A Busy Day (7 May 1914)

Chaplin14BusyDayReleased: 7 May 1914, Keystone

Director: Mack Sennett

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 6 mins (split reel)

With: Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Mack Sennett, Billy Gilbert

Story: During a military parade a wife (Chaplin in drag) becomes jealous of her husband (Swain) and manages to interrupt the making of a movie…

Production: If some of the scenario of this split reel trifle sounds familiar, that’s because it is essentially Chaplin’s early movie Kid Auto Races at Venice dragged up, literally so as Chaplin appears dressed as a woman. From the opening moment when Chaplin’s female character tips back on her bench flashing her bloomers it is clear that he’s a pretty poor drag act. As un-ladylike as possible, Chaplin essentially presents his usual Tramp persona, but in a dress (he even seems to be wearing his usual shoes/boots, although the dress was said to have come from Keystone co-star Alice Davenport).

It is understandable that given he’d made a movie just like this several months before that Chaplin didn’t want to use the Tramp persona in such a throw-away trifle, hence his dragging up. None of the other characters even seem to treat him as a woman anyway. The funniest thing Chaplin does here is an almost ‘can can’ style dance, for no apparent reason before a policeman intervenes and gets a shove in the face for his trouble. This is the first of three film appearances in which Chaplin ‘drags up’, the other two being The Masquerader (August 14, 1914) and A Woman (1915), although in those later appearances there is more of an attempt to portray an actual female character than is bothered with here. It is less of a drag act and more of a panto dame.

Shot in Wilmington on April 11, 1914, A Busy Day takes place against the backdrop of a dedication ceremony and parade marking the extension of the harbour of Los Angeles at San Pedro (there’s a nice pan across some impressive ships at one point). The final, rather short item, was released on a split reel (meaning it took up around half of a single reel) with an unrelated educational film called The Morning Papers. It’s another of Mack Sennett’s ‘event movies’ driven by filming in and around an already existing event, giving Keystone great production values for next to no outlay. Sennett himself appears in this one playing the role of the irate film director. The six minutes of this film is filled out with some nice footage of the marching band, but Sennett and company are too keen to fall back on their old reliable of ‘trying to make a film’ as the slender excuse for a ‘story’ (really an unrelated bunch of kicking, slapping, and falling over in the worst Keystone-style).

A Busy Day was once believed to have been a lost film, and while every silent film recovery is welcome, A Busy Day adds little of worth to the overall Chaplin filmography other than cursory interest. Having come up with the scenario here, it seems that Chaplin was hamstrung by having to fit in with the event and the requirements of Keystone, so he has simply fallen back on their usual kind of product, and the whole of A Busy Day is a definite step backwards in terms of his developing command of the cinematic medium. It had long been suspected that Chaplin had directed this one, even though he hadn’t included it on an early list of his first film achievements. Chaplin biographer David Robinson noted: ‘[Chaplin] clearly did not rate it very highly. Certainly it is one of Sennett’s ‘throwaways’, but it is a curiosity for all that.’

Slapstick: A policeman is the first of many to fall over after a kick up the backside, while Chaplin spends much of the film rolling around in the dust in front of the camera as the band march past. When Charlie catches up with Swain there’s much slapping, kicking and hitting, none of it terribly funny. Naturally, there’s a big splash at the finale as Chaplin ends up in the water.

Verdict: Nothing to see here, move along, 1/5

Next: The Fatal Mallet (1 June 1914)

Caught in the Rain (4 May 1914)

Chaplin14CaughtRainReleased: 4 May 1914, Keystone

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 11 mins

With: Mack Swain, Alice Davenport, Alice Howell

Story: The Tramp gets in trouble in pursuit of the ladies, leading to sleepwalking shenanigans and balcony baloney…

Production: Often considered to be Chaplin’s true debut as writer and director, as well as star, Caught in the Rain is a leap forward in quality of production. Gone is the usual slapstick-driven Keystone runaround. Instead, this short features a series of incidents that while played for comic effect actually relate to one another, and are partly driven by character not just plot. This would be the approach Chaplin would pursue in making his own films in future.

Caught in the Rain is the film that Chaplin singled out in his autobiography as being his debut as a creative behind the camera (despite his largely uncredited but important contributions to a couple of shorts before this one). ‘When I started directing my first picture, I was not as confident as I could be,’ admitted the comic in My Autobiography. ‘In fact, I had a slight attack of panic. After [producer Mack] Sennett saw the first day’s work, I was reassured. Caught in the Rain was not a world-beater, but it was funny and quite a success.’

Although Chaplin took a different approach to filmmaking than either Sennett or Mabel Normand, he was conservative enough for his first effort to rely on tried-and-tested material he knew he could perform. In creating the film he uses some of the ‘park comedy’ common to many Keystone films, and most recently seen in Twenty Minutes of Love, then a bar-room scene (straight out of his previous effort, Caught in a Cabaret; even the similarities in title are interesting), presented mainly as an excuse for Chaplin to redo his drunk act, which dated back to his vaudeville days. There’s a lovely touch as he appears to pull himself into the bar by his ear, thus overcoming his own resistance. It was a routine he knew he could pull off effortlessly, yet it would always, without fail, crack up an audience whether live in a theatre or in a cinema.

Even the final section recalls a recent Chaplin short: the hotel room mix-up sequences are straight out of the Normand-directed Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and even the Tramp’s ‘predicament’ here recalls that film. However, the interest comes in how Chaplin makes his Tramp, the character of the ‘little fellow’, the driving force for the story. Things happen to him, yes, but it is in how he reacts and attempts to get himself out of the evermore bizarre things that happen to him where the comedy genuinely lies. While Chaplin doesn’t quite resort to the Keystone-style chase-and-fight finale for Caught in the Rain, he does rely upon that old stand-by of the Keystone Cops to wrap things up.

Despite all these echoes of past work, Caught in the Rain is also a film that looks forward, not least to the following year’s A Night Out which revisits much of the material here in a more mature and controlled manner. From this film forward until the end of his Keystone contract at the end of the year, Chaplin would direct virtually every short he appeared in, only giving up the reins for three minor exceptions and the feature-length Tillie’s Punctured Romance which Mack Sennett handled.

There are other ways in which Caught in the Rain differs from the standard Keystone productions of this period. One of them is in the number of individual shots that make up the movie. Chaplin used here many more cuts than in most of the films he’d appeared in previously, applying all he had learned by studying the working methods of other directors. He’d spent the four months he’d been at Keystone figuring out how films were made and how he could improve upon the methods used. In Caught in the Rain, Chaplin shows an immediate grasp of how to construct a coherent story through editing, rather than through the pantomime acting featured so often in Keystone product.

While not appearing to be innovative or out-of-step with the other Keystone releases surrounding it, Chaplin’s first writer-director credit nonetheless proves to be the funniest film he’d appeared in so far, and by far the best-told story of the dozen or so films he’d made up to this point. He relies far less on the use of inter-titles to explain the story: it is so straight-forwardly told visually they are largely unnecessary, and by the frantic final stretch of the film they disappear completely.

In Mack Swain, Chaplin had found an ideal foil, and he would work with him again many years later in 1921 when he was under contract at First National, appearing in classics such as The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1922), and The Pilgrim (1923), as well as playing a larger role in 1925’s The Gold Rush. Alice Davenport returned from Mabel’s Strange Predicament for this film, and proved to be a good ‘straight woman’ to Chaplin’s comedy antics. The entire ‘wrong room’ sequence is a piece of true comic genius, yet there was so much better material yet to come from Chaplin over the next few years. The following scene, in which he’s undressing for the night, is probably the most ‘human’ we’ve seen Chaplin’s Tramp to be so far in the Keystone series. The dizzying pace of events that make up the climax must’ve had audiences rolling the aisles, even if the film doesn’t have a proper ending…

Slapstick: Swain’s irate husband is quick to knock down Chaplin’s Tramp when he’s caught chatting up his wife in the the park, while a near-miss with a speeding car put the Tramp down in the middle of the road. A man whose leg and foot are in plaster in the hotel foyer is an obvious target for some painful slapstick. An attempt by the drunken Tramp to tackle the stairs sees him fall back to Earth, face first, a situation repeated and multiplied when several other participants join him (this is actually a good, simple example of Chaplin mining an easy bit of business to the greatest comic effect, used again in The Floorwalker and One A.M., both 1916).

Verdict: Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, even after all these years, Chaplin has found his true path at last, 3.5/5

Next: A Busy Day (7 May 1914)