Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is one of those I fell into rather on accident, scrolling around looking for something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I try to watch things I’m not writing about as much as I can, but this time I didn’t realize until Hulu had not only recommended it but I finished watching it that it was bound to show up in Criterion Cuts sooner or later. I probably wouldn’t have, due to its short length and minor status, but I found myself with enough to say about it to want to bring it up. So strap into the way back machine as we head to a world of two-reel shorts and the mid period of silent cinema.
Charlie Chaplin, at the height of his fame, was just starting a long and lucrative contract at First National Pictures. Unlike his previous contracts, he had much more control over the costs, schedules, and content of his films so long as he delivered enough of them, and so this was a period where (like many artists) he floundered under the weight of being left to his own devices. This was also a period where he was struggling under a difficult marriage to his then-16-year-old bride, and thus Chaplin spent the entirety of the production of this movie being difficult and struggling to figure out what he wanted to make of a relatively simple idea.
That idea? Tramp as a farmer. You’d think that that would write itself, but apparently for much of the shooting schedule Chaplin simply had his cast and numerous extras hanging out in a small town waiting for inspiration. When he finally threw together his story, then, the resulting film is one that even as a simple 30 minute piece seems rife with filler and reliant upon gags to fill the time as he rushes to and fro. The best Chaplin this is not. Which is what makes it so interesting, especially as I’ve mostly been exposed to Chaplin through his feature-length masterpieces that came long after this one.
So what is Sunnyside then? Well, initially its a series of gags about the Tramp in a small town setting. He bumbles his job at the inn/general store, he struggles with the eccentric townsfolk who all have silly exaggerated mannerisms of their own, and he’s generally the typical layabout innocent that that character has always been. But what’s interesting is how much more reliant upon slapstick this movie is compared to Chaplin’s later work. Much of his feature film gags rely upon the concept of the Tramp as a lens by which we view our own ridiculousness. He shows up, reacts to people acting normally, and zany things ensue because ultimately Chaplin found the comedy in the mundane.
In this, however, none of that happens. The townspeople are more cartoonish than the Tramp, and bumble and interact aggressively with him. In fact, much of the first half of this movie is people getting angry at him simply for being around, something that never happens in the more urban-focused later films. Also? Lots of kicking in the pants. I feel like I’m an open-minded guy, but 1919’s sense of humor doesn’t translate if someone getting kicked in the pants is supposed to be the height of humor. And it happens dozens of times in this movie. It just isn’t quite the incisive satirical wit that I’ve come to expect from working backwards. My own fault, I’m sure.
But what’s interesting is that the movie eventually finds that place late in the movie. 15 minutes in there’s a title card that says ‘And now for the “romance”‘ and then the movie instantly becomes better as the Tramp is thrust into this situation where he’s trying to woo the young daughter of a disapproving farmer who looks down upon the Tramp as a man of too little means to be worthy of his little girl. This is exacerbated when a sudden car wreck in town lands a handsome, wealthy man of the city in the inn recuperating and catching the eye of the Tramp’s beloved when she regularly comes in to talk to the Tramp.
This leads to the best moment of the movie, something indicative of later films like Modern Times, where the Tramp comes to see her only to find the city man there already being suave. The Tramp tries to emulate him and adopts his dress, including a too-tight suit coat and spats made of socks and a hat and cane. It’s a sort of origin myth for the ramshackle formal wear that the Tramp would wear in all of his other appearances, and when he comes in trying to look like a metropolitan dandy to impress this bewildered and slightly disgusted woman, there’s something really earnest about it that hedges into the realm of the heartbreaking.
This is especially true when she rejects him and he then heads out into the street to stand in front of a car, bending over so that it will strike him perfectly in order to kill him. We never see the impact, but the movie suddenly cuts to a sequence in which suddenly the city man is sent packing by the woman who is now deeply in love with the Tramp despite his status. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy, one hinged upon his death or at least serious injury, but that sort of fantasy escapism would be embedded into the sad truths of Chaplin’s later films such as The Kid or again Modern Times. When the depression really took hold, everyone turned to dreams to keep their souls alive, even at the sake of their bodies.
And it’s that grace, even in the face of the cruelest parts of life, that takes hold at the very end of an otherwise uneventful movie and grounds it as a vital early indicator of where Chaplin’s compassionate creative impulse would take him.
BONUS: Since this one is public domain and all, it technically is only half Criterion. But that also means you can watch it right now the youtubes. So here’s an embed!