Chaplin’s View on Authority

Note: This is the ninety-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1917 film, EASY STREET, directed by Charlie Chaplin.

Much has been said about how Charlie Chaplin’s poverty-stricken upbringing informed his work, and EASY STREET is perhaps the archetype of this kind of Chaplin film. In it, the Tramp experiences a religious epiphany (by way of the ever-charming Edna Purviance) and takes on the responsibility of a policeman, representing two ever-present forms of authority in comedic delight. And he does so through sheer chaos.

I’m reminded of the connection made between Alfred Hitchcock and his own portrayal of authority in his films; that is, he usually gave those in power an often corrupt bent. Chaplin did this as well, most notably in THE IMMIGRANT (1917), in the form of rude immigration agents. The Tramp rebelled against the very society that apparently cast him out. By the time Chaplin had refined the Tramp’s anarchic, take-on-the-world comedy into the pathos-infused core of his Mutual shorts, the commentary became less “fuck ’em all” as much as “the plight of the downtrodden is a sorry thing.” The anger was reduced, but the through line is of course Chaplin’s ability to have a laugh at the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of authorities.

But then, and especially in EASY STREET, he didn’t ignore the change and good that can come from a virtuous person with a badge. And that’s at the crux of the Tramp’s transformation in the film, from a blundering, pathetic, self-serving thing (as society saw it) to a hero. It’s idealized, certainly, but the message is executed so humorously and thoughtfully, as was Chaplin’s wont, that it swerves back into truth. The humanism of Chaplin’s films is appropriately lauded.

But back to the perception of authority. Chaplin clearly sees the necessity and value of things like organized religion and a police force, but his films challenge their control and make clear that they are a tool for good as much as bad. He also undercuts this very system, binary as it is, by complicating the Tramp’s motivations for or means of accomplishing his two core changes. His religious epiphany is inspired by Purviance’s beautiful, caring character; it’s not for the sheer love of the message of Christianity. This of course leads to the reformation of the character, and his acceptance of a job as a cop.

And the culmination and “acceptance” of this wimpy little squirt as an authority figure on the oxymoronic Easy Street (a ghetto crafted in beautiful artifice with shades of THE KID’s [1921] poverty-stricken sets) is accomplished by sheer luck. Purviance’s mission worker is essentially held hostage by a member of the street’s unruly mob, a drug addict that is plainly portrayed as such; this is a notable element in and of itself, in terms of EASY STREET’s commentary on authority and poverty. But then Tramp-Cop is only able to save the damsel in distress with the aid of an upturned needle belonging to the junkie, which somehow gives him incredible strength. Ironically, this police officer’s success is only granted by, as mentioned, luck, but also an illegal drug!

But this is the crux of the very humor of the movie. Of course Chaplin’s cop is inept, he can’t handle the insane crowds and lead bully (played by the ever-threatening Eric Campbell) on his own. Luck brings down a gas lamp that Chaplin uses to knock out Campbell. Luck gets the Tramp through incredible situations and allows him to drop a rock when the bully comes back for revenge. And as mentioned, luck gives the Tramp the narcotic-fueled strength necessary to save the day. These lucky situations are crafted moments of a movie, a hilarious one by the way; explaining the consistently, powerfully performances of Chaplin and his then-current stable of support players is probably a fruitless endeavor. But yes, we’re dealing with a fictional narrative that allows the Tramp to come out on top. But Chaplin makes clear that the little guy is not excised from his own destiny; obviously, the Tramp has a considerable amount of smarts and heart. That truly allowed him the success he finds throughout EASY STREET.

EASY STREET also finds value in organization. Organization is afforded by authority figures and systems like those found in religion and criminal justice. But the path to peaceful organization is messy, and filtered through Chaplin’s ingenious mind, ridiculous. He has a healthy distrust of the authorities, as we all should. EASY STREET is a fascinating watch in today’s era of increased awareness of police brutality and other unethical behavior. But as became clear during Chaplin’s time at the Mutual studio, at the end of the day, the good parts of human nature win out in his films.

Chaplin finished his time with Mutual in 1917, which had offered him unprecedented control, time, and money in his two years with the company. In fact, he signed with First National in June 1917, which offered him even greater resources for a “measly” eight films (a low number considering Chaplin’s prodigious output before and even during Mutual). He received $1 million for the production of these movies, about $21 million today. Chaplin was topping himself as the highest paid performer in the world. But Chaplin didn’t even release a film until about a year after signing with First National, completing construction of a studio under his control in January 1918 and putting out A DOG’S LIFE in April 1918. I’ll write about it soon.

But until then, I’ll close out my essays on Chaplin’s Mutual period by saying that it was truly the linchpin in the Chaplin “brand” as we know it today: you know, the pathos as much as the unbelievable and funny gags. It also brought him incredible fame, the linchpin in the Chaplin “brand” as was better known yesterday, and has been obscured by time; his scandals, his inappropriate treatment of women, and his growing Hollywood power. Chaplin would reach artistic highs quite soon, but as a massive fan, you cannot discuss the incredible productions, tied so personally as they are to the star-director-writer-producer-composer and his notions of humanity, without discussing the man himself.

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