Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Pay Day

A Chaplin short made during a lull in production by the former prolific film maker, Pay Day is an above average and clever film that finds Charlie Chaplin as an expert bricklayer on pay day. Following building site shenanigans Chaplin discovers that his pay is short and that his overbearing wife wants more than her share. After managing to hide some from her he heads out for a night on the town.

Chaplin once described Pay Day as the favourite of his short films which is a bold statement as he made over seventy of them. This isn’t my favourite Chaplin short and it is far from his funniest but it’s a very clever film which features some intriguing camera and editing processes and a fine story plus just enough jokes to keep the audience laughing.

The film opens with camera set on a building site. Everyone is hard at work but there is someone missing. A Tramp (Chaplin) arrives late and becomes flirtatious with his boss in order to get out of trouble and even goes as far as offering him a flower. Shortly after there is a wonderful sequence in which Chaplin catches bricks on a gantry that are thrown at him from below. This is a very common building site technique but Chaplin injects some intelligent humour into the scene by reversing the film. This allows him to seemingly pull off all manner of clever and impossible looking stunts with the bricks from catching them with his back turned to catching multiple bricks on top of each other and finely balancing them. The effect is only mildly amusing but the technique is brilliant and the effort fully justified.

There are other good moments in Pay Day but none match the brick catching scene in my eyes. I enjoyed the lunch sequence in which Chaplin makes good use of an elevator to confuse his co-workers whose lunch he enjoys. The relationship with his mean and scary wife (Phyllis Allen) was great fun and is something that has been repeated for the eighty years since. Charlie gets some good gags out of being drunk as he so often does but the tram sequence was a little samey until it was saved by a great gag in which he drunkenly mistakes a sausage cart (last seen in A Dog’s Life) for a tram and holds on to a sausage as if it was a support rail. There is also a late appearance of an early example of a painted backdrop which is something I don’t recall seeing in any earlier Chaplin short.

Chaplin shows some great acting skill throughout and by this point (1922) had really nailed his character and performance. I can think of few actors of the time who could top him. It’s a shame then that his supporting cast once again overact and mug at the camera. Long time leading lady Edna Purviance, a rare exception to the poor acting, is only given a very small role here as Phyllis Allen plays The Tramp’s wife. Allen is one of the better performers but does nothing special. The rest of the cast are generally poor and include Chaplin regulars Mack Swain, Albert Austin, John Rand, Loyal Underwood, Henry Bergman and Charlie’s older brother Syd.

In the end there is a lot of good stuff in Pay Day but not quite enough to tip it towards the best of his shorts. There is rarely a poor gag or dull moment but the gag rate is slow. A lot of jokes work well and there are some clever scenes and hidden reveals (including a great bath gag) and I’d certainly happily watch the film again. At only 22 minutes it is also one of the shorter late period shorts but has a well developed and realised story.