The Immigrant

Identification: Silent comedy about poor European immigrants arriving in New York during the early twentieth century

Date: Released in 1917

Significance: Directed and cowritten by groundbreaking film artist Charles Chaplin, The Immigrant depicts obstacles and triumphs associated with the immigrant experience. In 1998, the U.S. Library of Congress selected The Immigrant for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Distributed by the Mutual Film Corporation and filmed on location at the Chaplin Studios in Hollywood, California, The Immigrant stars Charles Chaplin and Edna Purviance as unnamed immigrants, apparently—but not definitely—of Eastern European origin. The film develops various motifs, often exaggerated for comic effect, based on the harsh realities that a generation of European immigrants to the United States experienced.

The first part of the twenty-minute film takes place aboard a ship, where Chaplin, in his iconic “Tramp” persona, plays a steerage-class passenger who suffers from seasickness and endures the torments of card-playing thieves and pickpockets. Edna Purviance is also among the deck passengers. The voyage ends when the ship enters New York Harbor, and its passengers see the Statue of Liberty. Thrilled by their first glimpse of the most famous symbol of American freedom, the steerage passengers rush to the side of the ship to get a closer look. However, at that moment, they are roughly roped in by immigration officials, who pull them back, as if they were merely so many farmanimals. The Tramp expresses his defiance of this exercise of authority by kicking one of the officers in the rear.

Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character (left) and fellow steerage-class passengers relishing their first look at the Statue of Liberty
Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character (left) and fellow steerage-class passengers relishing their first look at the Statue of Liberty. (The Granger Collection, New York)

The second half of the film depicts the Tramp and Purviance’s chance meeting in a restaurant. Money issues and a surly waiter (Eric Campbell) complicate the scene. In the end, however, the American Dream proves true: An artist spots the penniless couple and offers them a job. The film is notable for its command of contemporary filmmaking techniques, editing, and fluid plotline.

Cordelia E. Barrera

Further Reading

  • Chaplin, Charlie. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. Edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 
  • _______. My Autobiography. 1964. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 
  • Lyons, Timothy J. Charles Chaplin: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. 
  • Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 
  • Schickel, Richard, ed. The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 2006. 

See also: California; Crime; European immigrants; Films; Hamburg-Amerika Line; Pacific Mail Steamship Company; Statue of Liberty; Stereotyping; Transportation of immigrants; Women immigrants.

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