Sun damage

I recall feeling slightly unconvinced by those sections of the (excellent) novel Sunnyside where author Glen David Gold tries to get inside Chaplin’s creative process, but I think I was probably being unfair. Gold talks us through Chaplin’s rejected ideas, and they all sound pretty terrible. Shouldn’t even the non-starters of a genius be somewhat impressive? But looking at SUNNYSIDE the movie, no, perhaps they shouldn’t. Bits of it are very good but bits of it are worse than the ideas Gold has Chaplin throw out.

The L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun dream-ballet isn’t the worst thing in there. It’s inoffensive. But it has no narrative reason for being there. Other Chaplin dreams happen when he’s heartbroken and so they have at least a claim on poignancy. Here, he’s merely downtrodden — a dream of the easy life would make sense, but not this capering around with Grecian nymphets.

Anyway, the wake-up is decently staged. Charlie falls off the same bridge in dream he fell off in reality, whereupon the woodland sylphs toss him a creeper or something and attempt to pull him back up. Upon awakening, he finds himself jolted back to reality and the bridge by a crowd of Sunnysiders, and then sent packing with multiple boots up the arse by the Boss.

“And now, the ‘romance’.” says an intertitle, throwing off a palpable sense of exhaustion and formulaic will-this-do? Rushing up to a house, dodging Henry Bergman, who he just passed on the road as a different character (beard), Charlie plucks some flowers and goes in to see Edna. Also present is “His brother, Willie,” for some reason. Willie is characterised as a village idiot type in overalls, staring into space and smiling while Charlie raps on his forehead. It would seem more logical for him to be Edna’s sibling since he’s in her house, but I think Charlie wants the license to mistreat him… that’s the best reason I can think of for what follows.

Since the boy is being a gooseberry, Charlie invites him to play blind man’s bluff — binding his eyes and sending him outside, where he is imperilled by traffic. David Robinson says this as an interesting experiment in black comedy, I just find it obnoxious. It’s further evidence of Chaplin’s creative crisis, since he’s usually careful to seem sympathetic, at least since the Mutual period.

Still, this undercuts the fairly anemic romance stuff. Charlie presents Edna with an engagement ring, and sings mutely as she plays piano. Then he attempts a gag that would work better as a variation in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — finding a flat note, Charlie excites a tiny goat living behind the piano (!) which baahs each time he hits the note, causing him to think the piano is making goat bleats. This is quite funny but, though you don’t need the sounds to understand it, it would be funnier with the sounds.

The gag develops smartly: a much larger goat appears, and Charlie is even more confused. The goat can also eat the sheet music which isn’t as clever but it’s logical.

Moderately funny business back at the hotel with Charlie cleaning up: picking up tiny invisible specks of dirt and carrying them to a single place.

Enter Tom Terriss as a young man in spats — “the city chap.” SUNNYSIDE as distaff version of SUNRISE. He enters the movie crashing his car into Sunnyside. He’s carried into the hotel by the fat boy, who is, it seems, Tom Wood and not J. Park Jones as previously reported. And Charlie innocently tries to get the comatose city chap to sign the register.

The village doctor arrives, a fake beard in pince-nez and a derby, his gladstone bag bulging with booze and, disturbingly, handcuffs. I think the normally clear line between first aid kit and rape kit is getting blurrier than desirable. As he takes City Chap’s pulse on screen right, Charlie mimics him screen left, using the victim’s own fob watch. Best bit of mime: having briefly held the watch in his mouth, Charlie gives it a theatrical shake in an exact reproduction of classic thermometer business. The doctor then presents his bill, after merely taking the pulse and kneading the patient’s shoulder in a vaguely sympathetic manner. (Like the village idiot actor, the doctor is unidentified on IMDb but I’d say it’s Albert Austin under the whiskers.)

Very routine bit with Charlie mopping the lobby while three random guys are sitting in it. Yes, he turns with the mop and wetly knocks hats off. That kind of business. “City chap fully recovered,” reports an intertitle, unnecessarily. These cards have the dutiful tone of a child’s book report. City chap (who has the same initials as Chaplin) has a lighter built into his cane. Which is kind of cool. Charlie is impressed.

In a cutaway shot, Edna gets her fingers stuck in some fly paper — a rare (unique?) example of her getting a solo gag, though it develops in such a conventional way it scarcely qualifies. Similarly, the business of her forgetting what she came to the hotel to buy (it’s also a general store) and Charlie offering suggestions from his shelves unfolds without kicking loose any real comedy at all. OK, him wrapping the final item — enormous woolly socks — in a huge paper cone as if it were a bouquet of flowers, is sort of amusing. All this is just to effect a meet uncute with the city chap, who watches with more interest than I could muster. Edna is dressed like an old lady again, further stressing the resemblance of this movie to a much earlier period of Chaplin’s career.

Charlie gets Edna’s paper money stuck to the fly paper, which is quite a good gag, but it’s cut short — I think we want to see him picking the banknote to little shreds to bring home the hopelessness of the situation.

Seeing Edna strolling amiably with the chap, Charlie performs a head-clutching gesture of operatic despair, I think the biggest and lamest reaction I’ve seen from him. No doubt he’s thinking of how he felt when he caught her with Thomas Meighan. But it’s too much for the film, the situation and the genre. Sitting down and resting his head, Charlie prepares the ground for a second dream sequence. [Iris in.]

Now Charlie prances up to Edna’s house to bring her flowers and sing with her, but finds the city chap already installed at the pianoforte. A musical cuckold, Charlie gazes through the window (the overheard music perhaps recalls Charlie’s experience in childhood of being passionately transfixed by a rendition of “You are the honeysuckle, I am the bee” caught as he passed by a window). Edna gazes blankly at the lighter-cane as if it held some mesmeric power. The lovers smile coyly over a photo album. Much of the comedy in this film is rote, but absolutely all the romance is, a likely result of Chaplin’s loveless marriage following fairly quickly on the break-up with Edna.

Charlie attempts to copy the c. chap’s elegant ways, fashioning crude spats from a pair of the woolly socks (a loose thread spoils the effect) and installing a candlestick on his cane (it blazes with the same inextinguishable fervour as the one Harpo produces from his mackintosh in HORSE FEATHERS, burning at both ends — that would impress me if I were Edna).

Walter Kerr identifies the pathos here as operating on the same unsuccessful level as that in THE TRAMP, but I think it’s much worse. Charlie’s self-pity isn’t affecting whatsoever, whereas his illiterate note in the Essanay film is genuinely pitiable even if the tonal shift isn’t managed well at all. His everlasting candle a wash-out, Charlie crouches on a country road with fingers in ears, awaiting extirpation by an approaching auto. A sudden jolt — the boss kicking him out of his chair — brings him back to reality. His rejection by Edna was all a jealous dream, brought on by seeing her chatting with chap.

Coda: the chap is checking out. He tips his hat to Edna but she turns her back on him sniffily. What on earth has happened between them during Charlie’s dream? Seeing Edna, Charlie rushes to embrace her in an awkward stranglehold, makes to punch the city chap for offences committed during R.E.M. sleep, then gratefully receives a tip from him for carrying his bags three feet to the waiting car. City chap departs and Charlie and Edna embrace.

Critics and scholars have apparently argued about whether the heartbreak leading up to suicide is a dream, or whether the happy ending is the dream, flashing through Charlie’s mind in a split second as he’s mangled by the onrushing jalopy. While that would be cleverer, more unusual and better, making the film a slapstick version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it’s absolutely plain that the more prosaic version was Chaplin’s intended reading. The dream is cued up by Charlie resting his head, and he awakens from the same posture. The reason for the confusion is the film’s awkward shape, with TWO longish dream sequences, and the other problem identified by Walter Kerr: while Chaplin often creates poignancy by having his character dream of idyllic happiness (heaven, bread rolls, etc) when he’s miserable in reality, here he dreams of a scenario much worse than his real life situ. But this is perhaps excusable — we DID get the reason Charlie thinks he’s washed up with Edna, right before he went to sleep. So it’s motivated, it’s just not very effective or interesting or amusing or touching.

SUNNYSIDE is pretty fascinating as an example of mature Chaplin operating without inspiration, judgement thrown off, forced to release a film that simply hasn’t gelled. Mysteriously, he called it a favourite film in his 1922 memoir, but dismissed it later. During shooting he toyed with abandoning it in favour of another, equally amorphous and unpromising notion, but he’d invested too much time in it for that option to fly.

The crisis would continue through the next short — I can hardly wait. And you?

6 Responses to “Sun damage”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Doesthe “suicide” here foreshadow “Monsieur Verdoux” with its unforgettable ending of Chaplin doing his Tamp Shuffle on the way to the gallows?

  2. In a way, I guess, without being anywhere near as effective. It’s more like a desperate solution to Chaplin’s creative block than to Charlie’s romantic disappointment.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    There is another gag with Edna’s purchase: Charlie uncovers a huge chuck of cheese, and that immediately makes her think of socks. The odorous properties of cheese, socks and feet are frequent silent comedy subjects.

    Note that Edna’s father is reading what looks like a Hebrew newspaper — Not a gag, just kind of an odd foregrounded detail. Unless being Jewish in an American rural village was thought humorously incongruous.

    Harold Lloyd borrows the suicide-by-arse-to-bumper in “Haunted Spooks”. As befits the all-American boy, he’s far more energetic in trying to off himself:

  4. I have a theory that Chaplin came across a copy of “Sunnyside,” a trade magazine for the funeral business (it later merged with a competitor to become “Casket & Sunnyside”), and came up with dozens of brilliant bits set in a mortuary. They were all too shocking or tasteless for 1919. The impossibility of realizing this masterpiece brought his inspiration to a complete albeit temporary halt. The “Sunnyside” we have is just a tombstone for the “Sunnyside” that never was. I suspect the Elysian ballet made far more sense in its never-to-be filmed original context. There is not a scintilla of evidence for this, and YET.

  5. Pungent cheese is absolutely a Chaplin favourite. I suspect that’s due to another effect of the “too shocking for 1919” factor – other things that smell bad had not yet entered the comic lexicon, so cheese is a stand-in, just as the thrown pie substitutes for the faeces-hurling of our primate ancestors.

  6. If only Chaplin had discovered “Pumper,” the trade journal of the liquid waste industry…

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