Easy Street

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 17, 2015

This review originally appeared in BYU TMA’s Children’s Media Review:

While peace on earth may be too much to hope for, peace on Easy Street is just a good right hook away. Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 silent comedy sees the Little Tramp as a reformed reformer, Born Again in an urban mission and employed by the local police to clean up the streets he knows best. Having experienced much privation as a child in the London slums, Chaplin had more than just a passing interest in—and familiarity with—the problems of urban life. Easy Street is not bashful about these problems, which pass by in quick and shocking (and often hilarious) array. Every kind of abuse, from domestic to chemical, makes an unlikely appearance in this comedy. This includes women who are more than just melodramatically menaced, the surprising image of a street bum shooting up in a basement, an amazing joke about birth control and overpopulation, and some of the most terrifying, albeit stylized brutality ever enacted on screen. (This last is courtesy of Eric Campbell, the villain in all of Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies, who gives here a performance of practically mythological force and power.)

On a scale from “not recommended” to “important to talk about” to “don’t worry, it’ll all go over their heads,” Easy Street falls confoundingly betwixt and between. Some sensitive parents may want to choose a more innocent Chaplin film (The Gold Rush, City LightsModern Times, though of course each film has hidden complexities). Others may be grateful for such a vivid and artful entré into discussions about social ills and the ways we respond to them. One difficult thing about Easy Street is that it refuses to provide facile solutions to these complicated problems. This is also, in the end, the greatest thing about the film. Against the pat and sometimes sanctimonious tone of much reformist writing of the period, Chaplin places paradox. One of the solutions to poverty is stealing, a viable response to violence is more violence, and law and religion sometimes provide no help at all. And, of course, Chaplin dares to laugh at the prospect.

Parents might pause: will this open the door to indulgence and rationalization, and maybe worse besides? Maybe, though as usual, it all depends on context, on the conversation we come up with. Easy Street might alternatively help young viewers understand why, with all of our good will. They might start understanding that social ills resist our attempts to remove or even just address them. That anger and violence have real roots. Why social and personal victories can be so hard won and tenuous.

In this, one of the very greatest of his stratospheric accomplishments, Chaplin also reminds us that talent and wit and irrepressibility can counter all of the worst things, and console us in our sorrows besides. A wild and anarchic element is central to Chaplin’s cinema, and many of the earlier films are practically bursting with it. The results, as here, are often not neat or easy, but they are very often true and beautiful. This is incontrovertibly one of the screen’s very greatest comedies.