As a finale to Chaplin’s First National era (and, in a way, to his “simpler” pictures), The Pilgrim is simply a delight – a solid storyline, with lovely laughs and some quiet social commentary lightly brushed in.
Here, Charlie is an escaped convict who must quickly change into the first civilian outfit he can find – which, as luck would have it, is a minister’s uniform. Happenstance leads him to Texas, where a modest rural church awaits the arrival of their new pastor, whom Charlie quickly becomes. Charlie quickly finds that the church’s deacon (Mack Swain, understated and priceless) and a few of the other church members aren’t quite as sanctimonious as they present themselves to be. Later, Charlie runs into trouble when a former cellmate of his (Charles Reisner, the movie’s assistant director) recognizes Charlie and tries to steal from the family with whom he is boarding.
Charlie also, naturally, makes time with the boarding-woman’s daughter (Edna Purviance) (as well he should — this was Chaplin’s last movie encounter with her in character. After that, he would star her in his drama A Woman in Paris in the dashed hope of providing a future movie career for her).
The movie has lovely vignettes sprinkled throughout, not the least of which is Charlie’s encounter with a congregation member’s slap-happy child (Charles Reisner’s son Dean, who memorably recounts the experience in the documentary Unknown Chaplin). There’s also Charlie’s unforgettable stint as Sunday-morning preacher, which he treats mostly as a show-business stint.
Also notable is the location shooting by Chaplin’s veteran cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh, which lends much authenticity to the story of a man on the run through Texas. (It’s a bit startling to see so much byplay with an actual locomotive, considering how Chaplin later skimped on the same prop for similar gags in The Great Dictator.)
The movie’s final scene, and shot, are a perfect symbol of Chaplin’s Tramp character: caught between this land and that, unsure of his footing no matter where he lands. It’s a perfect ending for the film and for Chaplin’s First National period.