Charlie Chaplin’s shortest feature or longest short, depending on which way you’d like to view it, is important for a number of reasons. Not only was it his final short film before moving to features permanently but it was also his last film to co star Edna Purviance. Purviance stared in over thirty of Chaplin’s films and was his leading lady for eight years but The Pilgrim was her final major onscreen appearance with Chaplin*. The movie also bought to an end a fruitful relationship with The First National Film Company. Following this film Chaplin would produce his final films with United Artists, the company he founded with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Those films would go on to define Chaplin’s long career.
Besides the above reasons there is little worth remembering about The Pilgrim and for me it is a bit of a blot on an otherwise successful era for Chaplin. The Pilgrim begins slowly and never kicks into a high gear. There is very little humour or comedy of any sort and the story, while occasionally attention-grabbing, didn’t do anything for me. The ending was nice but The Pilgrim isn’t a film I’ll be returning to in a hurry. In a typical case of mistaken identity an escaped convict (Charlie Chaplin) dresses as a preacher and takes a train to Texas where he is immediately taken for a small town’s new Church leader. His past comes back to haunt him though as an old friend makes a surprise appearance.
The Pilgrim is about forty minutes long and I didn’t laugh audibly until the twenty-sixth minute. By this time most of Chaplin’s shorts were coming to a rapturous close but here I’d been sat mostly stone faced for nearly half an hour, waiting to laugh. It’s remarkable really how little comedy is in this film and it sometimes looks as though Chaplin just isn’t trying. There are few if any sight gags and apart from a clever magic trick and accidental eating of a hat I just didn’t find anything funny. As Chaplin’s career progressed his films slowed down in both pacing and gag rate but here the pacing is slow but acceptable and the gag rate non-existent. I wouldn’t have minded so much had the story been a bit more engaging but the romance never started and there was hardly any threat or menace. A long section is given over to a child slapping Chaplin and his brother Syd which is misjudged and the scenes inside the Church are dull and confusing.
It wasn’t all bad though and there were things I did enjoy in The Pilgrim. I liked the depiction of the congregation as humourless, old, stern people. As someone with a deep dislike of religion this sat well with me. I also enjoyed the looks Chaplin gave Edna and the looks to camera as she passed which seemed to shout “Phworrr!!” I also thought that the song that runs through the film was good although it didn’t fit during some scenes. Chaplin is as usual on good form acting wise and the lack of comedy at least allows him to express a more dramatic side. Around him the acting is also a lot better than in the likes of Pay Day. Overall though The Pilgrim just wasn’t funny enough and was too long. The story could have easily been condensed into two reels instead of the four in which it was presented. In 1959 Chaplin packaged The Pilgrim into a new feature by mixing it with footage from Shoulder Arms and A Dog’s Life. I’m yet to see that film but I can only hope that the presence of material from the other two helped to improve the scenes from this film.
- *Although this was Chaplin's final film to co-star Edna Purviance he did Direct her in the feature A Woman In Paris later the same year in which Chaplin cameos.
- The song I'm Bound for Texas which plays through the film was added to the movie in 1959 and was written by Chaplin himself and sung by Matt Munroe.
- In the scenes in which a little boy must slap Chaplin, the Director persuaded the boy to do it by slapping Syd repeatedly to show how fun it was.