The Pilgrim

Draft Review by Dean Duncan May 21, 2015

Even though this film is much respected, even revered, I have the sneaking that hardly anyone really remembers it, or watches it anymore: Emergency! I need to tell you all that this is amazing stuff, quite perfect after perfect after perfect;

Compare that little red flag that leads to a mass political demonstration & riot in Modern Times w’ a similarly sublime combination of cinematography, direction & performance in this one—it’s the gag in which Mack Swain’s deacon sneaks that bottle of liquor into his back pocket as he and Charlie (disguised as a Parson) start to walk to town together; the camera starts to follow them, & these scoundrelly kids show up & pass by, & you can nearly see one of them drop that banana peel on the ground, & what follows is executed w’ a compound & kinetical exactitude that’s enough to make you think that math is joyful;

As is well known, Charlie gives a famously funny sermon about David & Goliath which quite delights a younger parishioner because of its inappropriate quotient of violence; less remarked, perhaps, is what follows, in which Charlie keeps coming back for bows, & while doing so delivers a delicious & just slightly vicious satire of pretentiously needy/greedy theatre types;

There’s a sequence with a bad little boy that deserves so much more film-historical attention than it has gotten, especially for the contrary witness it gives to film/culture’s usual protestations about the angelic nature of children; this one—incredibly nervy here in the middle-or-toward the tail of Mary Pickford’s estimable but more than a little idealized reign—makes the child a demonic constant around which the adults ebb & flow with almost Bach-like intricacy & beauty: see the wilful obliviousness of the Mom, the shell-shocked unreaction of the Dad (played by Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney), Charlie’s strained politeness, intermingled with gradually increasing, disbelieving exasperation, the so-pleasurable satisfaction that comes when, all other adults having been forced to vacate the field, Charlie gives the kid a wallop;

An ex-inmate/jailmate arrives, in perfect time & fashion to vary things & keep up the pace, his joyously larcenous behaviour combining beautifully with the energetic exasperation of the inadvertently reformed protagonist; there’s Chaplin again: a simultaneously sweet & hilarious conclusion with a compassionate sherriff & this transformed but still clueless outlaw, topped finally with ridiculous surprise gunfight that emerges from nowhere, or at least out from behind that big cactus;

In some ways, finally, w’ Chaplin, it’s not a matter of identifying & subscribing to the very best, or most honoured, or clear  milestones: see him!