The second and final installment of our survey of Charlie Chaplin’s work for First National looks at two shorts which spotlight the Tramp vs. piety.
Sunnyside (1919) opens with a not so subtle Chapliesque swipe at the hypocritical reverence inherent in Americana. Chaplin’s iris opens on a church steeple cross. This dissolves into a frilly plaque, which reads “Love Thy Neighbor.” The owner of the plaque is tyrannical farmer Tom Wilson. Tom wakes early to give the sleeping farmhand, Charlie, a forceful kick in the daily duties. That accomplished (after a few, predictable false starts), Tom returns to bed.
After breakfast is served, we learn that it is Sunday morning. All the true Christians are where they are supposed to be: in church. Charlie’s loaded down with work, so he can’t (and won’t) join them. However, he will peek into what it’s all about, by taking a look-see at the Good Book. While doing so, the herd of cattle he is leading wanders off and disrupts the church service, driving the parishioners out the doors. Chaplin’s nose-thumbing at the the facade of rural reverence is about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles. So much the better.
Next, Chaplin inserts a surreal dream. Some commentators assess it as an ill-fitting sequence; the same was said of Chaplin’s heaven vignette in The Kid (1921). I disagree here as much as I do to those objections re: The Kid. The Sunnyside dream is pure Chaplin and well suits the character as an escape from the phony piety to which he is subjected daily. After falling off a bridge, the Tramp dreams he is frolicking with flowered nymphs on a bucolic hillside. This is his idea of heaven, and more than justifies W.C. Field’s astute observation that Chaplin was “a goddamned ballet dancer.”
Unfortunately, the dream sequence is far too brief. Chaplin, in a much smaller way, was to American Protestantism what Luis Buñuel was to European Catholicism. However, Bunuel did it better. The true ill-fitting element in Sunnyside is the romantic subplot between the Tramp and leading lady Edna Purviance. Edna has another suitor: the Fat Kid, who is clearly slow on the uptake. The Tramp takes advantage of that weakness, cruelly ridiculing his rival.
Although it is an bad fit, and an extremely uncomfortable one at that, it does take us back, albeit briefly, to the Tramp of Keystone, who often revealed an inherent selfish, mean streak. So, in that sense, the revelation of a less than saintly Tramp is a bit refreshing, while admittedly wrecking the composition of the film.
The ending has a rushed feel, partly due to Chaplin’s constant battling with First National.
The Pilgrim (1923) was Chaplin’s last film for First National. It was also his final short. This is Chaplin’s anti-clericalism at it’s best. Audiences identified, making it a bona fide hit, much to the chagrin of the Evangelical Ministers Association and the Klu Klux Klan who teamed up (imagine that) to denounce The Pilgrim as a blasphemous mockery to organized religion.
Chaplin does not play the Tramp here. His character is the Pilgrim, an escaped convict disguised in clerical attire. At the train station, he purchases a ticket to Devil’s Gulch, Texas. Meanwhile, the residents of that town are awaiting a Rev. Pim to fill in their newly open position of pastor. Unknown to them, and most convenient for the Pilgrim, the real Rev. Pim is running a week behind. Charlie, of course, steps off the train just in time for a case of mistaken identity.
The small congregation, lead by the Deacon (Mack Swain) are on hand to welcome their pseudo-pastor. Unfortunately for Charlie, he has stepped into the clerical shoes just in time for Sunday-go-to-meeting.
The Sunday promenade with Deacon Swain is highlighted by our Pilgrim swiping the elder’s Southern Comfort. However, the Pilgrim doesn’t even get in a swig before an inconvenient banana peel wastes that much-needed elixir.
Naturally, the service reveals this Rev. Pim as untried and uncomfortable, but he’s not so awkward when it comes to making sure the collection plate is abundantly filled. Perhaps he is a true cleric at heart after all.
The homily is classic Chaplin. The Pilgrim picks the David and Goliath story to tell, but his Bible interpretation is refreshingly free of embedded theology. In buoyant pantomime, the good reverend depicts little shepherd boy David provoking the Philistine warrior Goliath. However, rather than a kill shot, David’s wimpy little sling merely manages to provoke a minor headache in the giant. Provoked, rather than defeated, Goliath promptly draws his sword and decapitates the irksome gnat. A child in the congregation, who has not yet been conditioned by his religion, gives his new pastor a standing ovation, while the grown-ups stand in abject horror. They have come to the comfort and safety of church, only to have their traditional narrative exposed as myth. The most child-like persons in the church, the Pilgrim and his young fan, are the only two who appreciate it.
The service over, the Pilgrim is told he will be boarding with Edna and her elderly mother. An argument for pro-choice, a discovered wanted poster, and the appearance of an ex- prison cell mate will prove to be flies in the Pilgrim’s ointment. Fortunately, he has a conscience and a guardian who will notice.
The Pilgrim is short on Chaplin’s trademark sentiment and admirably long on licentious parody.