Easy Street (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1919, Superior) [short]
Tension with the authorities is part of the Tramp’s essential character. Buster Keaton once said that the difference between his character and Chaplin’s was that Keaton’s screen personas were fundamentally honest people, while the Tramp was the kind of character who would pinch something if things got rough. Keaton may have been saying that to give himself some moral superiority (not hard to do because Chaplin’s public profile was often under assault–in the twenties thanks to his infamous shotgun wedding during the filming of The Gold Rush, and in the fifties when he was refused reentry into the United States on suspicions that he was a Communist), but it helps to remind viewers that Chaplin is ultimately a man in conflict with the higher-up, not a proper citizen.
It’s remarkable, then, when Chaplin takes on the role of the other side. No Chaplin film is more ironic in this vein than Easy Street, which shows the Tramp not only leaving behind his life as a bum for a position on the city police force, but succeeding in his job and keeping it until the end of the film. The only other identity reversal of this kind in the Tramp’s oeuvre comes in Modern Times, where Chaplin takes a job as a department store security clerk only to be fired after a day on the job, but this latter instance certainly pales in comparison. Easy Street can almost be thought of as a prologue to Chaplin’s greater body of work–a very explicit expose of the motifs that would pervade his later work, and the way he would visit those themes.
One gets the feeling that Easy Street is a very different sort of Chaplin comedy from the beginning. It shows Charlie the Tramp, looking somewhat downtrodden, plodding into something called the Hope Mission. From the historical context and the look of things it appears to be some type of Christian mission, although nothing explicitly Christian-related, other than the dress of the minister, can be seen. The audience doesn’t know what the preacher is saying (in fact, there is not a title card to be found in the film), but The Tramp is clearly moved by what he hears, despite how awkward he feels among the other congregants (he can’t hold a prayer book right side up and he’s not sure quite what to do about the woman with her baby sitting next to him). He’s also attracted to a young lady who works at the mission, played by Edna Purviance, a long-time staple of Chaplin’s Mutual Players (many early filmmakers had a group of “regulars” who worked with them in every film–John Ford was the last great director to employ the practice extensively). He’s so moved that he returns a stolen collection box back to the minister. Clearly the Tramp has experienced a type of change, but a viewer with any knowledge of the Tramp wants to know whether it’s going to stick or not.
After the mission scene we move to what might be called the “Easy Street” of the movie, a neighborhood racked by violent hoodlums. Easy Street has a much bleaker look to it than Chaplin’s later films, staying within the war zone for the entirety of the film. The Immigrant is the only other Chaplin short where poverty is treated with anything approaching realism–there’s no blind millionaire willing to pick us up (City Lights)or daydreams about middle class bliss (Modern Times) as we see in Chaplin’s later work. The street violence is admittedly a bit comical, but once the dust is settled one sees the reality of things–crime runs the streets, and The Bully (Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s constant nemesis) is the head criminal. Cops attempt to put down the violence to no avail, and a comically constant stream of police officer come back to the station on stretchers.
The Tramp passes by the police station and sees a help wanted ad for officers. Now a changed man after his experience in the mission, he decides to sign up. But Chaplin doesn’t let us forget that the Tramp is going against type on this one–the first time he tries to walk in, he does a double take after seeing a policeman at the door. He’s quickly hired and sent out on the beat (not exactly an extensive training process, but Chaplin never went in too much for realism). Of course, he confronts The Bully, and manages to win round one by electrocuting him with the top of a lamp pole the Bully broke. The Tramp now rules the streets the way the Bully did, causing people to rush in the frame to catch a glance at him and out of it when he makes a move towards them. A similar gag is used earlier with the Bully, but both scenes are twice as funny when Chaplin does it because of the absurd contrast between his tiny physique in extreme long shot and the hordes of people reacting to him. It’s one of the more cinematic gags in the film, proof that Chaplin was becoming a more sophisticated film humorist. Most early films were simply a recreation of vaudeville gags in front of a screen, and did not exploit the ability of the camera to shift perspective (plays have only one perspective) and imply things beyond the screen image very well. While Chaplin’s camerawork has never been considered anything more than competent, it’s clear in Easy Street that he had moved beyond replicating vaudeville.
There’s an odd interlude between the two big slapstick fight pieces which are the film’s high points where Chaplin moves from humor to explicit social commentary. He runs into a woman staling a loaf of bread from a grocer (it’s very cleverly set up without title cards, and it took me a time or two to see what was happening). Instead of arresting her on the spot, as he could have done, he goes to the grocer (sleeping), steals still more things from him, and gives them to her. The scene reminded me of a similar one from Modern Times, in which the Tramp sympathizes with the men robbing the department store he was supposed to guard. “We ain’t tramps, we’re hungry,” the robbers said. While one may argue that the Tramp goes too far by stealing from the grocer in this case, the Tramp’s actions in this film are a harbinger of his later attacks on the social and economic framework, his sympathy for the little man, his insistence that the economic world must serve mankind and not plunder it. There is also a cute scene in the little orphanage run by the mission lady, showing Chaplin the cop playing with the young wards. It’s a slight scene, but perhaps deeply personal for Chaplin, who’s home life was less than stable growing up–he never really knew his father, and, despite her affection and great drive to see them through to adulthood, her mother always had difficulties making ends meet.
Of course, the bully has to escape the prison, there has to be a huge fight again (guess who wins), and the Tramp has to get the girl. Or does he? This is one of the happier endings in Chaplin short cinema (something he interestingly seemed to save for his more serious films). The mission has moved to where the war zone was, and now it is the New Mission, not the Hope Mission–the victory over the violence on the streets has given these hard streets new life. The final shot is of Chaplin, who saved the streets with his verve and athleticism, and Purviance, who saved the streets with her compassion and constancy, walking arm and arm into service–as it should be. The perfect end to a whirlwind twenty-minute film, and a sign pointing to much bigger things in the future.