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The last film Charles Chaplin made for his First National contract, The Pilgrim (1923), was also the last Chaplin "short" before he turned exclusively to feature films. Too long to be considered a short even if, technically, it is not quite long enough to be a feature, The Pilgrim was a transitional work on the path to Chaplin's later and more famous creations.
Thought of now as Chaplin's take on religion, The Pilgrim began as a parody of Westerns, specifically the then-popular Westerns of William S. Hart. Hart, in films such as Hell's Hinges (1916), often played an outlaw who rides into a lawless Western town, sides with the put-upon church-going folks, reforms, and cleans up the town. In Chaplin's first draft for this film, entitled "Western," Chaplin was to play one of four desperate escaped convicts who steals the clothing of a minister. Arriving in an unruly Western town (in one draft referred to as "Heaven's Hinges"), he is mistaken for a minister. And the good townspeople were expecting this man to help reform a wild saloon full of gunfighters and harlots. So Charlie attracts the local rogues into church by replacing the church organ with a jazz band, showing movies and holding "respectable" dice games. At the end, Chaplin is unmasked as a convict by the town sheriff and goes off to meet his fate over the protests of his new, and now quite large, congregation.
Only some of this story remains in the much-simpler plot of The Pilgrim, which went before the cameras April 10, 1922 under the title "The Tail End," a reference to the conclusion of Chaplin's First National contract. Three years before, Chaplin had formed his own production/releasing company, United Artists, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith and was anxious to end his duties to First National so he could begin making movies for United Artists. Whether that desire had an effect on the speed of shooting for The Pilgrim is not known, but Chaplin did shoot it in forty-two working days, a record pace for a Chaplin production of this length.
The Pilgrim is also the last Chaplin movie in which he co-starred with the woman who had played the female lead in all his movies since 1915, Edna Purviance. Chaplin would try to make her into a star in her own right with his next film, the drama A Woman of Paris (1924) and bankrolled her in a movie by the young director Josef von Sternberg, A Woman of the Sea (1926). The first film was a critical success while the latter was shelved after one showing. Edna retired, remaining on Chaplin's payroll until her death in 1958. Also notable in the cast is Chaplin's brother Sydney who appears in three roles as the eloping man, the train conductor and the father of the "slapping boy." The "slapping boy" is played by three-and-a-half-year old Dean Reisner and son of The Pilgrim's assistant director Charles Reisner (who also plays the pickpocket). Dean would grow up to become a leading screenwriter in Hollywood, penning the "do you feel lucky, punk" scene for Dirty Harry (1971). Keep that line in mind while he wallops Charlie and his brother in The Pilgrim.
The early 1920's saw a very conservative reaction sweep America and hackles were raised in anticipation of Chaplin mocking religion in his new comedy. Fearing such reaction, Chaplin chose "The Pilgrim" as the most-inoffensive possible description of his character. To a modern viewer there would seem to be nothing even the most fundamentalist religionist could oppose in this comedy. Nevertheless, the Evangelical Ministers' Association in Atlanta demanded its suppression as "an insult to the gospel" and the then very powerful Ku Klux Klan denounced it for holding the Protestant ministry to ridicule. Despite this and objections by local censor boards that seem ludicrous by today's standards, The Pilgrim was another Chaplin success, paving the way to the longer and greater works to come.
Writer/director/producer: Charles Chaplin
Assistant Director: Charles Reisner
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Lefty Lombard, alias, "Slippery Elm," alias the Rev. Philip Pim), Sydney Chaplin (Eloping Man, Train Conductor, Slapping Boy's father), Tom Murray (Sheriff Bryan), Edna Purviance (Miss Brown), Mack Swain (Deacon), "Dinky Dean" Reisner (Slapping Boy), Charles Reisner (Howard Huntington, alias "Nitro Nick," alias "Picking Pete").
by Brian Cady