Charlie Chaplin & Sunnyside
Not a whole lot is said about silent films these days. The Age of the Silver Screen seems to be as antiquated as the subject matter of many of its films: the original Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, Intolerance, and Birth of a Nation to name a few. The reputed masters of the form could be counted on one hand, and actors and actresses seemed to be re-cast over and over from film to film. But as with any fledgling art form there were great advances and boundless creativity, much of which set the stage for today's blockbusters. One such innovator was Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr.
Charlie Chaplin was an artist whose perfectionism and eccentricities have left us artifacts of the form that are nothing less than works of genius. Glen David Gold's attempt to recreate this larger-than-life figure on the page seemed to me an ambitious undertaking to say the least. To be fair, Gold depicts the artist as a person, replete with all the conflicts and joys that life could thrust upon such a character that hardly, if at all, left the limelight. The Tramp, Chaplin's most iconic character, was more than just a comedic part to be played; it was visual therapy for the masses. As Chaplin's character in Sunnyside says, "Comedy is about conflict... about resolving one conflict by creating another." Chaplin's brand of conflict was a welcome release from the horrors of war.
The title of Gold's book comes from a film by the same name directed by Chaplin and released on June 15th, 1919. Sunnyside was a film about an aberrant farmhand (played by The Tramp) who is the victim of general misfortune. His oppressive boss repeatedly punishes him for minor transgressions. His romantic engagements are thwarted by his girlfriend's father or interrupted by her lingering brother. While the town lounges, he works at the hotel. When they go to church, he works as a shepherd. During one scene, while he is out for a stroll with the herd, he loses himself in his bible reading and the herd slips away. They are later found rampaging through the church. He rushes inside and exits riding a frenzied bull and manages to escape into the hills. Pursued by a mob, he falls and hits his head and dreams of dancing with four beautiful forest nymphs.
The Tramps' only solace in Sunnyside appears to be his love for the belle of the town, and even this is interrupted by the arrival of a city gentleman who crashes outside of the hotel and is tended to by the town's horse doctor. After recovering, he appears to be smitten by the lovely lady and attempts to woo her under the watchful eyes of The Tramp.
He succeeds in winning her heart and we see The Tramp desperately run in front of a car, having lost everything, and he awakens to his lady giving the dandy the cold shoulder. He promptly leaves, tipping the farmhand and the couple embraces. We never know if the end scene is a dream or not, but from the title we can imagine that he was awake. Sunnyside is an experiment of perception. Given the calamities that befall us, we can choose to look at the bright side of life or the dark. The same message rings true to Chaplin, Hugo Black, and Leland Wheeler in Gold's book. Given their experiences and the distressing events that surround them, they can choose to succumb to the mounting desperation of their age or escape the conflict.
Photo: Chaplin c.1920
This article was originally published in June 2009, and has been updated for the
May 2010 paperback release.
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