The Sunday Intertitle: Lady for a Day

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.

7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Lady for a Day”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    OFF-TOPIC; NORMAN LLOYD IS 106 !

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Right around the 4 minute mark Charlie (Charlene?) pushes the cop back a few inches to make room for the kick. It may be just a breaking-character corrective move here, but it could be the harbinger of future gags where violence is preceded or followed by some touch of professionalism or delicacy.

    Chaplin certainly wasn’t the first or only practitioner. Precise aiming before delivering foot or bat to an unsuspecting posterior, gently replacing a victim’s hat after a conk to the skull ,,, pretty sure these were stock gags before Chaplin.

    But here the fleeting gesture is thoughtful and considered. If we are to rage, we will rage in a correct fashion.

  3. All hail Norman!

    I *think* Chaplin has already used the handshake as a ritualized bit of politeness in the midst of knockabout strife, and yes, that kind of thing is key to his comedy, and is even somehow embodied in his costume: the rough and the smooth, the shabby-genteel.

  4. That splay-legged leap he does at 1:30 seemed characteristically Chaplin to me, but maybe it’s a stock move. Where’s my Encyclopedia of Micro-Analyzed Silent Film Physicality?

  5. It’s also akin to a move used by his understudy, Stan Laurel, eg in Putting Pants on Philip. But with the legs going akimbo, because that will show better in long skirts.

  6. Simon Kane Says:

    Interestingly or not – you decide – the York Panto’s Dame Berwick Kaler never wore make-up, and never thought of it as a drag act. He was your dad dressed as your mum, the omniparent. Of course it’s still drag, but I’ve never considered until now at what point drag split off from Dan Leno and Charley’s, Aunt into its more instantly empowering cabaret form (and how much the iconography of cinema had to do with that).

  7. Interestingly, Charlie did movies where he was playing a woman, who wasn’t sexy, and movies where he was a man dressed up as a woman, who was sexy. Which seems the wrong we round, if the goal is comedy… I’m thinking of the Carry On school, where all the men are immediately attracted to what we can clearly see is an ugly bloke in drag…

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