29 August 2008

Pay Day (1922)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 21 mins.

Pay Day is one of Charles Chaplin's funniest short films, which in turn makes it one of his best short films period. It is tightly wound and expertly paced. Its jokes are wonderfully choreographed and hardly a single one falls flat; that might be its most impressive aspect.

Chaplin is not the Tramp in Pay Day, but an everyman married to a stern woman who inspires bouts of fear in his heart. (And anyway, the differences between the Tramp and Chaplin's generic everyman are largely negligible.) The everyman in Pay Day is a construction worker who butts heads with his tyrannical boss at the work site. At night, unwilling to go home and with a poker-hot paycheck burning a hole in his pocket, he goes out for celebratory drinks and shenanigans.

Pay Day was Chaplin's final short film and his penultimate film with First National before embarking on what was arguably his biggest commercial venture – forming United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. Pay Day is often lumped together with The Pilgrim (1923) as a film Chaplin made quickly to finish his contract and begin producing only features at United Artists. If that is indeed the case, it certainly doesn't show (unlike The Pilgrim, a longer quasi-feature-length film which really does feel more hurried and less organized than most of his films).

The humor works on two levels: the highly stylized and the silly slapstick. Consider the adroitness of two sequences on the construction site. The first is a series of gags that revolve around an elevator built into the scaffolding of a building, where the elevator moves up and down, bringing food away from men who are on lunch and pulling out seats from underneath people. The second is a brilliantly staged sequence that is run backwards in which Chaplin tosses, juggles, balances, and catches the bricks he is laying; it is so well done it demands to be watched numerous times, and might be some of the finest constructed humor in Chaplin's filmography.

The first half of Pay Day focuses on the stylized humor, but the slapstick in the second half is still quite effective; most of the slapstick involves a drunk Chaplin, particularly as he struggles to board a streetcar. (I'm always amazed at how effective Chaplin's alcohol humor is, even 80 years later. It is a rare comedian indeed who could turn inebriation into sophistication.)

Chaplin is one of my favorite directors, and certainly one of the most talented auteurs in cinema. His towering achievements – The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator – are achievements of pure cinema, not merely of comedy or of his own career. As such, they should seen by all, regardless of any interest in Chaplin as a man or as a performer. But aside from those, if asked to recommend only two of the his early works, I'd say The Kid for its pathos and Pay Day for its comedy.


Sam Juliano,  04 September, 2008  

Once again I agree, terrific jokes, great pacing, memorable set pieces and characters. One of the best shorts period.

Beautiful essay here.

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