Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin film Sunnyside (1919).
Sunnyside is a sort of bucolic idyll, or a parody of one, with a rural setting we associate more with Arbuckle, Keaton or Semon. Chaplin plays a factotum at a countryside inn, a character not too different from ones he had played in The Count and The Pawnshop. As in those films, he is under the thumb of a tyrannical boss (Tom Wilson). This one, however is uniquely cruel. He forces the Little Fellow, Cinderella-like, to rise at dawn, make his breakfast, sweep the floor (actually, mow it), and drive the cows (the hotel has cows for some reason). The boss even prevents him from going to church on Sunday in order to get more work out of him. The only light in the Little Fellow’s life is Edna (Purviance), whom he is courting in a fashion highly reminiscent of Harold Lloyd. But it all seems to come crashing down when a fancy “Young Man from the City” comes and steals Edna away from him. But in the end, it turns out to have been a dream – happy ending. Some people misread the finish, a fact made possible because Chaplin has included dreams within dreams. Some say the Little Fellow gets hit by a car and dreams the happy ending. Others, that he dreamt that he got hit by a car and the happy ending is real. Kind of like The Matrix, if you think about it. I obviously have.
Critics are divided about what they dislike about the film. Some say it’s too downbeat, that Chaplin overreached with the pathos. Some say it’s too self consciously artistic. Many dislike the “dance of Pan” section, where he frolics with a bunch of forest fairies in yet another of his dream sequences. Walter Kerr was one who couldn’t abide that section. Others approve of that scene, pointing out that it is just a parody of such dances, which were in vogue at the time. (After all during the dance, he does sit on a cactus). Ironically, while some considered it too highbrow, others, particularly many critics at the time, found the gags too lowbrow and not clever or original enough. Chaplin copped to being exhausted and creatively dry when he made the movie, due to the distractions mentioned above. And this is probably why his character gets a hen to lay her egg right in the frying pan, and a cow to give milk right in the coffee cup, stuff we have seen countless other comedians do. The rub is, research by Kevin Browlow and others has shown that Sunnyside had originally contained many more gags. Chaplin had cut them in the interest of streamlining his story.
At any rate, I find this movie beautiful to look at. On an aesthetic level it is one of my favorite Chaplins. I am entirely able to see the sunny side of Sunnyside.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc . For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.