In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
To say there’s not a lot to A Busy Day is an understatement. Mack Sennett directs and produces this 1914 silent short, which runs only six minutes and seems to be stretching it throughout its meagre runtime. Frank D. Williams is once again responsible for cinematography, but this picture has a lot in common with Kid Auto Races at Venice with its docu-comic style.
Sennett’s fondness for showing up at an event and staging a picture is well-documented and this half-reeler takes place at what seems to be a dedication of a harbour extension or something. There is a twist, however.
Charlie Chaplin stars as a wife tired of her husband (Mack Swain). He can’t stop his wandering eyes, so she gives him one of many wallops and starts creating havoc. She wanders in front of the director (Sennett), exchanges fisticuffs with a cop (Billy Gilbert), and dances a jig as the policeman’s band plays. There’s a lot of slapping, kicking, punching, and so on.
As you may have been able to tell, there’s not a lot of plot in A Busy Day. It was initially paired on a reel with an educational short called The Morning Papers and was once thought of as a lost film, probably for good reason. It doesn’t exactly add much to the Chaplin collection, even if it does stand as a bit of an oddity for obvious reasons.
Chaplin’s role here is curious until once reasons it out. He’d already made this picture in Kid Auto Races at Venice and something else was necessary to make something worthwhile out of Sennett’s “show up and shoot” methodology. Dressing up as a woman allows for a different comic slant, even if some of the physical abuse seems uncomfortable.
Most of A Busy Day is effectively one big brawl, with Chaplin giving as well as he gets. The fact that he’s playing a woman has little bearing on the stroke of his physical comedy or the way other characters treat him. The cop pops him one in the beak and the violence is palpable, while the husband’s big kicks are right out of professional wrestling.
Chaplin’s gaudy shoes are thrown in the mix, just because the drag act needs an excuse to get worse. He lumbers around, flops on his backside, does all the usual tricks. There’s no adaptation of the pantomime material for a more feminine touch and that makes the shift all the more pointlessly pragmatic.
It’s hard to argue that A Busy Day even has a reason to exist, apart from giving Sennett an opportunity to go shoot some boats. There’s no sense of timing or comedy or even place in this short and the only benefit appears to be that it takes up a mere six minutes of time and doesn’t bother to argue its status as a meaningless throwaway.