Charles ChaplinEdna Purviance
Pay Day
Medium: short film
Year: 1922
Writer/director: Charles Chaplin
Keywords: comedy, silent
Country: USA
Actor: Charles Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Mack Swain, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin, Albert Austin, John Rand, Loyal Underwood, Henry Bergman, Al Ernest Garcia
Format: 21 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 29 September 2013
It's Chaplin's last silent two-reeler and a particularly strong one. It has some big laughs, amazing visual inventiveness and no weak sections.
The story is just a random bunch of stuff shoved together, of course. That's just the way Chaplin writes. It is what it is. In a silent two-reeler, this is acceptable. Chaplin plays a building site worker who, unusually, is brilliant at his job and doesn't appear to be significantly lazier or more useless than his co-workers. The film begins with an intertitle saying "Hard shirking men". Chaplin comes to work late and then can't do arithmetic that would insult a seven-year-old, but this doesn't doesn't seem particularly out of place in this working environment. You're not boggling that they hired him.
Mind you, Chaplin's character is still an appalling human being. His wife is a ghastly old battleaxe, but Tomoko's comment at the end of the film was, "I'd hate to be married to him." Not "her", but "him". On the upside, he never gave me the willies and doesn't come across as actually evil. Nonetheless, we have the following:
(a) despite having a wife, being a girl-chaser and spending all his money in a place called Batchelor's Club.
(b) stealing money from his wife so that he can go and get steaming drunk, although admittedly there he's just reclaiming confiscated earnings.
(c) total disinterest in helping Mr "Where's Christensen Street?"
(d) the mean umbrella trick.
(e) sausage-stealing.
(f) crawling home at five in the morning, to a relationship that's less like a married couple than like a bad boy and his mother... and stepping on a squeaky toy. That's just a throwaway detail, but it startled me. Tomoko assumed it was a cat toy, but all those cats don't seem to belong to them. Is there a baby? We see no other sign of one. Was there a baby? Did it die?
For Chaplin's Tramp, that's not too bad. There's no proof that he killed a child through neglect. The important thing is that the character is on the right side of the boundary of what's merely entertainment in a short two-reeler. He's funny, which is something not all his films manage for me. I laughed at him being dragged off by the human walrus, then again at him pretending to be getting up instead of going to bed.
I was also amused by how faintly creepy he is when offering his overseer a flower to try to weasel out of being late for work. The most obvious difference between Chaplin's characterisation and Laurel and Hardy's is his sexuality. He has some! He's an id monster and an incorrigible girl-chaser, but he's also capable of effete flourishes that make him look as if he's carrying his handkerchief in the other pocket. I find those among his most interesting moments, actually.
Almost more important than the laughs, for me, is the visual invention. The brick-throwing isn't funny, but there's a joy in watching it. Chaplin's creating something brilliant and dazzling, not because it'll make us laugh but simply because he can. The same's true for the platform lift sequence, especially the death-defying bit that Chaplin performs in an unbroken take with his back turned. Admittedly the lift gives us some red-hot poker comedy, but that's almost incidental. I could go on. The walrus man dragging off Chaplin is funny, but also deeply bizarre to look at. He's like the living dead, with that pastry face and a terrifying moustache that's without peer even among his Facial Hair Friends. You expect it to jump off his face and attack someone.
Then there's the Last Car. Just staggering.
Chaplin called it his favourite of his short films. It certainly is a good one. It handles the Tramp well, making his flaws extreme enough to be funny without tipping over the edge. It's putting amazing things on celluloid. Well worth a look.