Charles Chaplin, The Immigrant (1917) and Easy Street (1917)
- While D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was intended for middle- and upper-class audiences, Charlie Chaplin aimed his films at the working-class audience which frequented nickelodeons. In the nickelodeon, illiterate or non-English-speaking workers and immigrants could be entertained by silent movies which transcended language barriers. More subtly, these films also assimilated recent arrivals both from rural America and from abroad to American urban life. The Immigrant is Chaplin's account of immigrating to the United States; Chaplin came to the US from England in 1910, when he was in his early twenties. In The Immigrant, Chaplin's "Little Tramp" travels steerage, falls in love, and tries to adjust to life in the US, although, as usual, the decks are stacked against him (even though he's one heck of a card dealer!). Easy Street is Chaplin's parody of Progressive reformers, whom Chaplin saw as prudish, intrusive and elitist. In Easy Street, the down-on-his-luck "Little Tramp" makes his way to a Progressive-run rescue mission, where, of course, he falls in love and gets into trouble.
- When viewing The Immigrant, pay attention to the sympathetic treatment of immigrants, and Chaplin's condemnation of the rough treatment they receive in the US. In Easy Street, look at Chaplin's depiction of moral standards of the early twentieth century and of moralistic reformers.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) Why is knowledge about Chaplin's audience important in order to analyze the historical significance of his films?
- 2) Would immigrants recognize themselves in The Immigrant? If they did, how would this affect them?
- 3) How does Chaplin depict reformers and government officials in Easy Street? Does he have a morality of his own? Would his morality be in step with the morality of his day? What would reformers think of Easy Street?
- 4) What are the social problems that Chaplin points out in Easy Street? What should be done, according to Chaplin, to alleviate them?
- 5) Can you imagine a conversation between D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin about the social issues of the day? What would their differences and similarities of attitude be? What real debates over early twentieth-century social issues would their perspectives represent?
Further resources for studying Charlie Chaplin and his films:
- The Silents Majority's Chaplin page.
- Gerald's Chaplin Film Locations--Then and Now page.
- Juha "BuZu" Pasanen's Unofficial Charlie Chaplin Homepage.
- A biography called Entertainment and Chaplin.
- Michael Riley's Chaplin page.
- Glen Pringle's Charlie Chaplin Page.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender courses in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to email@example.com
Last modified: Friday 4 June 1999