When Charlie the Tramp wanders into a mission he is smitten by Edna and puts back the collection box which he has taken. Reformed, he becomes a policeman and is assigned to rough-and-tumble Easy Street. Unable to trick or beat Eric the Tough, he puts Eric's head in a gas pipe and anesthetizes him. A hero, he now helps many poor people living on Easy Street. Eric escapes jail, Edna is kidnapped, but Charlie (recharged after sitting on a doper's needle) conquers all. Easy Street is transformed as is Eric. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
Love backed by Force, Forgiveness Sweet, Brings Hope & Peace to Easy Street
I've been a Chaplin fan since I was in grade school, and Easy Street was the movie that converted me for keeps. It wasn't the first of his films I saw, but once I'd seen it I knew that Charlie Chaplin was truly as great as his reputation suggested. He's wonderful here, at the peak of his powers, funny and moving and seemingly super-human like some kind of cartoon dynamo. And today, more than 30 years since I first encountered it (and almost 90 years since it was made!) this is a film I could watch again anytime, not just because it's funny-- although it is --but also for darker, more melancholy reasons. Easy Street is certainly a comedy, but it's no one's idea of a light-hearted romp: the humor in this story is rooted in poverty, violence and substance abuse, and unfortunately all of these things are just as relevant today as they were in 1917. It's well known that Chaplin grew up in dire poverty, and it's reasonable to assume that the squalid world of this ironically titled work is based on his childhood memories. This film stands as proof that the greatest comedy is born out of pain, and that's why I can return to it again and again, for although human suffering is always topical and always relevant, so is the urge to transcend suffering through humor. In this film Chaplin triumphs over the deprivations of his own childhood, and viewers can share in his triumph.
In the opening scene we find Charlie fallen on hard times, no longer the dapper Gentleman Tramp of earlier appearances but a real derelict, ragged, pale, and sleeping on the ground. He is drawn to a nearby mission by the sound of singing, joins the congregation and soon pledges to go straight; he even proves his conversion is genuine by pulling the collection box from his baggy pants and returning it to the startled minister. Before long Charlie has applied for the job of police officer in the roughest neighborhood imaginable, Easy Street, a slum ruled by an enormous bully, magnificently portrayed by actor Eric Campbell. The unfortunate Mr. Campbell, who would be killed in a car accident less than a year after giving this performance, deserves a belated nod of respect for making Easy Street such a memorable experience. Although clearly intended as a comic caricature Campbell's nameless bully is nonetheless a formidable figure, a mighty beast with a shaved head and heavy eyebrows, and the close-ups that reveal Campbell's stage makeup do nothing to diminish his powerful aura.
The film's most unforgettable sequence comes when Officer Charlie, dressed in a Keystone Cop style uniform as he nervously walks his beat for the first time, suddenly comes face-to-face with this ogre several times his size. The scene is filmed in a single lengthy take, beginning with a tracking shot as Charlie strolls down the sidewalk, encounters the bully, and then tries to stand up to him. The bully, who appears to be made of granite, becomes increasingly sure of himself as Charlie falters. When Charlie finally resorts to clubbing him over the head it has no effect whatever; in fact, the bully impassively offers his head for more clubbing, just to demonstrate how little it bothers him. Charlie tries to flee, but the bully yanks him back and starts toying with him, like a cat tormenting a mouse before moving in for the kill. Scary, right? Well it's funny in the movie, but scary too, and it comes as a relief when Charlie (in an iconic moment as familiar as Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock) resourcefully uses a nearby gas lamp to subdue the bully-- temporarily, anyway.
While the scenes with Campbell are highlights there are also a number of low-key sequences involving the lady from the mission, played by Chaplin's perennial leading lady Edna Purviance, and during these scenes we get a vivid picture of life on Easy Street. Edna takes Charlie to a flat full of kids whose exhausted-looking parents obviously can't cope. Charlie, impressed with the scrawny Dad's ability to father so many children, quietly pins his own badge on the man's chest. It's a sadly funny moment, but the larger picture is bleak, and before the story is over we've been presented with images of domestic abuse and drug addiction. None of this material is prettified or sentimentalized in the "Hollywood" manner; this looks more like newsreel footage, and some viewers may well find it depressing. Easy Street is no stroll in the park, but somehow Chaplin is able to leave us on a note of hope, even while making it clear (with one last gag involving the reformed bully and his wife) that he's fully aware of the wishful thinking involved. Still, it's a beautiful ending to a great movie, one that proclaims and upholds Chaplin's reputation as firmly as any short film he ever made.
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