Classroom Resource: Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant

Poster for Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 film The Immigrant

Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 film, The Immigrant, depicts the story of two European immigrants’ journey to the United States. The 24-minute film was made at a time of increasing anti-immigrant prejudice – decades after a record number of Eastern European Jews, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, and others made their way to the United States. Of course, it was also made at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act made it difficult for Chinese-Americans, never mind Chinese immigrants, to enter the country. 1917 was also the year in which literacy tests for immigrants were passed into law. Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, Lorraine Boissoneault explains:

In the years leading up to the act, millions of immigrants from Europe poured into the U.S., with 1.3 million passing through Ellis Island in 1907 alone. During that period, the immigrants filled gaps in the nascent industrial economy, making up the majority of workers in Pennsylvania coal fields, Chicago stockyards and New York garment factories. But Congress, acting upon decades of xenophobic and economic concerns and the emergent “science” of eugenics, saw the matter differently. It had attempted to pass laws curbing the flow from Europe numerous times; an English literacy test component actually passed in the House on five occasions and the Senate on four, but was twice vetoed by Presidents Cleveland and Taft. The test was a part of the 1917 act, as was the expansion of an “undesireable” list that included epileptics and political radicals. The act also levied an $8 tax on every adult immigrant (about $160 today) and barred all immigrants from the “Asiatic zone.”

Read more here.

In a reflection on the importance of the film “The Immigrant,” 100 years after its release in the Forward Tayla Zax noted:

In all its good will, the film still manages to question a number of stereotypes of immigrants. Are they shiftless ne’er do-wells or well-intentioned but misunderstood? (Hint: it’s the latter.) Do they arrive intending to sow social mischief, or in search of a new life, the procurement of which will, inevitably, result in some gently stepped-upon toes? (Also the latter.) Most importantly, the film gently reminds audiences of the profound benefit incurred by accepting immigrants: Without them, for instance, we would never have experienced the defining cultural influence of the British-born Chaplin himself.

Read more here.

Reflection Questions

  1. The Immigrant is an important landmark in the depiction of immigrants in a film. Watch the film closely to consider the message Chaplin was sending with the movie. Describe what you see. Work with the details to analyze the specific images and scenes.
    – Why were they included?
    – What story do they tell?
    After completing those first two steps, work from the evidence you’ve collected to come up with an interpretation of the overall message of the film.
  2. How do images in media shape the way we think about immigrants today? What role does film play? Do media stories plant new ideas in people’s heads or do they serve to reinforce pre-existing ideas? Do they do both?