Easy Street (1917)

Film Review

EASY STREET

Release Date: 22 January, 1917

Studio: Mutual Film Corporation

Director: Charles Chaplin

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

The Preacher and the Mission Worker inspire Charlie, the Derelict, to reform and get a job. He becomes a policeman on Easy Street. When Charlie arrives, poverty and violence dominate the street. Families do not have enough to eat. Trash lays all around, and men fight and grope for a few coins. The denizens of Easy Street, especially the gigantic Bully, have beat up every policeman who comes on the street. By means of dexterity and resourcefulness Charlie overcomes the Bully and turns him over to the police.

The Bully soon escapes, and after a battle with his wife, attacks Charlie. The low-life denizens of the street lock the Mission Worker in a cellar with a drug addict, who menaces her. After Charlie overcomes the Bully (with the aid of a small stove), the street criminals throw him into the cellar. He lands on the addict's hypodermic, and the drug stimulates him to extreme efforts. His manic activity enables him to pound his attackers senseless, overcome all the unsavory denizens of the street, and save the Mission Worker. The combination of Charlie's force and Preacher's forgiveness bring hope and peace to Easy Street. In the final scene, the street and everybody who lives on it are clean and tidy. The neatly dressed Bully and his wife walk amicably to the Mission. Arm in arm Charlie and the Mission Worker follow them into the church.

Discussion

By 1916, Chaplin had established the appearance and basic personality traits of his famous Tramp character. The Tramp's escapades involve him in funny and touching situations. The fun of Easy Street is in the comic battles between Charlie and the Bully, a caricatured huge, strong, and threatening villain. The actor playing the Bully, Eric Campbell, was considerably taller and wider than Chaplin, making him all the more intimidating. Chaplin's acrobatic abilities are displayed as he runs, turns, ducks, crawls under a bed, and slides down a drainpipe to escape and finally overcome the Bully.

The action in Easy Street culminates with the touching physical and spiritual transformation of not only Easy Street and its inhabitants, but also of Charlie himself. The presence of drug addiction in the film may seem surprising, but in the mid 1910s drug use was an acceptable source of comedy, as evidenced by this film and Douglas Fairbank's The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). In the latter film, Fairbanks (a major star, along with Chaplin) plays a cocaine addict who leaps about in a frenzied fashion similar to Charlie after he accidentally injects himself.

Further Reading

Read our articles about these Chaplin films:

Behind the Screen (1916)

A Dog's Life (1918)

The Kid (1921)