So, I finished reading Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside, which left me feeling emotionally fragile and with a lump in my throat. Amazing book. Among Gold’s many accomplishments is the weaving together of three distinct narratives, two of which deal with World War One, while the remaining one covers Charlie Chaplin’s travails making SUNNYSIDE, one of his worst films — and Gold manages to get us to take Chaplin’s artistic difficulties seriously, even while men are dying over there — and there’s no sense of distortion in this. Chaplin’s problems ARE serious, but obviously on a different level from the life-and-death stuff. Gold also manages to make us care about Chaplin while being scrupulously honest about his many vices.
Both Gold in Sunnyside and Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns are pretty scathing about SUNNYSIDE, a complete misfire that failed critically, commercially and artistically. Chaplin was still trying to reach beyond the simple comedies that had made his name, and would not find a successful formula to do so until THE KID, one film later. During the hideously protracted shooting of SUNNYSIDE, he tried many different stories and gimmicks to create emotional depth or sidestep easy story solutions. What he ended up with was, it has to be said, a mess.
This intertitle is singled out by both authors as an example of Chaplin’s bad faith. It seems to imply, “There you go. This is the kind of shit you like, isn’t it?” Still, the Finnish subtitles in my crappy copy are a nice touch, don’t you think?
The jumble of story — TWO dream sequences, and a movie set in the countryside yet based around a hotel, a romance that only gets started halfway through, and a romantic rival who doesn’t appear until nearly the end — is quite dismaying. Even Keystone comedies paid more attention to structure than this. Still, there are pleasures. The mistreatment of the idiot brother (blindfolded and sent out to play in traffic) is cruel enough to seem modern, and a relief from the cloying business around it, and then there’s this —
This surreal moment, in which the bleating of a baby goat makes Chaplin think his piano has a flat note — a sound gag in a silent movie — is reprised, minus the goat, in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Chaplin had a long memory for comedy business.