Archive for November 8, 2020

The Sunday Intertitle: Lady for a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2020 by dcairns

Chaplin’s star was rising, but how to build the brand? He never quite gave up the desire to break away from the Tramp character, but it’s interesting to see him trying it when he’s only been in movies for a few months, has just started directing, etc. So here’s A BUSY DAY, one of Keystone’s “occasional films” where they’d shoot documentary footage of some real LA event (free productions values) and then shoot inserts of one or two comedians to drop into it — KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE being the most famous example. Mack Sennett liked to say he started filming a Shriner parade as soon as he got off the train in Hollywood… And Chaplin is in drag. And married to Mack Swain.

A lot of chin-jutting and chuntering — it feels like one of the Northern English comics — but Norman Evans was 14 at this time, and the comics he inspired — Les Dawson and Roy Baraclough’s Cissy and Ada — were far in the future. But surely Chaplin would have seen their music hall precursors on the London stage. Drag had presumably invaded that weird British phenomenon, the Christmas panto?

Part of this particular brand of female impersonation is to kind of reveal the artifice: a later drag genius, Paul O’Grady said he didn’t like these acts because they were always “fiddling with their boobs” — adjusting the falsies, playing with giving the game away without quite doing it, admitting what we already know.

Chaplin immediately starts wiping his eyes with his skirt, exposing his bloomers, a bit of vulgarity that might be frowned upon from a female comic. He also plays it very aggressive — I’ve seen him do more feminine acting, but this is broad stuff, he’s not really trying to fool us. He’s not wearing his tramp boots but I think he’s in flap shoes. He got the costume, we’re told, from frequent co-star Helen Davenport.

A routine jealousy plot kicks off, and we’re back in KID AUTO territory as Mrs. Charlie runs afoul of a newsreel crew in the command of Mack Sennett himself.

How long can the film simply pull (slight) variations on Chaplin and various Kops kicking one another through frame? Quite a while. This bruising action is fairly impressive and mildly amusing, and would probably start a riot if you had an audience of kids.

Eventually, we leave the costly free extras and the fleeting spectacle of the parade for some nondescript dockland setting where Mrs. Chaplin catches Mack Swain with another woman (Phyllis Allen). And then everyone starts kicking each other again. OK, this is pretty good. I’m sold. An entirely kicking-based narrative. It may have less to do with the English music hall and more with Punch and Judy, only here it’s Judy who’s the psychopathic dervish.

Finally, Mrs. Charlie makes the mistake of setting upon Mack on the edge of the pier. He shoves her into the sea. She drowns. The end.

OK, not too much ambition here, except to show versatility, but seriously, a ferocious, pathologically malign and horrible violent little woman was probably not going to become a legendary comedy character, and Chaplin probably knew this, which is why he sent her to a watery grave after (checks video) six minutes of rampantly repetitive action.

Chaplin had been hired because Sennett liked his drunk act, and at this point the Tramp/Little Fellow is, in fact, a comic inebriate who has to get smashed in every picture. Chaplin may well have been wondering, How long can I milk this? Time would tell.

A BUSY DAY stars Adenoid Hynckel; Ambrose; Fatty’s Mother-in-Law; Mabel’s true love; Mabel’s Father; and First Cop.