Wednesday 7 May 2014

A Busy Day (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
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 first glance, A Busy Day isn't much at all. It's a split reel film, which means that it wasn't long enough to have its own reel so had to share one with another short subject. Clocking in at just under six minutes, it shared its reel with an educational short about the cartoonist Edmund Waller Gale called The Morning Papers. Six minutes might not sound like much, but given how much Chaplin crammed into his previous picture, Caught in the Rain, it ought to be more than enough to endow it with some substance. Sadly, he didn't endow this one with much of anything, just a love triangle with the unlikely form of Mack Swain in its centre and a sustained burst of slapstick violence. Most of the picture revolves around Swain's wife in search of her errant husband, beating up cops until she can find him and the new girl on his arm so she can beat them up too. If anything, that description makes the story sound too subtle, so perhaps I should rephrase using only words found in action bubbles on the Batman TV series. It's that blatant.

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.
As this happens, we can't fail to see both the similarities and the differences between this and Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. Both follow fictional characters at a real event and both start in the audience. The earlier film had the Little Tramp wander around in front of a movie camera annoying the men behind it, while this one has Charlie in drag do the same thing, merely a little more coquettishly. It's a deliberate homage and it's a fair one because it doesn't run on. Chasing her husband, Charlie just finds herself in the right place at the right time and preens herself in the spotlight, before being rudely moved on. The most notable difference is in the rest of the audience though. In the earlier film, folk were watching the races with a few wondering what the strange little tramp was doing, only to shift their attentions during the shooting of the picture. By the end they were watching him and laughing hard. Here, some of them obviously know who Charlie is from moment one and they're laughing in the very first frame.

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.
As the title suggests, A Busy Day was shot in a single day: Saturday, 11th April, 1914, partway through the shoot for Caught in the Rain, which ran around it from the Tuesday to the Monday. Apparently, when an event cropped up on the calendar that could provide useful footage, a Keystone crew just loaded up and trucked out to shoot it. A few available actors were a bonus and, hey presto, Keystone had a movie with a fresh background that could fill up a slot in their delivery schedule. It didn't have to be any good, as we find here where sustained action is about all that makes up for the lack of almost anything else. There are precisely two reasons to watch A Busy Day and neither of them has a thing to do with the parade that half-heartedly provides a background. One is the sight of Charlie Chaplin leaping about in drag, sometimes quite literally; he even does the recognisable Ford Sterling leap before running at one point. The other is the sheer level of violence, which is strong and sustained.

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.

Important Sources:
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.

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