Stars: Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain
|I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.|
At a second glance, A Busy Day still isn't much, but there are things worthy of note. For a start, you may wonder which role Chaplin might be playing if we're watching two girls fight over Mack Swain. Well, he's the wife, Chaplin spending the entire picture in particularly garish drag. His outfit is outrageous enough that we can surely be thankful we can only watch it in black and white; if it was colorised, he might just look like he's playing a gay pride parade all by himself. Then again, I've seen many worse drag queens than Chaplin and not a one with the raw energy he brings to the table; he's like the Energizer Bunny in Doc Martens here. The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin suggests that it was one of Alice Davenport's dresses, but that book is not without its errors, so whether that's true is open to discussion. Whether it was or wasn't, it's certainly accessorised, the feathers on the hat valiantly remaining in place, at least until the end when they're surely ruined by a notable backflip off a pier into the ocean.
Talking of parades, this is another of those Keystone guerrilla shoots at an organised event, this parade accompanying the dedication ceremony for the expansion of the Los Angeles Harbor in Wilmington, CA. That may not sound too exciting, but there's a fair crowd, if apparently a smaller one than turned out for the Junior Vanderbilt Cup at which Keystone shot Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. That film is the obvious comparison here, not least because it's deliberately riffed on. Chaplin even hauls out some of the same moves to swan around in front of what might even be the same camera, this picture being shot a mere three months after the other one, even with a dozen other Chaplin pictures being made in between. We find ourselves in reminiscent territory quickly: the first intertitle explains that the unhappy couple have 'gathered to see the parade and hear the band play' but clearly Swain's interest is more in the girl with the come hither eyes next to him, so off they dash, leaving Chaplin to follow them into the parade.
While Charlie showing up in drag is surely the biggest surprise A Busy Day has to offer, another is that there's precious little of the event that the cameras came to capture. Perhaps the parade just wasn't as exciting as the soapbox derby in the earlier film, but we get nothing of the ceremony, very little of the parade and only a couple of other shots: one of some battleships and one of some small boats heading out into the harbour. For all the effort they made, they could have stayed home on the Keystone lot and shot most of the same thing. It's only the crowd that made the trip to Wilmington worth it; I'm sure they could have conjured up enough extras to flesh out a studio shoot, but we'd have recognised their faces. These folk look like regular Joes, almost all of them wearing hats but without outrageous facial hair. The ironic flipside to that observation is that we can't recognise one of the Keystone actors here: the young lady who conjures Swain away from his wife. Some sources say Phyllis Allen, but that doesn't ring true.
Without much of the event on offer, beyond the laughter of the crowd, and precious little story to capture our attention, we're stuck focused on the energetic action. It's simple slapstick stuff, more so than usual, as there are perhaps only three moves on show and one of them dominates. This is the one where one character puts their foot in the chest of another and pushes hard, so that they fly backwards, out of the frame and into a different one, where they fall over, usually with their legs in the air. It's not a new move, but its dominance here and the frequency by which its used make it seem like it's an Olympic sport and we're watching the highlight reel. Usually the dominant move in these 1914 pictures is the one where a character takes hold of another's face and pushes them over, but that's relegated to a rare spectacle in this one. Even rarer is that good old favourite, the kick in the ass, demonstrated on Chaplin in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, but here by Charlie on a cop. The police don't come out well in this picture.
Under normal circumstances, I'd suggest that this makes the picture play out like what 1914 audiences were discovering was called an animated cartoon. Like most things in the cinema, this began in France during the last decade of the previous century, but the first true character animation had only shown up a few months earlier, Gertie the Dinosaur's screen debut trailing Chaplin's by only six days. These aren't usual circumstances though, because Chaplin in drag is very reminiscent of an older character, namely Mr Punch (or, indeed, his wife). I'm used to watching early American films and not noticing the cultural connections as I'm English and don't share them, but Chaplin was English too and the Punch and Judy puppet show is a particularly English cultural event, even if its origins are in Italy with the commedia dell'arte of the 16th century. Punch and Judy shows have played in England since 1662, his traditional birthday being the 9th May, only two days after this film was released.
Could this be Chaplin's homage to Mr Punch? His character here is clearly outrageous and over the top, believably descended from the same trickster gods, so ladylike that she blows her nose on her dress. Mr Punch spent most of his time beating up his spouse and a constable, along with whichever other characters joined the highly changeable cast list of a show, and that's precisely what Chaplin does here, merely in the role of the wife not the husband. The most obvious other differences are that there's no baby to treat horribly and turn into sausages, but surely there are limits to slapstick comedies, and no crocodile either, but how they could have had that show up I have no idea. So what we have is what Chaplin could adapt from the Punch and Judy story to the framework of a one day Keystone reality shoot. I'd almost buy that the handle that breaks off the umbrella Charlie hits her husband with was deliberately done, but that's a stretch, I admit. I've heard worse explanations for this one, though, trust me.
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
A Busy Day can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.
To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.