Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Pilgrim (1923)

The Pilgrim (1923) *** ½
Directed by: Charles Chaplin.
Written by: Charles Chaplin.
Starring: Charles Chaplin (The Pilgrim), Edna Purviance (Miss Brown), Kitty Bradbury (Mrs. Brown, Edna's Mother), Syd Chaplin (Eloper / Train Conductor / Little Boy's Father), Mack Swain (Deacon), Mai Wells (Little Boy's Mother), Dinky Riesner (Little Boy), Loyal Underwood (Elder), Charles Reisner (Howard Huntington, Crook), Tom Murray (Sheriff Bryan), Henry Bergman (Sheriff on Train / Man In Railroad Station).

Those of you who read my last entry in this series, about Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), know that in the never ending debate between silent movie fans about that is better – Keaton or Chaplin – that I fall firmly on the Keaton side of things. But saying that no way implies that Chaplin is somehow overrated or not very good. Despite my preference for Keaton, I have to admit that I don’t think he ever made a film quite as good as City Lights (1931), and of course while Keaton’s career fizzled in the sound era, Chaplin continued to produce great or near great films like The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). Chaplin was smart enough to maintain his artistic independence, and because of it, was able to continue to make the types of films he wanted to for his entire career as a director.

His 1923 film, The Pilgrim, is one of Chaplin’s lesser known features. At only 55 minutes, it can barely be called a feature at all, which is why in the 1950s, Chaplin bundled it up with a couple of shorter films and reissued it as The Chaplin Revue (however since it wasn't The Chaplin Revue that made the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1000 list, but The Pilgrim, I’m reviewing it as a stand alone film).

In The Pilgrim, Chaplin surprisingly doesn’t pay his patented Little Tramp character that he made famous in his shorts, and continued on through films like The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. The difference however is fairly unnoticeable. Chaplin plays an escaped convict, who steals a Pastor’s clothes, and bounds a train for Texas. When he gets off the train, he is mistaken by the local congregation as their new pastor (the real one has been delayed). Since it’s a Sunday, they drag poor Chaplin to church, and have him perform a service for them (complete with a hilarious sermon about David and Goliath), and then off to the house where he will be boarding, where, in the films best sequence, he clashes with a small boy. But Chaplin is recognized by an old cell mate, who threatens to foil his disguise – and steal the mortgage money the family has saved.

As I said, Chaplin isn’t technically the Little Tramp in The Pilgrim, but he might as well be. The Little Tramp was always a character who didn’t really like to work – he was somewhat lazy and shiftless, but so damn lovable, you couldn’t help but forgive him. And that pretty much describes Chaplin in this movie as well – we don’t know what Chaplin was in jail for, and it hardly matters. He is a nice guy, despite his criminal past. He willingly sacrifices himself at the end of the movie.

What surprised me about The Pilgrim is how it is devoid of many of the things we have come to expect from a movie. There is no sappy romance to clog up the procedures (there is a innocent flirtation between Chaplin and his long time co-star Edna Purviance, making her last appearance in a Chaplin film), but its hardly a romantic subplot. The film is also not as sentimental as many of Chaplin’s films are. I have never minded his romances, nor his sentimentality, but I know a lot of Chaplin’s detractors felt he laid these elements on too thickly in some of his movies. It is simply not the case here – he doesn’t even sentimentalize the kid, who is such a brat that when Chaplin kicks him, you cheer.

The Pilgrim is minor Chaplin – of that there is little doubt. It in no way can compare with his films like The Gold Rush, City Lights or Modern Times, his three silent feature masterpieces, and is perhaps even a notch or two below The Circus (1927) and The Kid (1921). Yet even minor Chaplin is better than most film comedies today. Chaplin packs more laughs into the brief sequences where he gives his sermon and when he fights with the kid, than most modern comedies do in their entire running times. Howard Hawks once said to make a great movie you needed to have three great scenes and no bad ones. Chaplin has no bad scenes in The Pilgrim, and two great scenes. I guess that means he made a near great film with The Pilgrim.

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