Release Date: 15 December 1919
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 25 minutes
With: Edna Purviance, Marion Feducha, Bob Kelly, Jackie Coogan, Babe London, Tom Wilson, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood
Story: After some trouble with his broken-down Model T Ford, the Tramp sets out with his family for a day trip. They embark upon an boat ride, but seasickness and comic hijinks serve to ruin the fun. More car trouble awaits the family on the journey home to the end of a “perfect” day.
Production: Adrift in both his private and professional lives, Charlie Chaplin sought escape in the creation of a brand new short film, only for his troubles to start all over again. It was a simple enough idea—Charlie’s Picnic would feature a family day out. Chaplin could see a myriad of comic possibilities in that simple set up. Five children were selected from the many who auditioned and contracted for a month to make the movie; Chaplin should have realized from his past experience and practice that he was being overly optimistic as to the time scale any film he would make from now on would likely take.
He shot for just two days before calling the project off on 16 June 1919, dismissing the children. The stifling heat was not helping the ideas flow. By the start of July he was ready to try again, shooting over four days in an attempt to get something—anything—on film. He used those around him, from his own chauffeur to studio manager Alf Reeves and a visiting friend, to play in incomplete and unsatisfying scenes. Once again, Chaplin gave up, effectively shutting down the studio. It was in the middle of this that Chaplin’s short-lived first son was born (see Sunnyside for the details). The malformed child died after just three days on 10 July, so there was little chance of Charlie’s Picnic resuming production any time soon.
Chaplin set aside Charlie’s Picnic, and having met the young Jackie Coogan began development work on The Waif, a film that would eventually emerge as the brilliant The Kid. Whether this was distraction from the film he’d set out to make or from his private grief is unclear, but Chaplin was inspired by the young Coogan whom he’d witnessed performing as part of his father’s stage act. This work took up much of August and September [and will be covered in the next entry on The Kid].
When Chaplin realized that The Kid was going to be a bigger project than he initially thought, he acquiesced to pressure from his studio First National to offer them a ‘quickie’ film to fill the sizeable gap that was emerging between Chaplin pictures. As David Robinson notes of Chaplin: ‘He had, after all, made two-reelers in a month for Mutual and in a week at Keystone.’ That was true, but perhaps in indulging his growing artistic side, Chaplin had forgotten how to make a quick lowdown comedy.
Intending to deliver something with the utmost haste, Chaplin returned to the material he had shot several months before for the aborted Charlie’s Picnic; surely he could turn this into something serviceable that could be released without shame as a Chaplin comedy?
Chaplin brought in a new, and contrasting, co-star in the ample form of Babe London. Born in 1901 as Jean Glover, the plump comedienne is perhaps best know today for co-starring with Laurel and Hardy in their 1931 sound short two-reeler Our Wife. Her film debut had been recent, in 1919’s The Expert Eloper, directed by Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran, who both co-starred. It’s unclear if Chaplin saw the movie, or if someone else recommended London to him. Either way, she was the perfect comic foil for an under-the-gun comedian aiming for a quick return to his earlier days of rapid filmmaking.
The Chaplin unit was newly energized and decamped to San Pedro, where a pleasure boat named the Ace was hired from the San Pedro Transportation Company for $5 per hour. This was a return to the kind of filmmaking that had brought Chaplin fame in the first place—turn up, find a prop of some sort, and just start filming. There were all sorts of possibilities for comedy from a setting on a boat, and in A Day’s Pleasure—as the resulting short was eventually titled—Chaplin made use of them all. He shot 25,000 feet of film across the period of just one week, and had the project edited within two weeks after the end of shooting. Chaplin had not worked so fast for quite some time. The resulting film was made available to First Nation on 3 November 1919—it was only the fourth film he’d produced for the studio.
A Day’s Pleasure may be a trifle, but at least it is fun which is a miracle given the circumstances under which it originated. Given new wind in his sails by his work with Coogan on The Kid, Chaplin was able to return to the approach that had served him so well during the Mutual years, turning out a genuinely funny short film in a reasonable amount of time.
Perhaps somewhat basic, A Day’s Pleasure nonetheless served to answer First National’s demands. It features some old stand-bys in terms of early cinematic comedy, such as car trouble, with the automobile a new technology that developed in tandem with film itself. Of course, the malfunctioning Model T Ford that Chaplin uses to convey his fractious family (including his new discovery, Jackie Coogan, as his young son) on a day out is barely fit for purpose. Frequent breakdowns and tangles in traffic follow. It is with the material on the boat that A Day’s Pleasure livens up a little, as Chaplin risks missing the departure in an effort to secure some cigarettes. When Babe London’s plump passenger similarly almost misses the boat and ends up hanging onto the ship and the shore, Chaplin nonchalantly uses the poor women as a natural bridge to get himself back aboard (only then does he help her aboard, too). Other than that, this is simple stuff—‘unadventurous’ as John McCabe has it—yet some critics regarded it as a better film (or simply more enjoyable) than Sunnyside had been.
Coogan later recalled the making of A Day’s Pleasure, and claimed that Chaplin had ‘kind of sloughed that picture off. You’ll notice, if you see it, that it gets very jumpy. He lost interest in it.’ Chaplin’s loss of interest in what had started off as Charlie’s Picnic would be to Jackie Coogan’s eternal advantage, as the project that had captured his interest was The Kid.
The misadventures of a ‘happy family’, messing about in cars and on boats, was in stark contrast to Chaplin’s less-than-happy off-screen life during this period. For several years, Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney had been investigating the possibility of bringing their mother, Hannah, across from Britain to the United States. Although everything was all squared away on the American end as early as 1917, the British end proved more problematic and the permits required for Hannah to travel to and become domiciled in the US were denied. Hannah remained in Peckham House, a care home, for the next two years while the Chaplin brothers got on with their careers.
Ironically, when the permits were finally sorted out on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean by the middle of 1919, Chaplin was in no position personally to contemplate adding his addled mother to the family home. His marriage troubles, despair over the death of his new-born son, and concerns about his abilities to continue to make films his audiences would enjoy were all plaguing the comedian. The thought of suffering further by reuniting with his mentally-stricken mother was something Chaplin simply could not face.
Sydney was in New York, preparing for a trip to England, when he received a cable from Chaplin: ‘Second thoughts consider will be best mother remain in England. Some good seaside resort. Afraid presence [of] her might depress and affect my work. Good may come alone.’ It was a ruthless decision, one made easier by physical distance and time: Chaplin resolved to put himself first above all others, no matter who they might be to him. Eventually arrangements were made for Hannah to take up residence in the English seaside town of Margate, with a nurse to attend to her.
Things with Mildred had not improved, and the pair had essentially separated. Renewed animosity between the pair hit the press, partly (or so Chaplin believed) thanks to Mildred’s manager, Louis B. Mayer, who had disdained the comedian’s offer of $25,000 to settle things between them. In print, Chaplin threatened to beat up Mayer—and that’s exactly what happened when the pair bumped into one another in the dining room of the Alexandria hotel. The pair managed to roll around a bit, with Chaplin hitting his head, before hotel authorities separated the soon-to-be movie mogul from the flailing comedian. Chaplin later realized that his big mouth had brought this situation about, while Mayer declared victory having landed a blow or two on the slight Englishman.
Trivia: As Charlie’s Ford fails to start, it is parked right outside the specially-built Chaplin studio on the corner of La Brea and De Longpre. When the family finally reach the boat, it departs from the Southern Pacific Passenger Station in San Pedro. As the boat sets sail, Dead Man’s Island can be seen in the background—this San Pedro harbour landmark no longer exists. It was apparently a burial ground (hence the name) for US Marines who died in the retreat from Mexican forces that occupied Los Angeles in 1846. The island also appeared in the background of another boat-themed Chaplin short, Shanghaied, made back in 1915 for Essanay. Later it is possible to see vintage battleships and the Angel’s Gate Lighthouse, built in 1913 and still in existence. According to John Bengston’s Silent Traces, the Lighthouse also features in the Roscoe Arbuckle short Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916). Other real-world locations that can be discerned in a close viewing of A Day’s Pleasure include Bullock’s department store, located downtown at Seventh Street and Broadway, and the church tower from the still-standing Sunnyside village set can be seen in the background to a scene filmed within the walls of the Chaplin studio upon a recreation of the downtown streets around Bullock’s. Jeffrey Vance speculates that Chaplin began the shoot on location, but frustrated by the crowds his filming attracted, he went to the trouble and expense of recreating the area within his studio so he could more closely control the filming environment.
What the Critics Said: ‘Charlie Chaplin is screamingly funny in his latest picture, A Day’s Pleasure, at the Strand, when he tries in vain to solve the mysteries of a collapsible deck chair. He is also funny in many little bits of pantomime and burlesque, in which he is inimitable. But most of the time he depends for comedy upon seasickness, a Ford car, and biff-bang slap-stick, with which he is little, if any, funnier than many other screen comedians.’—The New York Times, 8 December 1919.
Charlie Says: ‘My clowning, as the world calls it—and I dislike the word clown, for I am not a clown—may have esoteric meanings. I prefer to think of myself as a mimetic satirist, for I have aimed in all my comedies at burlesquing, satirizing the human race—or at least those human beings whose very existence in this world is an unconscious satire on this world. The human race I prefer to think of as the underworld of the gods. When the gods go slumming they visit the Earth. You see, my respect for the human race is not 100 per cent…’—Charlie Chaplin, The New York Times, 1920.
Verdict: A Day’s Pleasure is a bit throwaway, produced at a time when Chaplin was far from on his best game. However, it is a pleasing throwback to a simpler form of cinematic comedy the great clown was in the process of moving away from… —Brian J. Robb
Next: The Kid (6 February 1921)
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.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.