Although a comedy, this classic film from the silent era provides an iconic view of those arriving at Ellis Island and beholding the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Plus, Josh White sings “One Meat Ball,” and we also discuss Wayne Wang’s film Chan Is Missing.
With all the talk of Donald Trump and immigration, as well as the visit of French president Emmanuel Macron, I thought readers would enjoy seeing The Immigrant, that wonderful Charlie Chaplin short from 1917. A fine restored print with tasteful classical music and beautiful typography!
There’s a lot to admire here, including Chaplin’s incredible dexterity and comic genius (watch him do a full pitcher’s windup throwing dice!), as well as the expressive countenance of Edna Purviance. But amidst the laughs, the moment when the Statue of Liberty comes into view is still solemn and moving over a hundred years later. What a wonderful gift from the French people!
You might think a film made so long ago would be hopelessly archaic. But I like to pretend the film was made only yesterday by an ambitious film student trying to ape the silent era. Then I notice what a good job he or she did. The dining hall scene is fresh and hilarious, and there’s something about the way that people are herded at Ellis Island, with number tags pinned to their lapels, that comments on the assembly line quality of the newly minted twentieth century.
I’m thinking of another choice film about the immigrant experience: Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982). His first critically acclaimed film, it’s a mystery wrapped in a cinéma vérité portrait of San Francisco’s Chinatown and its diverse people and politics. The lead character is a taxi driver named Jo, played by the eminently likable Wood Moy (1918-2017).
Moy was very active in the Asian American Theatre Company, and also had a small part in Class Action. In Chan he doubles as narrator and jokes about the F.O.B’s — fresh off the boat — who in the modern era come off jumbo jets.
Jo is trying to solve the mystery of his friend Chan Hung, who disappeared amidst conflict between pro-Taiwan and pro-PRC factions over a flag-waving incident. Now, whether it’s Jane Marple, Sam Spade, Columbo, or George Smiley doing the digging, the detective genre has always been a perfect means to explore a multitude of characters, each of whom has an angle they’re working. The detective must sift through not just their stories, but their different cultural takes on reality.
The missing Chan Hung turns out to be a many-faceted character who’s described differently by each person Jo interviews; but in the course of the film we see the Chinese immigrant experience in all its richness and complexity, with rollicking humor, and a poignant look at the contrast between elderly Chinese and the “ultra-tasty dish” described in the song “Grant Avenue” (from Flower Drum Song). SPOILER CLIP:
If you live in the NYC area, you can see a film screening of Chan Is Missing at the New York Public Library at Chatham Square on May 5th. Further details here.
Coming back to The Immigrant, one can hardly watch Charlie Chaplin’s performance as a financially strapped diner without recalling Josh White’s performance of “One Meat Ball”:
In our present era, which seems dominated by the rich, powerful, bold and brassy, I take to heart the waiter’s hollered dictum that “You gets no bread with one meat ball!” Probably not a cry heard much at Mar-a-Lago, though there’s a Stormy Daniels joke lurking somewhere in the vicinity. It all seems quite remote from the Statue of Liberty (though Melania Trump is rumoured to own a designer babushka).
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
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