The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

  2. I should see SPVTW again, I’ve only watched it once and I enjoyed it. Lots of good gags.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    In “The Old Fashioned Way”, W.C. Fields endures a dinner next to Baby Leroy, who among other things dunks Fields’s watch in honey. There’s a moment when the two are the last ones at the table, and Fields abruptly moves to strangle Leroy — who has already slipped from his chair and is crawling away. Fields contents himself with merely kicking Leroy’s behind and walking away innocently.

    And then there’s a closeup of Leroy looking back happily, as if that were fun.

    If you’re going to retaliate against a child, said child had better be a major brat and/or stool pigeon (and older kids in Fields films often were). Leroy was too small and innocent of motive, so it was thin ice for Fields to even consider retaliation. The rule seemed to be you could spank a child or steal a treat, something that would make their bawling disproportionate. Best was to cause a brat to take the rap for something you did.

  4. Charlie literally steals from a baby in The Circus, but he makes it seem like a game and the baby is amused.

  5. […] The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World […]

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