Release Date: 15 June 1919
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 20 minutes
With: Edna Purviance, Tom Wilson, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood
Story: Working at a rural hotel, the Tramp falls in love with local farmer’s daughter Edna and has to fight for her with a rival from the big city…
Production: Charlie Chaplin’s marital troubles with new bride Mildred Harris were beginning to have a deleterious affect on his creative work. He began his next film for First National under the title Jack of All Trades, but it would eventually be released in June 1919 as Sunnyside and would be very different from the ideas Chaplin had started out with.
Wanting to make something with a countryside feel, he had his studio’s main standing street set converted into something more suitable for a rural village rather than a metropolis like New York of Chicago. A set was built that formed the lobby of a down-at-heel hotel, where Chaplin imagined much of the action taking place. Initially, he thought he could play the handyman of the hotel, the jack of all trades of the title.
The first few days of actual shooting, in early November 1918, took place out on the Phelps Ranch, where the studio paid for the hire of a cow and also for the repair of a fence seemingly broken during filming. Shooting was regularly interrupted by random stoppages where Chaplin would abandon whatever he was half-heartedly doing in order to think again about the story he wanted to tell. He had a bunch of random ideas, but no over-arching theme that was the kind of guiding principle he usually had before beginning to roll the cameras.
Chaplin was definitely out-of-sorts, largely due to his frustrations with Mildred, and it was beginning to affect not only his work but also his health. A photograph of him during this period became a source of irritation for the comic. ‘I hate this picture of me,’ he said. ‘I look bleary-eyed, like a murderer. No wonder.’ When viewing the resulting film from this period, it can be discerned that Chaplin looks thinner and tired than usual during Sunnyside.
Days away from shooting became more frequent than actual filming days, and the excuses became flimsier. At first, it was because he wanted to ‘talk the story’ with his creative advisors, including Henry Bergman, whom Chaplin continued to rely upon in times of creative stress. Long lunches became the norm, then began to consume entire days. Visitors to the studio, such as the Bishop of Birmingham, provided yet another excuse for doing no work. Soon, Chaplin and his friends would go off on entire weekend-long trips, such as the three-day outing the entire company took to see the ‘air circus’ in San Diego, as reported by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Chaplin half-heartedly tried to justify the trip by filming some of the event, but none of it was ever used in any of his films.
In the run up to Christmas 1918, Chaplin edited together what little material he had for Jack of All Trades, but the results depressed him even further and he shut the entire studio down early for the holidays. It was expected Chaplin would return to work in the New Year, but he did not. On 19 January 1919, the Chaplin Studio closed down entirely. The company’s leading man spent a total of six weeks away from the studio during this period, doing anything but make his next film.
By the end of January, Charlie Chaplin had returned to work. Everything he’d already shot for Jack of All Trades was formally scrapped and the film abandoned. The new film would be called Putting It Over, but this fresh start did little to relieve Chaplin’s creative malaise. Rainy days limited his shooting time during February, so he took to auditioning actresses, hiring wildlife, and planning new work. Illness and further story development work took Chaplin away from the studio repeatedly, until he finally announced Jack of All Trades was back on, but would now be called Sunnyside.
Given the repeated false starts, it is surprising that Sunnyside turned out as good as it did. There was an eight-month gap between the release of Shoulder Arms and the arrival of its follow-up. There seemed to be some tension between the character of the Tramp and his creator—he was increasingly moving away from depicting his onscreen character in the manner that audiences had come to love. Chaplin thrived on new challenges, so he was not simply going to churn out the same slapstick fall-about comedy material. He was beginning his search for something deeper in film.
Chaplin plays the handyman of a rural inn, overworked and under-appreciated. His environment is idyllic: the eggs come straight from the hens, and the milk direct from the cows. It’s a simple life, full of simply pleasures, so unlike Chaplin’s real life in Los Angeles. It’s a dream world, a fantasy from a man raised in urban squalor, and the dreams-within-dreams featured in Sunnyside serve to emphasize that unreality. Chaplin’s wistful figure is engaged in a half-hearted battle with Albert Austin’s city slicker for the attention of country girl Edna Purviance, but it amounts to very little.
One of the film’s notable fantasy sequences sees Chaplin dance with four nymphs, a sort of pastiche of Nijinsky, or perhaps intended as homage. The women playing the nymphs were exactly the kind Chaplin was attracted to: young, seemingly innocent, available. It was a betrayal of his current anxieties, a revelation of his fantasies. His problems with Mildred had hit him where it hurt, in his creativity, and he sought escape.
There is a deleted scene from Sunnyside, first available as part of the indispensible Unknown Chaplin documentary series. It seems to relate to some of the earlier ideas for Jack of All Trades and depicts Chaplin as a hotel barber preparing Albert Austin for a shave. The set up seems to indicate that this is not going to be a smooth shave, from the broken-down barber’s chair, to the excessive lather applied to Austin’s fearful face, and the near scalding of his scalp by a furnace. There’s some traditional Chaplin humour here, although the piece is not in keeping with the rest of what became Sunnyside. The barber skit attempted here, though, may have been a dry run for a sequence that Chaplin finally brought to fruition in The Great Dictator, over two decade later.
The bulk of Sunnyside was shot during a burst of feverish activity during the final three weeks of March 1919, after 150 supposed ‘shooting’ days when the unit had laid largely idle. Chaplin quickly fell back on the romantic triangle, and the recursion of dreams within dreams displayed his uncertainty over his handling of the material. There is a darkness at the heart of Sunnyside, but Chaplin could not wrestle it into a coherent shape. He plays the romance with Edna two ways: she goes off with the city slicker, only for Chaplin’s handyman to awake from a dream and win her back. Was this an expression of his desire for a ‘do-over’ in real life, wishing he could leave Mildred and return to the days when he and Edna were together on and off-screen?
The humour is lacking in Sunnyside, and what there is comes across as decidedly dark or offbeat. To get ride of Edna’s country bumpkin brother, the handyman blindfolds him, pretending they are playing hide-and-seek, only to send the kid out into the middle of the traffic, where he remains for the duration of the film. The film ends with the dream fake-out suicide-by-car, which is neither particularly funny and is anyway undone instantly. There is an open question as to what scene is actually the dream, the suicide or the aftermath?
Chaplin may have wished his domestic life was but a dream; instead, it was about to turn into a nightmare. The making of Sunnyside spanned the period from when it became clear that Mildred’s pregnancy (the reason she and Chaplin had hastily married) was false, through to her becoming genuinely pregnant. Anxieties about impending parenthood and whether he could sustain his relationship with Mildred fed directly into the film, perhaps explaining the dream-like escape to the countryside with the dancing nymphs. Reality, though, was about to hit Charlie Chaplin hard.
Mildred had been confined to bed rest or periods in hospital or a sanatorium during her pregnancy, as there were some fears on behalf of her doctors as to whether she would be capable of carrying the child to term. During these periods Mildred was alone or with her mother; Chaplin certainly spent little time with his pregnant wife. When she moved back into their home at De Mille Drive, Mildred moved her mother into the spare bedroom to support her. Chaplin increasingly spent time, often overnight spending his nights at the Athletic Club, away from home.
On the evening of 6 July, and in the absence of her husband, Mildred began labour. Around 6am the following morning, 7 July, she gave birth to a baby son. Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. (a name Chaplin loudly objected to, preferring Norman Spencer Chaplin), however, was not long for this world. Born malformed, the baby only survived for three days. According to Joyce Milton’s biography of Chaplin, his manservant Kono had been told that the child had been born with ‘its stomach upside down’. The child’s condition caused peristaltic action (the muscle-driven motion that pushes food through the digestive tract) to apparently work, more or less, in reverse. The death certificate gave cause of death for Chaplin’s first son as ‘rudimentary development of the large intestine’.
The date of birth came just over eight months after Mildred’s supposed ‘false’ pregnancy, throwing into doubt the story over whether she was or was not pregnant that first time around, or actually fell pregnant so rapidly after the ‘false alarm’ that it didn’t impact on a nine-month (or so) gestation period. When staying in various sanatoriums, Mildred may have been given drugs to calm her nerves that affected the viability of her foetus.
Either way, the child that Chaplin did not want was gone, but in the most terrible way. His avoidance of Mildred and her pregnancy was a huge act of denial on Chaplin’s part, and his confusion and depression during this period no doubt fed into the confused narrative of Sunnyside, with its dreams, wish fulfilment, and dark undercurrents. Mildred later claimed that Chaplin had indeed shown remorse, crying upon the death of his first-born child. Whatever reconciliation the tragedy may have brought about was short-lived and the pair had reverted to their quarrelsome ways within days of the death of their child.
Chaplin’s inherent selfishness also kicked in quickly, and he distanced himself from the arrangements that had to be made. Mildred left things to her church to arrange, and Chaplin objected to the funeral technician’s application of an artificial smile to their dead son’s face. He refused to attend the wake, supposedly because he disliked Mildred’s religious friends, but it was just the latest act in his denial surrounding his son. Mildred later complained that Chaplin had haggled with the mortician over the bill for the funeral, trying to get it reduced—this from the best-paid man in Hollywood. He got his way in just one thing: the death certificate recorded his short-lived son to be called Norman Spencer Chaplin, his preferred choice of name. Chaplin almost omits his doomed son entirely from his 1960s autobiography, giving him only one sentence: ‘After we had been married a year, a child was born but only lived three days.’
Trivia: For some, Sunnyside was perceived as Chaplin straying into the territory of the ‘art film’ and it was seized upon by those hoping to elevate his efforts beyond mere entertainment. Joyce Milton noted: ‘Admired by intellectuals, the dark comedy [of Sunnyside] laid a foundation for a Chaplin vogue among French cineastes.’ It wasn’t just the French. In that hotbed of American intellectualism, Indianapolis, something was stirring, as reported in the 12 July 1919 edition of The Motion Picture News. S. B. McCormick of the Circle Theatre in Indianapolis was in using Chaplin’s Sunnyside hoping to attract ‘the most elite local society’, who would nonetheless have to enjoy the Tramp’s antics in the company of the hoi polloi, of the masses, the common people, or as the Motion Picture News had it: ‘dyed-in-the-wool Chaplin fans’. In his advertising for the film, McCormick sought to equate Chaplin to the god Pan, emphasising the film’s connections with classical dance. The report concluded: ‘McCormick’s campaign was based on the psychology that the regular Chaplin fans would attend regardless of the kind of exploitation, but that to reach the society element of Indianapolis it would be necessary for him to lift his exploitation into the “society” stage.’
Charlie Says: ‘Sunnyside had been like pulling teeth. Without question marriage was having an effect on my creative faculties. After Sunnyside, I was at my wits’ end for an idea. … Although I had grown fond of Mildred, we were irreconcilably mismatched. I could never reach her mind. It was cluttered with pink-ribboned foolishness. She seemed in a dither, looking always for other horizons. Although we lived in the same house, we seldom saw each other, for she was much occupied at her studio as I was at mine. It became a sad house. I would come home to find the dinner table laid for one, and would eat alone. … We separated in a friendly way, agreeing she was to get [a] divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty, and that we would say nothing about it to the press.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.
Verdict: Whimsical, and lacking engagement and any really great comedy, Sunnyside is a minor film from a troubled period in Chaplin’s life.
—Brian J. Robb
Next: A Day’s Pleasure (15 December 1919)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
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