Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.81.5: Streets of Gold: Immigrants, the City and the Cinema, Part 3

Chaplin comforts fellow nervous immigrants prior to disembarkation. The Immigrant, Mutual Pictures, 1917

Chaplin comforts fellow nervous immigrants prior to disembarkation. The Immigrant, Mutual Pictures, 1917

The Golden Door

The drama of the American city was often a result of some of its internal contradictions. America might be the only nation in the world with a “welcome sign” at its front door. In 1883 the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, designed by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was erected in New York Harbor. Even before the statue was in place, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, “The New Colossus” (1883) to raise funds for the pedestal on which the Miss Liberty would stand. That poem’s oft-quoted last lines were an unqualified call to America’s shores that gave voice to the country’s values of freedom and democracy: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / . . . / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Despite the Statue of Liberty, and a poem welcoming the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore” and the “huddled masses,” there was also a strong nativist movement that regarded immigrants with suspicion, with bigotry, and even as an unwelcome pollution. Countering Lazarus nearly point for point is the poem of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, submitted to a government commission on restricting immigration. Titled “The Unguarded Gates,” it warned:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, 
And through them press a wild, a motley throng— 
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes, 
Fearless figures of the Hoang-Ho, 
Malayan, Sythian, Teuton, Kelt and Slav, 
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn; 
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites, 
Those tiger passions here to stretch their claws. 
In street and alley what strange tongues are these, 
Accents of menace alien to our air . . .

And so the “golden door” was Janus-faced. America presented two faces to the immigrant: welcoming and wary, friendly and fearful. Such suspicions of the alien were not peculiar to America. Such attitudes have shown themselves in humans throughout time and across places.1 Against much of the historical record of such encounters, the American experience, though less noble than Americans like to believe, earns high marks. It is also worthy of mention that the relationship between immigrants and American cities has been a reciprocal one. As many older central cities suffer absolute declines in population, immigrants are once again recognized as fresh blood that might revitalize them.2

“America Was Born in the Streets”

Charles Spencer Chaplin, who had spent an impoverished youth in East London, England, immigrated to America around 1912, a few years before the large waves of immigration began to subside because of World War I. In some respects Chaplin’s art and career illustrate both the positive and negative aspects of the American immigrant experience.

By the time he wrote and starred in The Immigrant in 1917, Chaplin was on his way to riches and legendary fame. Whether this short film was based on personal experience or an amalgam of immigrant experiences is unknown. But typical of Chaplin’s humor was that its truth was often based on behaviors and circumstances that were not amusing. Chaplin’s antics and masterful physical comedy as he depicts seasickness on a rolling deck, or passengers attempting to take a meal in a crude, pitching dining salon make light of the discomforts of steerage travel, but between laughs, the contemporary viewer cannot help but wonder what other discomforts there were on long passages under such conditions.

The Immigrant cast of characters also includes a motley throng of gamblers, thieves, and bullies. There is a sense that not all of the characters coming to America were necessarily a positive addition. Then again, Americans themselves were not necessarily portrayed in the best terms. A scene where passengers stand awestruck and in reverence at the ship’s passing of the Statue of Liberty is followed by these same passengers being herded together behind a restraining rope, corralled like livestock, shoved, kicked, and insulted by customs officials. Chaplin’s experience with American officialdom was never much better, and while we might smile at the quick kick he returns to a bullying officer, it might also be regarded, at a more serious level, as foreshadowing his tempestuous relationship with America.3

Once ashore, and broke, Chaplin’s Little Tramp’s experience in a restaurant relates other pitfalls and difficulties in assimilation. Chaplin played a Jew, accustomed to eating with his hat on, but he is bullied by the waiter to remove it before he will be served. His table manners horrify a prudish fellow patron, and, owing to his illiteracy, he must he order food by pointing and miming. During his meal another patron is beaten by several waiters for underpaying his bill, and much of Chaplin’s comedy centers on his attempt to avoid similar treatment when he discovers that a coin he had found that would have paid for his meal had escaped through a hole in this pocket. The Immigrant is comedy just to the margins of tragedy, and only Chaplin’s comedic genius lightens situations that would otherwise be sad and regrettable.

Chaplin also did not varnish the American immigrant experience in another film in the same series. Easy Street (1917) is ironically titled. This time his targets are religion and the American penchant for attempting to “civilize” immigrants by Christianizing them. In the first scene, the Little Tramp emerges with new resolve from the Hope Mission after submitting to some preaching and counseling to answer a Help Wanted sign by the police department. In his bright new policeman’s uniform, he is immediately given a beat in the mean and narrow Easy Street; in one scene the brawling immigrants (many still clad in the traditional garb of their native lands) savagely beat and rob one another, and police receive the worst of it.

One particularly large brute is the “alpha male” of the neighborhood. Now the Little-Tramp-turned-cop must confront this intimidating nemesis who he cleverly manages to subdue by getting the bully’s head into the globe of a gaslight he is pulling over to demonstrate his great strength. This renders Chaplin the unwitting intimidator of Easy Street, where only strength is respected, the police are cowardly, and people are loyal only to their self-interest. Chaplin’s “easy” street depicts theft, wife beating, intolerance, alcoholism, crushing living densities, and even drug abuse.

In the end, thanks to Chaplin’s bumbling police work, Easy Street is pacified and its residents stroll into the New Hope Mission, the former saloon. But one suspects that Chaplin, in using some of the more unsavory aspects of the immigrant experience as his subject of comedy, is keeping the best, and somewhat vengeful, laugh to himself.

Chaplin’s Little Tramp character encounters the city with an immigrant’s innocence and wonder. In his tramp role, he seems to want little more that the basic opportunity the city promises. He does not hanker after fame or fortune, like some characters in novels of the period that employed the city as a vast temptation. He desired little more than a job, a square meal, and a roof over his head. His aspirations are not grand and ambitious.

But Chaplin invariably gets swept up in the circumstances and events of the city, always finding himself in the midst of its turmoil. He negotiates its wiles and perils with determination and ever shifting fortunes, only trying to get by, to survive. He is often courteous in the face of rudeness and, at the same time, not fatuously grateful at what good fortune might come his way. He finds and loses money, and somehow he survives being ignorant of new customs and mores. He seems devoid of ideology, proselytizing, or other ulterior purposes, or interested in some cause or quest. His most consistent ambition seems to win the affections of the pretty girl.4

Immigrant moviegoers of the time would not have been surprised that the conditions, within which comedy was being played, were close to the social conditions familiar to them—conditions that social reformers, such as Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, were photographing and writing about.5They might also have appreciated the depiction of realistic mayhem in some of New York being perpetrated by Gangs of New York (2002).6

The look and feel of the Five Points area of lower Manhattan have been realistically re-created, ironically on the sets of Rome’s Cinecitta, as the battleground of nativists and immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. Gangs of New York clothes the sentiments of the poems of Emma Lazarus and Thomas Bailey Aldrich in the motley leather armor of the streets and sets them at one another in bloody battle. Woven into the larger epic set piece of the story is one of revenge, the seething vengeance of a boy, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) against the vicious gang leader, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) who killed Vallon’s father years before. These are meaner streets than director Martin Scorsese had conjured in his earlier film of a later New York ethnic neighborhood. These are streets governed only by tribal rules of war, codes of honor, and incendiary hatreds, and exploited by a cynical and greedy political system.

This view of New York evokes images of cities in the midst of civil war. Gangs rule the streets and form alliances with the Tammany Hall political machine of William Magear Tweed to parcel out jobs through graft and corruption. Such conditions, too, might not have been unfamiliar to many immigrants, and some were already, or soon became, inured to it. Depending upon one’s ethnicity or political allegiance, the police could be more harmful than protective. Firemen engaged in arson in order to loot buildings they then allowed to burn down, and politicians were their accomplices. In Gangs of New York the streets are drenched in blood rather than paved with gold, and some of the “opportunities” for immigrants to the American city were there only for those violent enough to take them.

Gangs and crime organizations could also prey on their own kind. “Protection” was a common means of extorting money and favors from businesses in one’s own ethnic group. In the flashback scenes to Manhattan’s Little Italy in The Godfather: Part II, the local Black Hand kingpin roams the streets demanding his protection money until the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) assassinates him and takes over the power of the streets. But nearer the close of the nineteenth century, these conditions were moderated by the influx of new immigrant groups and the effects of political reforms. Gangs became more organized, but they also realized that they would eventually have to find more legitimate enterprises. Moreover, newer immigrants, more daring and desperate, were arriving to challenge the hegemony of the streets of the city.

Obtaining a legitimate foothold in the American city often involved a different exploitation. Joan Micklin Silver’s independent feature film, Hester Street (1975), provides an authentic visual return to these same teeming streets in the decade before the turn of the twentieth century, and it is an intimate portal into the ways in which the city altered ethnic values and mores.7 Here Jews found work in the fabled garment industry or as peddlers and shopkeepers in the Lower East Side. The story centers on a garment worker, Jake (Steven Keats), who has immigrated ahead of his wife and child and works in one of the sweatshops.

By the time his wife arrives from the old country, Jake, born Yekl in Russia but already a few years in America, sees himself as an “American fella,” even though his social life and even his adulterous adventures are confined to the Lower East Side ghetto. He regards those who cling to old country ways as greenhorns and has fun at the expense of more conservative and religious Jews, like Bernstein, a boarder who shares his meager flat, sports a heavy beard, and spends hours reading the scriptures and praying. Jake prefers the company of Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), a voluptuous dancehall girl, herself not long over from Poland, who shares his powerful desire for assimilation.

Dramatic tension is provided by the arrival of Jake’s wife, Gitl (Carol Kane) and their young son, whom Jake renames from his Hebrew name to Joey. With her wig, old world clothes, and unsophisticated ways, Gitl is every bit the greenhorn who clashes with Jake’s view of himself as a Yankee. He denies her any conjugal attention or even affection, continues his affair with Mamie, and despite his urging that she forgo the wig and dress herself up, when she finally does, he flies into a rage.

Gitl decides she has had enough of this treatment and demands a divorce. Since Jake wants the divorce even more, he convinces Mamie, who has considerable savings, to put up some money to buy her agreement. Gitl demonstrates that her old world bargaining skills are better than those of the lawyer hired by her husband to make the negotiation. She takes nearly every penny of the girlfriend’s savings, gets her divorce, and plans to marry Bernstein, the plodding, but dependable, boarder. By the end of the movie, she is well on her way to becoming an “uptown lady,” and even Jake, is clearly impressed by her deportment during their last meeting before the rabbi who dissolves their old world marriage.

Hester Street has its foundation in factual circumstances. As with other immigrant groups, Jewish husbands often came to America first to get an economic foothold and send passage money home. Hence their acculturation was more advanced, and wives, once they arrived, were a reminder of the old ways. In the city, men could find other outlets for sexual urges (as Jake does with a prostitute and with Mamie) with a degree of anonymity that the old country and villages did not avail. As a result, marital strife and divorces were not uncommon, in spite of the strong religious and cultural family bonds of Jews. Moreover, the character of Mamie, who has managed to amass substantial savings as a single woman, is an example of the emergence of the financial and social independence of city women. The city offered many new sources of employment for women in industries, such as garment manufacturing, shopkeeping, and clerical work. With financial independence, more women began to change urban demographics by choosing to remain single, leaving unhappy marriages, or not having children.8

Silver chose not only to shoot in black and white to enhance the authenticity of her film, but also to have her actors use a dialogue of heavily accented English or Yiddish. To some, who may have only heard such dialogue from Borsht Belt stand-up comedians, this might seem to ask much of the viewer, but not only does it add to the documentary feel of a film that is rich in historical detail, but it also recalls for many of us the heavily-accented English of our immigrant ancestors.
©2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.19.2013)

1. In some aboriginal societies, the stranger was subjected to harsher treatment, often tortured and killed as a “protection” against any adulteration of the native society with anything from the outsider, from viruses to religious or social beliefs; Lofland, The Problematic World of Strangers,1973.
2. Recently one reporter observed this trend in a “small but growing number of cities with declining populations” that need to address resulting shortages of labor: 
[I]n Pittsburgh, . . . the population fell by 9.5 percent in the 1990s [and] Philadelphia, which lost 4 percent of its population since 1990, is considering a plan that would create an “Office of New Philadelphians” patterned after similar offices in New York and Boston that help new foreign arrivals. It was not that long ago that many city officials viewed immigrants as a drain on public services and that workers saw them as competition for jobs. But the booming economy of the late 1990s made immigrant labor at all skill levels a valued commodity, and foreign-born residents, typically with larger, younger families, helped restock urban neighborhoods that shrank as the middle class moved to the suburbs. (Schmitt, Eric (2001)” To Fill in Gaps, Shrinking Cities Seek a New Wave of Foreigners,” New York Times, May 30, 2001
3. While it might have been a convenient device for the screenwriter in the 1992 film, Chaplin, the comedian’s kick was supposedly rebuked by his enemy, J. Edgar Hoover, at a dinner party. Hoover alleged that Chaplin was a Communist and the kick demonstrated his lack of respect for authority and the values of the United States.
4. Off-screen, the same pretty girls who were often cast in his pictures were a source of Chaplin’s difficult relationship with the US Government, particularly the FBI. His preference for quite young women aroused fears of those who saw the motion picture industry as a threat to morality, particularly in view of some of the scandals in Chaplin’s time. Eventually the FBI’s harassment contributed to driving him from the country, to residence in Switzerland. 
5. Riis (an immigrant from Denmark) and Steffens were journalists who railed against conditions in tenements and schools and the corruption of government in newspapers and books; Riis, Jacob A. (1891) How The Other Half Lives : Studies Among The Tenements Of New York, New York : C. Scribners Sons; Steffens, Lincoln, (1957, orig. 1904) The Shame Of The Cities, New York: Hill and Wang.
6. New York’s streets were dangerous and violent from the very beginning, as depicted in an historical novel about the period in which it was the Dutch colonial settlement called Nieuw Amsterdam; Swerling, B., (2001) City of Dreams, New York, Simon and Schuster.
7. Silver chose Greenwich Village’s Morton Street (because the real Lower East Side had been too modernized) to tell the story of family life among the East European Jews in Hester Street (based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novel of the same name) who immigrated in the later decades of the nineteenth century.
8. The growing number of single urban women is a result of the continuation of this phenomenon, to the extent that in some countries, such as Japan, it has begun to seriously depress birthrates. Unmarried urban women became the subject of a growing number of movies. Of particular interest are The Apartment (1960) and An Unmarried Woman (1978). See also, Ewen, Elizabeth, (1981) “City Lights: Immigrant Women and the Rise of the Movies,” in Stimpson, Catharine R.; Dixler, Elsa; Nelson, Martha J.; Yatrakis, Kathryn B. eds., Women and the American City, Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, pp. 42-63