(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Chaplin’s detractors complain that much of his work is old-fashioned and melodramatic. I don’t find anything wrong with that, when it’s done well. Easy Street is a perfect example of that. If Chaplin hadn’t already used the character names “David” and “Goliath” in Behind the Screen, they would have fit perfectly here; you’ll never find a more perfect story of a little guy taking on a huge bully and beating the odds.
Our first sight of Charlie is him curled up near the entrance of a mission house; no romanticizing the Tramp on this occasion. Contrasting Charlie’s derelict situation is the mission’s organist (Edna Purviance, never lit more angelically). Charlie hears the music and is literally taken in. After the service, given a righteous pep talk by Edna, Charlie sees the light. He’s so serene in his newfound ways, he even returns the collection box he had intended to steal.
Charlie sees a “Help Wanted” sign for a police station on Easy Street; he applies and is accepted instantly. That’s because of the station’s high mortality rate, due to Easy Street’s violence orchestrated by its gang leader (Eric Campbell, in the dastardly role he was born to play).
This is another of Chaplin’s great comedies that it would be sacrilegious to spoil by giving away the plot twists. Suffice to say, the heroism that Chaplin couldn’t quite give himself over to in Essanay’s The Bank is given free rein here, and it works beautifully.
And for those who say Chaplin was a routine movie director, watch how he builds tension by cross-cutting between Charlie’s prolonged cigarette break after subduing Eric, and Edna’s being locked in and nearly raped by a heroin addict. Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better.
Easy Street is unashamedly old-fashioned, without an ounce of irony. Watch it, and be surprised how well you can still respond to such a thing.