Charlie Chaplin‘s 1917 film about the journey to Ellis Island is as funny and moving today as it must have been to the audiences who saw it when it opened – and just as relevant
This essay was written as programme notes for a project of the pianist Gabriela Montero, who improvises to the film as part of a recital of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Sadly many of her performances this year were cancelled owing to Covid.
There are 40 seconds in The Immigrant that encapsulate exactly why I fell in love with Charlie Chaplin, just as millions across the world have done before me. As the boat bringing the Tramp and his fellow immigrants nears the United States, the Statue of Liberty comes into view – Charlie bites his lip with emotion, but the moment is broken as the stewards pen them in like cattle. Charlie asserts himself in typical slapstick fashion: the kick to the backside of the authority figure.
Hope, anger, irony, rebellion, courage, childishness, comedy – all crammed into one little sequence. In all his films, Chaplin constantly flits like this between aspects of the human spirit and bigger social issues, using infinite shades of light and dark. Without speaking a word, he says the most profound things about us.
His sympathy is always with the underdog, in this case beleaguered people coming to the US. When filming started in 1917, the US Immigrant Act had just been passed, restricting the entry of ‘undesirables’, people from Asia and the illiterate, so the issue he is describing was very real. And yet he also allows us to laugh at the seasick old man, murderous gamblers and the difficulties of trying to eat during a storm.
Chaplin’s own arrival in the US was far more agreeable. He first landed in 1910 on the SS Cairnrona, aged only 21 but already an up-and-coming star of the London music hall, as part of Fred Karno’s prestigious vaudeville troupe (alongside Stan Laurel of later Laurel and Hardy fame). Variety wrote of his performance in The Wow-Wows, or A Night in a London Secret Society, that ‘Chaplin will do all right for America.’
His first North American tour lasted 21 months, and he returned only a few months later, in October 1912, never to live in his homeland again. His comedic talent was spotted by Keystone Film Company scouts and in September 1913 he signed a contract for $150 a week as an actor.
From that point, his rise was meteoric. In 1916 he joined Mutual with a salary of $675,000 to make 12 two-reel comedies – which would include The Immigrant – making him one of the best-paid people in the world. In June 1917 he signed to First National to make eight films for $1m, with his own studio and total control over his own films. He was living the archetypal American dream.
‘He spent much of his childhood shuttling between various institutions for destitute children‘
His wild success is even more surprising given the intense poverty and hardship in which he grew up. The son of music hall entertainers, he was brought up by his mother Hannah Chaplin, but when he was only seven, she had a breakdown and he was sent to the Lambeth Workhouse with his older brother Syd. He spent much of his childhood shuttling between various institutions for destitute children, and the care of his alcoholic father, also Charles.
Maybe as an escape from all of this, he developed a bug for performing and joined the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe, touring England with them at the age of ten. By 13 he had abandoned education, although he remained an auto-didact throughout his life and enjoyed peppering his writings and interviews with unusual words that make him sound somewhat pretentious.
He was also passionate about music from an early age, writing in his autobiography about the moment he fell in love with it: ‘I suddenly became aware of a harmonica and a clarinet playing a weird, harmonious message… It was played with such feeling that I became conscious for the first time of what melody really was. My first awakening to music.’
‘Debussy came to see him backstage and told him: ‘You are instinctively a musician and a dancer‘
His musicality was self-evident – when he was still working with Karno on tour in Paris in 1909, Debussy came to see him backstage and told him: ‘You are instinctively a musician and a dancer.’ Nijinsky once told him, ‘Your comedy is balletic, you are a dancer’.
Chaplin taught himself violin, cello and piano, as he explains: ‘Since the age of sixteen I had practised from four to six hours a day in my bedroom. Each week I took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended. As I played left handed, my violin was strung left handed with the bass bar and sounding post reversed. I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act, but as time went on I realised that I could never achieve excellence, so I gave it up.’
He even plays the violin in two films – the 1916 The Vagabond and 1952 Limelight, but over time his interest in music transferred towards composing, and he wrote beautiful, evocative scores for his feature films, as well as later in life going back to score many that originally featured a live accompanist. At one point, he even owned a music publishing company, which published his tunes, including ‘Oh, that cello’.
A studio press release written in 1917, just after The Immigrant was finished, stated: ‘His chief hobby, however, is found in his violin. Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and if in the humor, can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer. Chaplin admits that as a violinist he is no Kubelik or Elman but he hopes, nevertheless, to lay in concerts some day before very long.’
‘Even in those early comedies I strove for a mood; usually music created it. An old song called Mrs Grundy created the mood for The Immigrant‘
Indeed, the idea for The Immigrant was initially a musical one, he wrote: ‘Even in those early comedies I strove for a mood; usually music created it. An old song called Mrs Grundy created the mood for The Immigrant. The tune had a wistful tenderness that suggested two lonely derelicts getting married on a doleful, rainy day.’
Inspired by this tune, Chaplin worked on the café scene of the second half of The Immigrant. One of the luxuries of his situation was that he could keep filming over and over again, improvising until he was happy – this scene took 384 takes (his sidekick Edna Purviance reportedly became sick from eating so many beans). It was only when that was finished, and he was looking for ideas for a second reel that he invented the backstory on the boat. By the time that was filmed, he had 40,000 feet of film to reduce to 1,800, a task that took four days and nights.
‘The film went on to become one of Chaplin’s most popular films, and his only short film selected by the Library of Congress in 1998 for preservation in the US National Film Registry‘
The film went on to become one of Chaplin’s most popular films, and his only short film selected by the Library of Congress in 1998 for preservation in the US National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ – alongside several of his later features.
In 1917, when The Immigrant came out, films were silent, and accompanied by a pianist, organ or an orchestra, depending on the size of the venue. They either improvised or worked off cue sheets provided by the film company – Chaplin supervised these for his early films.
Everything changed in 1927 with the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. New technology meant that you could hear the actors speak and music became integral to the film. Handsome actors with squeaky voices were suddenly out of work (as parodied in Singin’ in the Rain) and the many musicians who had worked in cinemas lost their work.
Chaplin resisted. He knew that the Tramp’s power, which made him beloved from Argentina to Zimbabwe, depended on him never speaking. In 1928 he started work on City Lights as a silent film, but featuring his own sound track for the first time (though heavily aided by Arthur Johnson). He compromised further with Modern Times, which started filming in 1934 and featured sound effects and Chaplin singing a nonsense song at the end.
Chaplin never learnt to read music, but in his scores for City Lights and Modern Times, he demonstrates an innate musical sense of pace, rhythm and structure, and an understanding of how drama and music relate to each other. He wrote: ‘I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension. Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny… I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grace and charm.’
‘While the encroachment of sound was problematic for Chaplin, it meant that Los Angeles became a magnet for composers and musicians from all over the world‘
While the encroachment of sound was problematic for Chaplin, it meant that Los Angeles became a magnet for composers and musicians from all over the world, some fleeing for their lives from the Nazis (Schoenberg, Korngold, Waxman, Rózsa, for example), or as political dissidents (Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov) – and some just to make a buck in the new market.
The self-taught former cockney urchin with aspirations to high culture was like a kid in a sweetshop. Illustrious artists would often stop at his studio just off Sunset Boulevard or come to dinner, and Chaplin’s autobiography is full of wonderful anecdotes about these encounters.
He describes dining with Rachmaninov at the house of the pianist Horowitz: ‘Rachmaninov was a strange-looking man, with something aesthetic and cloistral about him… Someone brought the topic round to religion and I confessed I was not a believer. Rachmaninov quickly interposed: “But how can you have art without religion?” I was stumped for a moment. “I don’t think we are talking about the same thing,” I said. “My concept of religion is a belief in a dogma – and art is a feeling more than a belief.” “So is religion,” he answered. After that I shut up.’
‘Chaplin nearly produced a film with Stravinsky, inventing at dinner with the composer a passion play about the crucifixion, set in a night club‘
Chaplin nearly produced a film with Stravinsky, inventing at dinner with the composer a passion play about the crucifixion, set in a night club, surrounded by a baying mob and businessmen making money out of the entertainment. The only person upset by the scene is a drunk, who gets thrown out. ‘I told Stravinsky, “they throw him out because he is upsetting the show.” I explained that putting a passion play on the dance floor of a night-club was to show how cynical and conventional the world has become in professing Christianity. The maestro’s face became very grave. “But that’s sacrilegious!” he said.’ Stravinsky (who had written Le Sacre du printemps in 1913) subsequently changed his mind and wrote to Chaplin about doing the film, but by then Chaplin’s attention had moved on.
There are no direct references in Chaplin’s writings to Prokofiev, but the composer mentions him in his own diaries, referring to a meeting in France in 1931: ‘Tomorrow we dine with Charlie Chaplin. I never met him in my life before. It will be interesting to see him.’
Chaplin’s own immigration story did not end happily ever after in the US. On 18 September 1952, aged 63, he and his family set sail to London for the world premiere of Limelight. The next day, the US Attorney General revoked his re-entry permit subject to an interview about his politics and moral behaviour. He had been under the eye of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, since 1922 – his files stretching to 1900 pages.
‘Sequences such as kicking the officer in The Immigrant, the prescient anti-fascism of The Great Dictator and anti-capitalist sentiment of Modern Times may have opened him up to this paranoia’
Sequences such as kicking the officer in The Immigrant, the prescient anti-fascism of The Great Dictator and anti-capitalist sentiment of Modern Times may have opened him up to this paranoia, as well as the generally humanist and anarchic subtexts of his films – especially during the 40s and early 50s, when the US was in the grip of its ‘Red Scare’.
He never took American citizenship and was politically active supporting Soviet-American groups during the Second World War, but ultimately, there is no proof that he was an active Communist. (Claims about his morality were on firmer ground, though – until he married Oona O’Neill in 1945, he was prolific with women and had a particular fixation on very young ones.)
It later emerged that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would not have had enough evidence to exclude Chaplin on his way back, but by then he had decided not to attempt to return, and continued with his family around Europe. He eventually settled in Corsier-sur-Vevey in Switzerland, where he died in 1977, at the age of 88.
In 1972, he was given an honorary Oscar and returned to the US for the first time to accept it – receiving a 12-minute standing ovation from the best-known faces of Hollywood. It was recognition and a resolution of sorts, but a bitter one.
Chaplin films most often end with him picking up his cane, dusting off his hat and walking into the sunset on his own, with a resolute hop-skip (spoiler alert: The Immigrant is a rare exception). He may have been the most famous man on the planet, and one of the wealthiest, but maybe he ultimately remained The Immigrant.
There are versions of the film online, but I've decided not to post them because, frankly, they're terrible quality and the music is horrible. If you want to watch it, try to find a live performance or buy the collection of his films made between 1916 and 1917. It includes many classic shorts and will dispel any ideas you have about him being cheesy and sentimental – they include some of his funniest gags, and there's also a score by Carl Davis.