A case could be made that Chaplin’s 1917 film Easy Street is the greatest of all his early work. It is certainly his most ambitious — seeming less a short film than a feature done in shorthand. Often remembered today for the iconic image of Chaplin subduing the villain (Eric Campbell) by gassing him with a street light, it’s also the film that caused a jealous W.C. Fields to dismiss Chaplin as a “goddam ballet dancer” and not a comedian at all. It’s also much more.
Chaplin had been making movies since 1914, but was still experimenting with his screen persona, as is evidenced here by presenting his tramp character as more down on his luck than usual, only barely existing in the slums on “Easy Street” — that is until he wanders into a storefront mission and is so inspired by the message he encounters — or more to the point, a pretty mission worker (Edna Purviance) — that he even returns the collection box he stole from them. Armed with his new outlook on life, he becomes a policeman out to clean up the slum. There is genuine drama in the film — and real menace from Eric Campbell’s neighborhood bully — but not at the expense of the laughs, including the reason that Charlie is finally able to transform the slum. A true masterpiece in 20 minutes.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke