Charlie Chaplin shows off his sea legs.
The first half of this early Chaplin short takes place on a crowded boat packed with bedraggled immigrants en route to America. Shooting, in part, on an actual ship, Chaplin took advantage of the rolling deck – along with what must have also been some degree of camera and set manipulation – to create a series of amusing sight gags, including Chaplin’s Little Tramp unaffectedly waddling along the deck, his legs working overtime to keep him balanced.
As a dramatization of the immigration experience, the movie is a bit less lighthearted – especially considering Chaplin’s reputation as a sentimentalist. Yes, there is a reverential shot of the ship’s passengers gazing at the passing Statue of Liberty, but that’s quickly followed by officials brusquely using a rope to herd them into a corner, then letting them out one by one to go through a formal process of documentation. Whatever dreams these travelers had quickly devolve into disillusionment: the next title card says “Hungry and broke,” followed by a shot of the Tramp alone, scrounging for change on a dirty street corner. (Indeed, The Immigrant was also known as Broke.)
The Tramp’s hope lies in a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance) he first met on the ship and runs into again after he’s lucked upon a loose coin and drops into a restaurant for dinner. He invites her to his table, but in the meantime the coin slips through a hole in his pocket, so that much of the second half of the film deals with his comic attempts to delay or distract their suspicious waiter.
As usual, Chaplin builds the Tramp’s character through the tiniest of gestures. There’s a moment on the ship, after the Tramp has won some cash from playing cards, when he learns that Purviance’s mother has lost her money. When Purviance looks the other way, the Tramp slips some bills into her coat pocket. He then pauses, retrieves the wad, takes a dollar or two back, then slips the others back in. As is often the case in Chaplin’s pictures, class and romance are inextricably linked.
The romance angle is a bit abruptly handled in the final moments, when the couple passes an office offering marriage licenses and Purviance is, more or less, dragged into the building by the Tramp. Struggling to start a new life in the New World? I guess sometimes you have to force the issue.