The Immigrant (1917)


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest short length film. Like most of Chaplin’s movies, he balances on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy in The Immigrant. The film opens on a ship headed for the U.S. Its occupants are mostly Russian Jews seeking refuge from the oppression of the tzar. On the ship, Chaplin accomplishes some of his greatest physical comedy including the results of seasickness and a choreographed scene with a fish that must have inspired Monty Python’s obsession with fish slapping. But Chaplin does all this surrounded by grief, poverty, hunger, and desperation.

Chaplin’s character doesn’t seem to have the same amount of physical and emotional distress as those with him on the ship. The movie doesn’t explore why that is or give any of his (or anyone else’s) backstory. We just know that he’s surrounded by hurt and sees himself as a way to make things right. Chaplin’s characters are often unintentional heroes that do great things for other people but only by accident. His character in The Immigrant is no “little tramp.” This may be his only true heroic character.

Most of the movie is set on the ship. Through what happens on the ship, we see that the story is set in a time where immigrants are unfairly labeled “bad hombres” just like the world we live in in the U.S. right now. An older woman on the ship realizes she has lost the money that will make her able to enter the U.S. legally. Without that money, she gets sent back. Chaplin’s character has compassion on her and has a very funny scene where he tries to sneak money into her pocket without her knowing it. But an American guard on the ship sees and accuses him of being a pickpocket. When they reach the border, things just get worse.

Everywhere he goes, he’s treated like he doesn’t belong, like he’s ruining the country, and like he’s a “bad hombre.” Nobody is willing to show him the same compassion that he is so willing to give others. Chaplin’s usual characters would fight over this, but not this one. Chaplin’s immigrant character is always willing to fight, but only for other people that he sees being wronged. In less than a half hour, we see a story that vividly shows the themes of justice, compassion, and mercy, something so sadly missing from the America of its time.

It’s been 100 years since The Immigrant was made, and in the last few decade, much progress has been made to avoid the type of treatment of people seen in this movie. But ever since Donald Trump decided to “make America great again,” he’s shown that his vision of American greatness looks a lot the anger, oppression, deceit, and discriminatory behavior that marks how the American characters in this great Chaplin film treat immigrants. That is a very sad reality, yet Chaplin’s character offers such a contrast to all the harm by being a source of healing. So the movie shows us that we can fight against these cultural swings towards hatred and indifference by giving love and compassion.


Other Chaplin movies I’ve reviewed:

The Gold Rush (1925); Modern Times (1936); The Great Dictator (1940)


List: Best Film Scores #20-1

Thursdays in June I’m giving my picks for the 100 greatest movies scores of all time. You can see the full list here and listen to the top 100 scores here.

MV5BMmY1YmFkZjgtZjRkZC00MTRmLWE3ZjMtYjRjMDUxZGRhOWZmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Bernard Hermann: #95 The Trouble with Harry, #25 Citizen Kane, #13 Psycho, & #10 Vertigo


20. Michel Legrand, Lola (1961)

19. Maurice Jarre, Doctor Zhivago (1965)

18. Alfred Newman, How the West Was Won (1962)

17. Elmer Bernstein, The Magnificent Seven (1960).

16. Miklos Rozsa, Ben-Hur (1959)

15. Elmer Bernstein, The Great Escape (1963)

14. Ludovic Bource, The Artist (2011)

13. Bernard Hermann, Psycho (1960)

12. John Williams, Schindler’s List (1993)

11. Tan Dun, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

10. Bernard Hermann, Vertigo (1958)

9. Anton Karas, The Third Man (1949)

8. Henry Mancini, The Pink Panther (1964)

7. Alan Silvestri, Forrest Gump (1994)

6. Max Steiner, Gone with the Wind (1939)

5. John Williams, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

4. Ennio Morricone, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

3. Charles Chaplin, Modern Times (1936)

2. Nino Rota, The Godfather (1972)

1. Maurice Jarre, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)



Modern Times (1936)


If you haven’t seen Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times yet, I promise I’m not giving anything away by saying that it has a perfect, yet very bittersweet ending. As in many of his movies, Chaplin starred in, directed, wrote, produced, and composed the score for Modern Times. It is that music score that’s key to how the whole movie feels. It ends with the piece that later had words added to it and was called “Smile.” The chorus of the song says “Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking. When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.”

Even though those words were placed to the piece after the movie, they reflect the movie’s tone and message to a tee. Modern Times is the best Depression-era film about the Depression. It’s also the last time Chaplin played his Little Tramp character; after Modern Times, he finally transitioned into talkies and left the Little Tramp behind. In this film, the Tramp works in a factory. He has some hilarious scenes testing out all the newest machinery. But when the factory shuts down, he can’t find other work. He constantly gets caught accidentally with the wrong crowds and ends up in jail though innocent. When released the first time, he tells the jailer he doesn’t want to go. He’s happy there. The jailer laughs, but we know he’s not kidding.

On the rare chance that he gets a job, he can’t keep it for more than a day. So he keeps trying to go back to jail where he’s happy. It’s the only way he can get his daily needs met and the only way he’s happy, until he meets the gamin played by Paulette Goddard who was Chaplin’s wife at the time. The gamin witnesses her father’s murder at the beginning of the movie. Her sisters are taken to orphanages, and she remains homeless.

Even though Modern Times is full of Chaplin’s signature physical comedy, the plight of these two characters is a dramatization of the very real America of the time the movie was made. They help us to sympathize with the people who went through that and to see that no matter how bad the economy may be that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, we have not had to endure anything like that generation did. As we grow to care deeply for these two characters, we are able to rejoice with them in their ability to learn how to live in the midst of such harsh situations. They learn to smile when their hearts are aching.

It’s not a fake, “keep-your-chin-up” smile that ignores the reality of the world around them. They’re able to smile and they’re able to live because they have each other. The bond they share is stronger than all the many forces against them in the story. That bond is a reminder to all of us that when the world around us is at its darkest, there is always something we’ve been blessed with, something greater than the very real sorrow we experience, something that can lead us to a genuine smile in the midst of any pain.

Also directed by Charles Chaplin:

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Go to the links to all my reviews here.


The Great Dictator (1940)


After the movie world transitioned to sound, Charles Chaplin continued making silent films through the 1930s with City Lights and Modern Times. Not until 1940 did he make his first talkie. Playing both an unnamed Jewish barber who fought in the first world war and the dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel. This was the right time, the right way, and the right subject matter for his first talkie. Some of the funniest moments involve Chaplin’s voice (the barber’s confused murmurs when caught in a mist as a soldier, unwittingly finding himself on the other side of the battle and the mock German he uses for the dictator involving mostly food and scatological words, an influence on the language of the Despicable Me minions). Chaplin wrote the story, directed the film, and played both of the leading roles all with the point of leading up a speech he would give, one of the most electrifying scenes in film history.

Though the sound is an important way that Chaplin achieved his goals, he never abandoned the physical humor that made him so successful. He cuts hair and shaves a customer in rhythm to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. He resists storm troopers through a hilarious choreographed routine. Most importantly, Chaplin uses techniques of physical comedy to have the impact he wanted his movie to have. In the scene pictured above, Chaplin literally walks on walls and dances with a giant balloon globe. Although he’s doing things that are common in the silent physical comedy of his earlier years, there is nothing at all funny about this scene. Showing the depths of the dictator’s self-delusion and all-consuming desire for world domination, the scene is more terrifying than anything horror movies could ever dream of delivering.

What makes every scene of the movie work is the fact that Chaplin plays both of the main characters. He mocks and uses to his advantage the strange fact that he (a person of Jewish descent) and Adolph Hitler looked so much alike. He used his comedy, his physical agility, his personal convictions, and even his voice to try to change the world. In 1940, America didn’t have much understanding of what was happening in Germany, and it showed little interest in intervention until it was attacked itself. But Chaplin used this movie to try to convince the country that there was reason to get involved, to fight for democracy, peace, and equity. Several scenes in the movie show a very limited understanding of what concentration camps look like so that today’s viewers may be put off at how much it minimizes the atrocity. This is exactly why it’s important for us to know and to remember that this movie was made two years before the U.S. entered WWII. Chaplin used whatever knowledge he had to make his case and a brilliant movie. Limited as it was, he did everything in his power to fight the Nazis through The Great Dictator.

The powerful speech that closes the movie is not so much a speech to the Nazis of the world though the context of the movie places it there. It is a speech to Americans and to others who at least had the pretense of desire to help others. He called for people to embrace humanity and to fight for what is right in a way that breaks through past the brainwashing and demoralization of both tyrants and of the inner tyranny of fear that he thought was keeping Americans inactive. In hindsight, I think Chaplin would say that had America intervened earlier than they did, the results of WWII would have been more like those in the movie. Whether or not there is any truth to that, watching The Great Dictator is much more than watching a great movie. It is watching the passion of a man using everything he has to make the world he knows a better place.


Also directed by Charles Chaplin:

The Gold Rush (1925)

Modern Times (1936)

Go to links of all my reviews

List: Greatest Male Acting Performances

Last summer, I posted a list of what I think to be the 25 best female acting performances. It’s been five months since that list and I’ve neglected the men, so here are my picks for the best male acting performances of all time.


25. Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)



24. Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca (1942)



23. Peter O’Toole, The Ruling Class (1972)



22. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)



21. Peter O’Toole, Becket (1964)



20. Anthony Quinn, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)



19. Sal Mineo, Rebel without a Cause (1955)



18. Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights (1939)



17. Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot (1959)



16. George C. Scott, Patton (1970)



15. Peter Lorre, M (1931)



14. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous (1937)



13. Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)



12. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)



11. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988)



10. Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981)



9. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)



8. Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds (2009)



7. Jack Nicholson, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)



6. Yul Brynner, The King and I (1956)



5. Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)



4. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)



3. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)



2. Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)



1. Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator (1940)


The Gold Rush (1925)


Only a short part of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is set at New Year’s Eve, but the whole movie is about the need, the attempt, and the chance for a new start. “Auld Lang Syne” is played twice in the movie, obviously at midnight at the start of New Year’s Day but also at the last scene of the movie, recalling that what happened on New Year’s was that chance for a new start that has now been complete.

Chaplin’s movies always find a very fine line between comedy and tragedy and are often filled with the darkest of themes that only a true master could work with honestly and still be true to his great gift for physical comedy. In 1936, he made a shockingly inspiring and hilarious story centered around homeless people during the Great Depression, Modern Times. In 1940, he made his funniest film which far more shockingly was set in Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator.

This film, is no exception. In the Klondike, the Tramp is a prospector existing in a world that cares only about survival. His only friend is so starved that he becomes tempted towards cannibalism and tries to kill the Tramp on several occasions. Every attempt the Tramp makes to keep himself and his friend safe is met with great opposition showing just how desperate and how dangerous this lifestyle is. Of course, it’s a Chaplin movie so every danger, every situation that threatens and scares the Tramp finds its own special way to make the audience laugh because of all the brilliant ways Chaplin uses his body to make something funny out of something in that in reality is grim and even terrifying.

Just before New Year’s Eve, the Tramp meets Georgia who pays attention to him only to ward off the unwanted advances of another man. She and her friends soon see that they can take advantage of his quirks and the way he is smitten with her for their own selfish entertainment. He invites them all over to his shack for New Year’s Eve where he performs his famous dance with dinner rolls. This scene is sheer delight, being the only way he has (without money, intelligence, or anything else to give) to show his affection for her. He believes that if he makes her laugh, she will continue to pay attention to her. He’s right, but not in the way he wants to be. By the beginning of New Year’s Day, he knows that Georgia has just been playing mean games with him, but that doesn’t stop him from being in love with her.

Once the Tramp knows the truth, New Year’s Day becomes an opportunity for him to have the new start he has needed all along. It takes the rest of the movie to see the benefits of that, but that’s why we hear “Auld Lang Syne” once again at the end of the film. That’s why there’s no movie I can think of to better recommend for watching on New Year’s Eve than The Gold Rush.


Also Directed by Charles Chaplin:

The Great Dictator (1940)

Modern Times (1936)

Go to the links for all my reviews.