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)