Terrell (scenario), Charles Chaplin (director)
Easy Street
/ 1917
Charles Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, and Maverick Terrell (scenario), Charles Chaplin (director) The Cure / 1917
Charles Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, and Maverick Terrell (scenario), Charles Chaplin (director) The Immigrant / 1917

Between 1916 and 1917, Charles Chaplin directed 12 films for the Mutual Film Corporation, including some of his very best shorts. As film historian Daniel Eagan notes:

                       At Mutual, Chaplin had unprecedented creative
                       freedom. He could film whatever subject he wanted,
                       tell whatever story he wanted, with whatever
                       characters he chose to invent. He worked with a
                       hand-picked cast and crew, and with no oversight.
                       There was no one to prevent him from reshooting a
                       a scene, or to keep shooting one until he felt he got
                       it right, or to completely alter a finished scene or 
                       remove characters and situations, or decide not to
                       release a completed film at all.

Is it any wonder that Chaplin was later to comment that this was the happiest time of his life.
       The other day, I joyfully reexamined three of these wonderful Mutual films: Easy Street, The Cure, and The Immigrant, the latter on The National Film Registry.
       Easy Street puts the little Tramp in a very strange position, one that he would be cast in only one other film: the role of a cop. As a lay-about hobo, Chaplin is first seen outside a mission center, and when he determines to find warmth within, is quickly greeted by the parishioners, who thrust a songbook before his face and enforce him into their ritual sittings and risings. With the encouragement of the beautiful head missionary (Edna Purviance), the tramp stays on after the service and is somewhat “spiritually awakened” by his encounter with her; who wouldn’t be? 

If nothing else the religious encounter encourages him to seek a job. Since a local policeman has just been attacked by the lawless crowds of the slum in which the mission exists,
there is a new position open at the local police station. When, unbelievably, the tramp determines to enter the station, he is embraced with the same friendliness given him by the churchgoers, is quickly given a uniform and club and sent off to Easy Street, his new beat.
       What the innocent new rube doesn’t know, the director quickly shows us, as the masses pour from their slum apartments, all of them threatening any sign of authority and similarly attacking one another, particularly the “bully” of the group (Eric Campbell), who hates nearly everyone, including his nearly starving wife (Charlotte Mineau)—who is caught by the new policeman stealing a ham from a local sleeping foodseller. But when he perceives her poverty-stricken condition, even the policeman helps her by stealing yet further foodstuffs from the endlessly snoring purveyor.

      Soon the bully beats his wife, locks her up, and proceeds to the street to continue his attacks on nearly everyone in sight, including the tramp/cop. Grabbed by the bully, Chaplin makes use of a bent gaslight by placing its box over the head of the man trying to destroy him, ultimately gassing him into submission. He quickly calls the police stations, whose members, joyful over the criminal’s downfall, hails their new fellow worker and quickly rush off the monster to jail. 
      The bully, however, is also a variation of the “man of steel,” and, recovering, quickly breaks free of his handcuffs, returning for revenge. After a small chase, the rookie policeman runs into a nearby apartment to toss a stove out the window onto the villain’s head, knocking him out. 
      Now the other local hoodlums swarm out of their hovels to further threaten the law-and-order representative. In the attack, Chaplin dives into the basement where the bully’s wife has been trapped, accidentally sitting on a needle of a local heroin addict and, invigorated by the drug’s effects, turns on the crowd, one by one knocking them into submission and saving the day, a prelude of the events in Modern Times where the imprisoned tramp accidentally saves the authorities from a planned prison break.
       If it’s strange to think of wife-beating and drug addiction as the subjects of a 1917 film, let alone a Chaplin comedy, his next film, The Cure, dealt with drugs even more openly, in this case the drug being alcohol. This time a clearly alcoholic tramp visits a health spa, where the visitors have gathered to drink the miracle waters which are said to cure them from the desire for liquor. 
       The Chaplin figure has not only arrived with a large suitcase filled with spirits but is already drunk. And much of the humor of this film concerns those pure waters which The Inebriate skirts with the intensity of the later W. C. Fields. Time and again the others demand that he drink the waters, while he causally steps in and out of the sacred well from which their restorative medicine emanates.
      Once again, the Chaplin regulars, Eric Campbell and Edna Purviance, play major roles. This time round Campbell plays a Man with Gout, upon whose painful toe, The Inebriate steps time and again, and Purviance, The Girl, yet another beauty who helps the Chaplin figure to convert. 
       Among the many other figures, moreover, is a hotel porter, who, upon discovering The Inebriate’s cash of liquor, joyfully imbibes, and a hotel masseur that appears to be interested in torture than bodily relief.
       The major event in this ironic film occurs when the spa head discovers The Inebriate’s stash and orders its destruction. The half-drunk porter tosses the bottles from Chaplin’s window directly into the holy waters below, and…inevitably and deliciously, we soon begin to see the immediate effects, first upon the smug trio of women who have been proffering the water’s healing effects, and then upon the rest of the spa guests, who go into a kind of mad somewhat orgiastic series of dances, almost like something out of a later Fitzgerald novel.
      Demanding, yet again, that The Inebriate take up the cup, these revelers finally convince him to grin and bear it. Of course, the results are totally expected, and his utter drunkenness severs any relationship he might have imagined with The Girl.
      The next day, however, when she discovers what has happened, she forgives him and the reformed Tramp and she walk off hand in hand.

      The best of these three shorts is The Immigrant. No drugs this time around, unless you see the metaphor of these seekers of new lives in the US, as our country itself as a kind of drug. Certainly, Chaplin conveys the intensity of those determined to make a better life in a new land, and the kinds of sacrifices they had to make to get there. The very first moment of the film, shows the Immigrant Chaplin leaning far over the deck of the ship, presumably, like most of his fellow travelers, suffering from intense sea-sickness; but no, this traveler is simply fishing, and brings up a nice specimen from the ocean, while all around him others begin their journey with deep stomach pains.

        Once again, the tramp figure meets Purviance, this time as a lovely young girl accompanying her sickly mother. She discovers that their entire savings has been lost, a gambling pickpocket having robbed them; but Chaplin, also gambling wins most of the money back and restores it to her, but in so doing, is, himself, accused of the theft. She saves him from arrestment.
       Most of the “fun,” if you can describe it as that, of the first part of this bi-parte story, is about the simple swaying motion of the boat. People, living in abject conditions, are comically swung across the decks, bowls of gruel spin across the communal eating tables, and everything and everyone appears in eternal motion, like the passengers themselves, neither here nor there. Chaplin captures the very personal emotions of the travelers through his swinging camera and rotating objects: there is quite literally no stability anymore in their lives.
      When they finally see the great symbol of their acceptance, The Statue of Liberty, they are suddenly cordoned off by a rope, as if a wall has suddenly suspended them of their hopes. Today no one can see this moment without thinking of Trump’s bans and plans for immigrant control. When we realize that later, this scene alone, was brought up as evidence that Chaplin was anti-American, we can only wonder today what that might say of our President
      The second “act” of this “comedy” occurs in a cheap Lower East Side restaurant where the tramp figure accidently reencounters his would-be lover, Purviance. He has just found a coin, and is out to enjoy a sumptuous meal of beans, and is delighted to be able to treat her to the same. However, we have just observed that the coin has fallen through his the holes in his pocket, and, like the happy young diners of Hello, Dolly!, he is about to be met with hostility and embarrassment when it comes time to pay the bill. 
       We watch, in anticipation, as others are humiliated and even beaten (again by the bully figure of Campbell) for their inability to pay, as he gradually discovers the coin is missing. When he finally finds that coin, that has also fallen from other’s pocket, the whole tension of the film shifts to the heavy shoes of the waiter and the tramp, as they step over and try to reel in the piece of silver which might oust or save the two diners from any position in the society into which they have now entered. It is truly a matter of inside/outside; might they, at least, enjoy a simple dinner or will they be tossed into the wilds of the street?
      Chaplin, always the believer of the ideal, ends the film on the positive, literally picking up his would-be fiancée and taking her into a small marriage bureau to tie the knot. This immigrant dream ends most happily, even if we cannot even imagine how the two might survive in their new world.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2017

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