Release Date: 26 February 1923
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 46 minutes
With: Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Mack Swain, Loyal Underwood, Marion Davies, Henry Bergman, Dean Reisner, Tom Murray
Story: An escaped convict steals a minister’s clothes, only to find he also assumes the man’s life, too…
Production: Several years late, and a couple of films short of the original number promised, Charlie Chaplin finally completed his lucrative First National contract in February 1923 with the release of The Pilgrim, which also served as his final short film. From now on, Chaplin would turn to features, with all but his final two British-based productions being released through United Artists, the mini-studio he’d established back in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.
Chaplin began work on what would become The Pilgrim the day before the release of Pay Day, his final two-reeler short. As had become the case more recently, he was better prepared prior to shooting than had ever been the case before in his ramshackle filmmaking career. Chaplin wasn’t quite working with a script, yet, but he did compile a series of written notes outlining his ideas for The Pilgrim. This no doubt helped his collaborators immensely in preparing to make the film. As David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art, The Pilgrim ‘is the first film for which there survives a quantity of written scenario and gag notes. … Chaplin was moving away from his earlier method of creating and improvising on the set and even on film, towards a greater degree of advance planning on paper.’
It is no accident that in his final film in what had become an onerous contract from First National Chaplin should choose to depict the Tramp as a convict escaping prison. There was no subtext here. A swimming minister gives the Tramp the opportunity to dump his rather obvious prison garb and don a new identity, that of a preacher. Soon, he’s tied up in the affairs of the local congregation of Devil’s Gultch, Texas (Robinson calls the town Dead Man’s Gultch, both in print and in his video introduction to the DVD release, despite the onscreen evidence; perhaps it was named such in the original notes?) where his somewhat improvised yet energetic sermons prove a hit.
Chaplin’s David and Goliath pantomime is central to The Pilgrim and is certainly one of this short’s funniest moments. He throws himself wholeheartedly into depicting both characters, occasionally stopping to double check the details of the tale in a handy Bible. He depicts the ins-and-outs of the battle between the pair with great wit and physical dexterity, enthralling his congregation and the cinema audience.
This moment almost overshadows the rest of the film in which the faux-minister foils a robbery (by an erstwhile cell mate, no less), but is then found out as being an imposter, and even worse, an escaped convict. A Sheriff has to take him away, but instead of returning him to jail, he lets the Tramp free at the Mexican border. It takes a moment for the truth to dawn upon the Tramp, but he’s just been deported (in a pre-echo of Chaplin’s own exile from America in 1952). Gun-totting bandits on the Mexican side, however, see him hedge his bets as he walks off, straddling the border, one foot in the US and one in Mexico…
He may have had his troubles at First National, but Chaplin had developed as a filmmaker over the extended duration of the contract. His films had grown in both length and complexity, while his characterisation of the Tramp had matured, especially in Shoulder Arms and The Kid. Just as his pace of production had slowed, so too had the frantic nature of his films. They were now more measured, less antic. He’d drawn upon memories of his own younger life in London to make The Kid. Having visited the streets he once called home, and returned to filmmaking in the United States, The Pilgrim revealed a more mature, thoughtful, and deeper Chaplin.
Shot across 42 days, The Pilgrim was the most economic of Chaplin’s longer, near feature-length shorts (it was a four-reeler, coming in at around 46 minutes). First developed as a Western-style comedy (anticipating some aspects of the later The Gold Rush), The Pilgrim originally had Chaplin’s Tramp as one of four escapees who actively mug the minister to steal his clothes (rather than have the Tramp appropriate them while the minister is swimming, as in the finished film). The Tramp sets up in a real rough ‘wild West’ town as the new minister, keen to replace the church organ with a jazz band, and the collection plate with gambling. Instead, Chaplin settled on what Robinson dubbed ‘the hypocrisies of small-town religion’.
The set-up of The Pilgrim is swift—over just five individual shots, Chaplin rapidly establishes the character and his latest predicament. The shots include the pasting up of the Wanted poster; a close up of Chaplin’s mug on the poster; a shot of a man swimming, who discovers his clothes are missing; a fourth shot shows the clothes have been replaced by a stripy convict outfit; and the fifth and final shot is of Chaplin’s Tramp walking towards the camera, dressed as a preacher. This economy of style was new for Chaplin and perhaps suggests something of the urgency with which he was determined to finally escape the First National contract. Satirising both the church and small town morality, Chaplin also takes aim at the conventions of the Western (already hardened into cliché) in the sequence in which he alters his pilgrim’s garb to pass for a gunfighter of the Old West in his attempt to retrieve the stolen money. It’s a neat switcheroo, perhaps showing a growing interest from Chaplin in the Western, that most American of genres, which he’d follow up (sort of) in The Gold Rush.
Tackling the subject of the church and religion, however obliquely and in pursuit of comedy, brought Chaplin some unwanted attention. The Evangelical Ministers Association of Atlanta demanded the film be withdrawn as it was ‘an insult to the Gospel’, while the South Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Clan objected to the film as they claimed it ridiculed Protestant ministry. Censors had their go at The Pilgrim, too, with the Censor Board of Pennsylvania cutting so much ‘objectionable’ material from the film there was little left worth screening.
Chaplin hoped to persuade First National to accept the four-reel The Pilgrim (unexpectedly longer than the films the contract was for, as with The Kid) as final fulfilment of the terms. In case they did not, he had in mind another two-reeler quickie to see out the contract, to be titled The Professor. David Robinson noted that correspondence between various parties, including Chaplin and Sydney Chaplin, indicates that this film actually existed in 1922, although there are no records of it having been shot (suggesting it was merely a stand-by idea in case of contract difficulties). Sydney makes the suggestion of screening both films for First National, giving Robinson the idea that The Professor must have already existed. Chaplin suggested delivering The Professor to First National in fulfilment of the contract, and then releasing The Pilgrim through United Artists. First National agreed to accept The Pilgrim, so The Professor was apparently quickly forgotten. Robinson also suggests the next most likely theory—it was all a put on as part of the negotiations. ‘The film must have existed,’ he speculated, ‘unless we predicate some outlandish bluff between the two brothers … [on] the existence of a purely imaginary film.’
Of course, a five-minute scene found in film cans labelled ‘The Professor’, discovered during the making of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s groundbreaking Unknown Chaplin documentary series from 1983, helped solve the case. The scene is an early draft of the flea circus sequence eventually reprised in Limelight (1952). The scene appears to have been shot on the sets of The Kid during a break in production. Robinson concluded: ‘Had Chaplin and his cutter [editor] assembled a new film out of rejected scenes, perhaps from the Mutual as well as First National series?’
With the films for First National, Charlie Chaplin had embraced life in America. A Dog’s Life saw him begin the process of moving away from depicting street life as he recalled it from London, setting event in New York’s Lower East Side. Shoulder Arms took him entirely out of his usual urban environment, putting him in the trenches where he recalled Broadway’s lights, not those of the West End of London. Although The Kid drew upon those Lambeth memories rekindled by his trip back to London for the film’s UK premiere, in Jackie Coogan Chaplin presented a uniquely American take on impoverished childhood. The attempts to make Chaplin’s Little Tramp a family man, sometimes with a job—as in A Day’s Pleasure, The Idle Class, and Pay Day—further explored the American milieu that Chaplin had come to embrace over his near-decade living and working in the country. With The Pilgrim, especially through the development of the story, Chaplin had finally gone ‘full Western’ and embraced that most American of all genres.
Perhaps at the same time Chaplin was trying to escape the guise of the Tramp altogether. He had explored and developed the character through his work at four studios—Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National—and at each studio, the Tramp was slightly different. As Chaplin became a better filmmaker, with more control over his productions and greater command of his storytelling and filmmaking skills, so the character of the Tramp grew. Chaplin tried him out in a variety of circumstances, careers, and roles. Now, in depicting the character as an escaped convict, was he not simply escaping First National but also the trap that he was beginning to see the Tramp character as. ‘Bosco’, the character he depicted in the brief extract from The Professor, certainly suggests he was open to exploring new characters. That might also be one explanation for his first choice of feature film for United Artists, A Woman of Paris, a ‘straight’ drama in which the Tramp does not feature and Chaplin himself only makes a brief cameo as well as directing.
In all The Pilgrim breaks no new ground, but it is the culmination of all Charlie Chaplin’s filmic education to this point, a process of almost a decade from 1914. Now he was ready for full-length feature films, although his choice for his debut would be somewhat uncharacteristic…
The Critics: ‘[Chaplin has not] played low to the mob with haphazard slapstick. He has aimed at something in his new work and he has hit it.’—The New York Times
‘[The Pilgrim] is aimless in story and formless in structure.’—The Times (London)
‘[The Pilgrim is] not sensationally funny, not as much as so expected from Chaplin in four reels.’—Variety
Trivia: The full story is too involved to adequately cover here, but the brief presence of Marion Davies in The Pilgrim opens up the entire Chaplin-Hearst-Ince story. Davies was the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and through the 1920s he attempted to establish a movie career for her, going so far as to finance a mini-studio devoted to her often-unsuccessful films. In 1924, the year after the release of The Pilgrim, Chaplin was one of many Hollywood luminaries invited to a party on Hearst’s yacht the Oneida. It was an event that would end in a fatality. Also among the guests was Western director (and another mini-studio mogul of the time) Thomas H. Ince. He, at the age of just 43, would be dead by the end of the cruise. Here fact and fiction get confused—was he shot, as early Hearst newspapers reported, or did he die of a heart attack? If he was shot, who did it? Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton suggested that the culprit was Chaplin, who accidentally shot Ince while toying with a revolver that he was thinking of using on himself. At the time, Chaplin was said to be ‘almost suicidal’ over his marriage to 16-year-old Lita Grey, while there were also suggestions he was also having an affair with Davies. The rumours surrounding the death of Ince and what happened on the yacht formed the basis of the 2001 Peter Bogdanovich movie The Cat’s Meow, a viewing of which is as good a way of any to get to grips with the ins-and-outs of the various stories surrounding that ill-fated November 1924 boat trip…
More Trivia: The annoying little brat (the opposite of Jackie Coogan in The Kid) who spends most of his scenes slapping Chaplin’s faux-Pastor was played by five year old Dean Rieser, son of Chuck Rieser who plays Chaplin’s former cellmate-turned-thief. Chuck was friends with Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and young Dean regarded both comedians as honorary uncles, making it hard for him to hit Chaplin as required by the scene. Initially billed as ‘Dinky’ Rieser as a child actor, Rieser followed his father into the profession, acting in various roles such as the part of Detective Brody in 1948’s The Cobra Strikes through to his final acting part in B-movie Mesa of Lost Womena (1953). Rieser switched roles, taking up an alternative career as a screenwriter in 1939, and a lot of TV writing (mainly on Western series) would keep him busy right through to the 1970s. He wrote a series of Clint Eastwood movies, including thriller Play Misty For Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973), using the name ‘Dean Franklin’, his first names. Weirdly, Rieser was married to Maila Nurmi between 1948 and 1954—if the name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s better known under the moniker of ‘Vampira’, 1950s TV horror host and accidental ‘star’ of Ed Wood’s ‘worst movie of all time’ Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Rieser died in 2002, while Nurmi died in 2008.
Charlie Says: ‘I was now entering the last mile of my contract with First National and looking forward to its termination. They were inconsiderate, unsympathetic, and short-sighted, and I wanted to be rid of them. Moreover, ideas for feature films were nagging at me. Completing the last three pictures seemed an insurmountable task. I worked on Pay Day, a two-reeler, then I had only two more films to go. The Pilgrim, my next comedy, took on the proportions of a feature-length film. This again meant more irksome negotiations with First National. The negotiations terminated satisfactorily. After the phenomenal success of The Kid, I met little resistance to my terms for The Pilgrim: it would take the place of two films… At last, I was free to join my associates in United Artists.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
Verdict: A slight end to Chaplin’s First National period, notable for his miming of the David and Goliath story, but featuring little else of note…
—Brian J. Robb
Next: A Woman of Pairs (26 September 1923)
Chaplin: Film by Film will return in January 2019!
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
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