30 August 2008

The Pilgrim (1923)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 40 mins.

The irreverent humor of Charles Chaplin is best displayed in his 1940 masterpiece, The Great Dictator, which mercilessly mocked the Nazis, and Monsieur Verdoux, his 1947 black comedy that shines a smile on a poor banker who makes a killing ... well, killing.

But The Pilgrim from 1923 – his final film with First National Studios – is a close third in terms of its irreverent bite. Chaplin stars as an escaped convict masquerading as the new priest in a small town church, giving the audience the opportunity for laughs at his character's ignorance of the church's customs but also numerous jabs at the uptight behavior of the parishioners.

The first half of The Pilgrim is considerably stronger than the second half, which devolves from a sharp-toothed satire into a gummy comedy of manners as a little boy at a parishioner's house harasses the convict-as-priest. The ending moments – which I won't dispel here – are some of Chaplin's most philosophically moving scenes in all of his films, but the middle of the film droops below his normal skill.

It's been said the film's weakness (and his 1922 short Pay Day, for those who don't like it) is due to Chaplin's impatience to finish up his time at First National; he was at the end of his contract with them but was obligated to give them this one last picture. Such frustration isn't unprecedented. Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn is arguably his worst movie, and it was made at the tail-end of his time in England before he came to the United States to work for David O. Selznick. I don't think it's fair to say, however, that The Pilgrim is one of Chaplin's worst; for much of the early scenes it's quite funny and in the last moments it's tremendously emotional. If only there weren't that pesky middle part.

The Pilgrim was re-released in 1959 by Chaplin alongside A Dog's Life (1918) and Shoulder Arms (1918) as "The Chaplin Revue," with interlocking segments linking the films together. Both of those films are stronger – and consistently funnier – than this one, but if watching "The Chapline Revue" is your only shot at seeing any of the three, you should take it.


Sam Juliano,  04 September, 2008  

Indeed, THE PILGRIM did have its moments, and the first half works much better. I actually would like to see this one again..maybe this week. There were some marvelous set-pieces though. Nice essay here.

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