Charlie Chaplin’s silent film, “The Immigrant” (1916), depicts the struggles of eager and ambitious immigrants and the hardships they encountered migrating to the United States. Chaplin showcases the conflicts immigrants endured with their fellow travelers on their long sea voyage as well the rising tensions they faced with Americans in the communities they settled into.
In the first half of the film, the image that Chaplin illustrates of immigrants was a fairly negative one. Through their journey across the sea the immigrants are shown sleeping packed body-to-body outdoors on the deck.
Rugged and unshaven with filthy clothes and faces covered in ash or dirt, the background characters portrayed the worst-case scenario of what an immigrant might look like. Characters were deceitful and selfish, stealing a sleeping woman’s purse and stampeding towards the mess hall. Knowing that this was a U.S. made film, it was uncomfortable and somewhat offensive to see immigrants portrayed in such a brutish and harsh light, especially regarding the historical context of the time. Produced in 1917, this film was released in the tail end of the great immigration wave. Although the peak years of immigration was a few years passed, the rate at which people entered the country was still fairly steady with only mild decreases each passing year. It felt uneasy for Chaplin to be this direct about his humor towards immigrants in a time where the issue was still very much alive, especially when considering the magnitude of his voice and public adoration.
After pausing the film and conducting some research, the second half of the production took on a whole new light. Discovering that Chaplin was an immigrant himself only four years prior to the release of “The Immigrant”, the perspective changed from migrant hating American to uplifting and inspiring immigrant. From my point of view, the intended audience and purpose transitioned from humoring anti-open border Americans to relating to and connecting with immigrant communities.
In the second half of the film, Chaplin highlights the oppression that immigrants faced in settings as simple as dining out. Chaplin’s character was forced to wait longer to be seated and even then was sat at a table with another guest already there. The waiter was furious and hateful of Chaplin throughout the scene. I believe the waiter’s overreaction to simple things like Chaplin not initially removing his hat depicts the innocent naivety of an immigrant’s unknowing un-following of U.S. customs and the foolish overreactions of Americans to things that are different.
The film was widely praised. Immigrants and Americans alike loved the film. Americans loved the foolish humor of the migrants while immigrants felt a deeper connection to the lighthearted portrayals of a very difficult time. It was labeled as Chaplin’s best-produced film and is his personal all time favorite work. The film ends with the two immigrants getting married; the soft echoes of the “American Dream” can be heard approaching in the distance.
The history behind Chaplin and his successes are the embodiment of what the American Dream has seemed to mean. The American Dream that Chaplin achieved is unlike that of The Great Gatsby, where “The American Dream shimmers and glistens in the way the Emerald City does, illustrating that we have created a land of commercials and advertisements…” (Barret 23). Chaplin’s American Dream was not based around riches or things, but rather the triumphs of opportunity in a constant uphill battle, “the idea of creating your own destiny and achieving the dreams that you set out for yourself…” (Schulz Hack #6).
In context, Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Immigrant” highlights the importance of media in American culture. This film showcases the power that media can have over influencing, uniting, inspiring, and comforting the American people. In “The Immigrant”, Chaplin used his massive avenue of communication to reconnect an alienated and oppressed demographic and added humor to a time of great adversity.
NOTE: All references are hyperlinked and bolded in text as instructed to do so in class.