When a workshy farmhand (Charlie Chaplin) misplaces a herd of cows the local town of Sunnyside suffers the consequences. The young farmhand has even more trouble on his hands when a well to do city boy (Tom Terriss) arrives in town and has his eyes firmly set on the hand’s girl (Edna Purviance). Chaplin’s forth film for First National was preceded by the hugely successful Shoulder Arms and proved to be one of his least successful of the period. Despite this the film holds up fairly well today and has a first act which is of some note. Unfortunately though the film misses a step with the introduction of the romantic plot from which it never truly recovers.
The first thing I noticed about the film is that unlike almost every Chaplin film to come before, there was an actor on second billing. Most of Chaplin’s early title cards read something along the line of “Charles Chaplin in…” or “….. with Charlie Chaplin” but Sunnyside reads “Charlie Chaplin in Sunnyside with Edna Purviance”. I don’t recall seeing another actor’s name so prominently placed on a title card before this film and it perhaps shows Chaplin’s ever increasing belief in his leading lady as an actress. As it turns out, Purviance’s role isn’t really much larger than in the likes of Burlesque on Carmen, The Vagabond or A Dog's Life but it feels like she is the focus of attention for a larger part of the film.
Both Chaplin and Purviance appear to be showing much better dramatic acting than they were just a few years before with Chaplin in particular presenting a vastly increased set of expressions, looks and movements. By 1919 it was obvious that he was well on the way towards the subtly crafted emotional depths of his later feature films. The remainder of the cast are largely bit players, often still under false comedy beards and gurning during their brief moments in front of the camera. Tom Terriss though who was largely a Director, gives a decent performance as the suave city boy.
The film’s opening ten minutes are its best and feature a menagerie of comic touches. I also believe that a lot of the humour is played down or slightly more subtle than Chaplin’s Essanay or Mutual work although there is still plenty of kicks up the arse and slapstick. One of the more subtle moments comes early on when Chaplin is woken early for his day of work. Still too tired to be cognitively functioning, he tries to put on his shoe but is unable to remember when he put his foot. It’s only a very brief joke and it isn’t lingered on but I thought it was quite smart. Another good gag arrived when Chaplin was making lunch and took his milk and eggs directly from the animals, milking into the cups and getting a chicken to lay an egg in the pan. The sight of him trying to resist adding sugar to his tea was also amusing and showed his much improved acting. The film is probably most famous these days for a dream sequence in which Chaplin dances with Nymphs. It's pretty surreal but good fun.
On a technical level I think the film was quite good. Chaplin went back to the film later in his life and rewrote a score (as he did for many of his movies). The music he composed is excellent, fits with the action and had my toes tapping. In addition to this there is a nice piece of editing during one scene in which Chaplin walks out of a door only to appear again coming through the window a fraction of a second later. The scale of the film is also larger than many of his contemporary films. Despite the existence of his new Chaplin Studios it appears that much of the movie was filmed on location.
I have only two real problems with Sunnyside but they are pretty major. The first is in the depiction of a character who I’m almost certain has mental problems. At one point Chaplin knocks on his forehead as if to ask if anyone is in and the character is swiftly dispatched into a road with a blindfold on so that Chaplin can try and get lucky with Purviance. It’s a shame for Chaplin to go down this route. My second problem is with the sudden lack of humour in the second half. It feels almost like Chaplin had run dry of ideas in the latter stages as there are barely any amusing sight gags or jokes. This period also coincides with the romantic plot coming to the fore and it isn’t one of Chaplin’s best. His idea to copy the city boy’s looks provides a couple of smiles but little more and the film sort of peters out following a pretty confusing change of heart from Purviance.
Overall Sunnyside is a bit of a disappointment on the whole but does feature an excellent opening third. It also feels deeper and subtler in places than what comes before it but it fails to deliver an acceptable second half and feels like a film without an ending.