Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Target #184: The Pilgrim (1923, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #753
Directed by: Charles Chaplin (uncredited)
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Kitty Bradbury, Syd Chaplin, Mack Swain, Dean Riesner, Charles Reisner

Regardless of the terrific pictures that Charles Chaplin directed in the latter half of his career, he will always be best remembered for his portrayal of the Little Tramp, that bumbling yet kind-hearted vagrant with whom audiences continue to fall in love. Making his debut in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin's "Little Fellow" soon became one of cinema's most beloved and recognisable figures, and Chaplin one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Such was the character's success that, prior to 1940, it was a rare occurrence for Chaplin to portray anybody who wasn't the Tramp. One such attempt was in an unfinished short, The Professor (1919), in which Chaplin portrays a poignant, lowly street performer named Professor Bosco. The Pilgrim (1923), at around sixty minutes in length, was the last of Chaplin's "mini-features" before he dedicated his time almost exclusively to feature-length films, and it is interesting in that he doesn't play the Little Tramp, or, if he does, then it's a version of the character that we haven't seen before.

In the film, Chaplin plays an escaped prisoner, who, in his flight from the authorities, is mistaken for the young parson who was supposed to be arriving at a small country town. It wasn't unusual for the Little Tramp to find himself in trouble with the police {and, indeed, he did a spell in prison during Modern Times (1936)}, so it's not altogether unreasonable to conclude that this convict is one and the same character. Despite missing many of his trademarks – the baggy trousers, the cane, the derby hat – his bumbling benevolence is precisely the same, even if one brief flashback shows him sharing a friendly cigarette with an unscrupulous fellow jailbird (Charles Reisner). Notably, a newspaper headline in the film betrays our hero's name to be "Lefty Lombard" alias "Slippery Elm," though these could easily be pseudonyms. 'The Pilgrim' is a film that places more emphasis on plain slapstick than any of Chaplin's feature films, and the pathos that is apparent in most of his works is noticeably lacking, as is any real romantic connection with leading lady Edna Purviance {the final occasion on which the two co-starred}.

Despite the absence of any real emotion, Chaplin's film still succeeds on its own terms, with the criminal's situation allowing for an assortment of amusing scenarios. Dressed as a parson, one is always expected to act in the most civilised fashion, and yet our poor hero finds that he just can't play the part. Chaplin's incredible skill for visual communication is most stunningly apparent in his character's gesticulated re-telling of the David vs Goliath legend, and, without the aid of sound, the audience can easily follow every single detail of the story. Also hilarious are the Pilgrim's attempts at making a cake {using the hat belonging to Chaplin's brother and co-star, Syd}, his response to the antics of Howard Huntington the dishonest thief, and his inability to take a policeman's hint beside the border into Mexico. In 1959, The Pilgrim was one of three films {along with Shoulder Arms (1918) and A Dog's Life (1918)} that Chaplin slightly re-edited and combined to form The Chaplin Revue. He also composed a new soundtrack, as well as a catchy title theme, performed by Matt Monroe, called "I'm Bound for Texas."

Currently my #3 film of 1923:
1) A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (Charles Chaplin)
2) Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)
3) The Pilgrim (Charles Chaplin)

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