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After searching for creative freedom at three studios (Keystone, Essanay and Mutual), Charlie Chaplin signed a contract with First National in 1917. Under the agreement Chaplin would remain independent, deliver eight two reelers per year and cover all production costs using a $125,000 per picture advance from the studio. First National would pay for advertising and provide an extra $15,000 per additional reel if the film ran long. Once the expenses were covered, Chaplin and the studio would split the profits 50-50. It sounded like a sweet deal. But eight pictures a year would prove an impossible task for Chaplin. He'd long wanted to make a feature length film and was starting to spend more and more time on each project. Instead of eight films per year, it would take Chaplin five years to complete eight movies for First National (from 1918 to February 1923). And of these, only four were limited to two reels. Sunnyside (1919) was one of them.
His third film for First National, Sunnyside was the first to be held to two reels. And considering its production history, the length seems almost a matter of necessity rather than design. The movie was originally titled Jack of All Trades and after 150 days in production, Chaplin had little to show for his efforts. Most of the time had been spent idle or "talking about the story." Then finally, it seems inspiration struck and for three weeks Chaplin worked day and night filming the story of the newly named Sunnyside. The plot found Charlie as a handyman who is bucked from a cow, knocked unconscious and awakens to find himself surrounded by nymphs. It sounds a little wacky. It did in 1919 as well. As Kenneth S. Lynn relates in his book Charlie Chaplin and His Times, "the public was puzzled by [Sunnyside], the reviewers panned it and there was whispered speculation in Hollywood that "the 'Master' had lost his touch."
But the movie does feature two intriguing dream sequences, the second of which feels pretty modern for its day. Audiences don't even realize it is a dream until it's over. There's no reason to spoil the surprise by saying any more. But as for the first dream (that of the frolicking nymphs), the scene appears to be a Chaplin homage to the ballet L'Apres-midi d'un Faune. On a recent tour to Los Angeles, the Ballet Russes had fascinated Chaplin. Star dancer Nijinsky and the company visited Chaplin's studio, and when the comedian in turn showed up at the theater, Nijinsky kept the audience waiting half an hour while he and Chaplin chatted. It was perhaps a discussion about life as an independent artist as Nijinsky was attempting to break away from Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes.
It's been suggested that the dream sequences in Sunnyside are telling about the state of Chaplin's private life - that he attempted to escape into fantasy as in the first sequence or dwelled in a much darker place per the second dream. Lynn proposes in his book that, "marital bitterness and fears about his creative faculties had finally driven Chaplin into acting out, through his tramp counterpart, a suicide attempt." It is an interesting point to ponder while watching the end of Sunnyside. For indeed it was not a happy period for Chaplin. He had married a young actress named Mildred Harris in 1918. She was pregnant during the filming of Sunnyside. But by most accounts, the marriage was troubled. And shortly after Sunnyside was released on June 15, 1919, a tragic occurrence destroyed any hope for the marriage. Chaplin's son, Norman Spencer Chaplin, was born on July 7 and lived just three days.
For Chaplin it was also a period marked by creative frustration. His next film after Sunnyside called Charlie's Picnic folded only a few weeks into production. As Chaplin says in My Autobiography, "after Sunnyside I was at my wits' end for an idea." But from this place of personal and artistic despair would come Chaplin's greatest success to date - the completion of his first feature film The Kid (1921).
Producer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Farm handyman), Edna Purviance (Village Belle), Tom Wilson (Boss), Tom Terriss (Young Man From the City), Henry Bergman (Villager/Edna¿s Father), Tom Wood (Fat Boy).
by Stephanie Thames