chaplin in drag
by Douglas Messerli
Mack Sennett (writer and director) A Busy Day (a. k. a. The Militant Suffragette) / 1914
Charles Chaplin (writer and director) The Masquerader / 1914
Charles Chaplin (writer and director) A Woman / 1915
Charles Chaplin appeared in clothes generally worn by the opposite gender—a popular gimmick for males and females in silent films—three times, twice in 1914, in the six-minute long A Busy Day and in the 14 minute work The Masquerader, and in July of the following year in the two-reel movie A Woman.
The first, in which he convincingly and without attempting to establish a male identity played an increasingly enraged woman, might almost be seen as a kind of warm-up to the more complex obviously “drag” roles he performed in the other two films.
The radical differences in style and how Chaplin related to others while playing the role might have something to do with the fact that the first short was directed by Mack Sennett and the other two by Chaplin himself. Clearly A Busy Day doesn’t fully use the gender switch as an important comic device since he is merely a female impersonator, while the other two are focused upon the transformation Chaplin makes from man to woman.
Filmed at the San Pedro Harbor pier during a military parade, A Busy Day* begins as a couple sits down in the stands to watch the parade of soldiers. The wife (Chaplin), apparently a “militant suffragette” (as the original title of this short characterizes her) is a rather roughly hewn woman, who clumsily falls back in the bleachers almost the moment she is seated and when she finds, seconds later, herself with a runny nose, uses the hem of her dress to wipe it dry—much to the disconcertion of the woman who sits next to her who attempts to hand her a hanky as an alternative.
Almost from the moment her eyes are trained upon the marching soldiers, her husband (Charles Swain) slips away with the woman (Phyllis Allen) who is sitting on his other side. His wife rises it anger, surveying the crowd to determine where he might have stolen off to and soon after marching onto the street of the parade itself where a camera crew is set up to film the celebrations.
Soon, however, as she spots her husband at a short distance with the woman with whom he has stolen away, the wife turns her attention back to the matter at hand, racing up behind the couple to jab with interloper with her umbrella.
The woman runs off as the wife scolds, slugs, kicks, and beats her husband over the head with her umbrella, he finally shoving her back to the parade bandstand, where she crashes into the lap of another policeman who throws her back to her husband for another kicking, shoving, and boxing bout between the couple.
Finished with her husband, the suffragette returns to the policeman to again box his ears, and push and pull him, herself landing on the bandstand where she dances for a few moments before, now having become so wrought up, she eventually slugs a nearby woman and her husband, the latter of whom pushes her into the ocean where the story stops.
As a post accompanying the San Francisco Festival of “Silent Films and Suffragettes” correctly noted: “the film promotes the stereotype of suffragettes being belligerent, unreasonable, and ultimately unlovable women.”
The Masquerader** is a far
less raucous and vastly more entertaining piece of cinema. Chaplin begins this
film on home turf, in the dressing room of the Keystone Studio where we see him
The director (Charles Murray) quite explicitly explains what he wants the Tramp to do in the melodrama they are about to shoot. As the villain (Jess Dandy) raises his knife to threaten the poor widow (Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s wife at the time) and her baby in the crib before her (represented by a doll), the Tramp is to rush in and attack the evil-doer, saving the day.
The Tramp is terminated once again, but not without a lot of pleading from the desperate-to- work actor and a fair amount of pratfalls and scuffles that finally send Chaplin’s character out the door, suitcase in hand.
The next morning the studio is visited by a glamorous and stunningly beautiful “Newcomer,” an immediate hit with all the studio males, particularly the director, who dubs her the “magnate.” In a long interview with her in his office he attempts to caress and kiss his newfound beauty, who smiles and batts her eyes while skillfully slipping through and around his embraces and his attempts at a full body press. This, and the scene after it in the dressing room, where he chases her around the makeup cubicles, must be one of the first on-screen portrayals of the phenomena long known as the “casting couch.” It would have been fascinating to see what might have happened if he caught her. But she has evidently teased and evaded him just enough that he momentarily retreats, leaving her to put the finishing touches to her face.
Those consist of her pulling off her wig, shaking out her own curly hair, and applying a moustache, becoming recognizable now as our belovèd Tramp who rises just in time to face off with the director who, pressured by the men he has temporarily dispossessed, returns to find his nemesis standing at the very spot where a moment before sat the woman over whom he had been drooling. The Trump, now fully recognizable, doesn’t budge, and when the director turns to peer into a locker to see if his dreamboat might possibly have hidden herself away, the little clown raises his foot and implants a good swift kick in his butt before returning to the endless road he must eternally wander—only after a chase, however which lands him once more in dark waters, this time of a wishing well.
This film is not only one of the first “real” Chaplin films, but serves as a kind of master template for later films such as Some Like It Hot and even Tootsie.
The last of Chaplin’s three drag films is perhaps the most intricate in terms of plot and possible interpretations. In this 26 minute mini-feature we get a preview of sorts into Chaplin’s great films of the 1920s and 30s, bringing up issues of class, sexual abuse, spousal violence, and even possible hints of homosexuality.
A Woman might even have been titled The Women in its crystal ball-like vision of some of the issues brought up in the 1939 George Cukor film version of Clare Boothe Luce’s play. Chaplin’s film begins, in fact, with two women, mother (Marta Golden) and daughter (Edna Purviance), accompanied on a Sunday outing to what appears to be Los Angeles’ Echo Park by the husband and father (Charles Inslee). The three of them, well-dressed, sit on a bench, the father and mother lulled by the summer breezes into sleep, while the young girl is so bored that she too soon finds herself dozing off.
Out of nowhere appears a true flirt (Margie Reiger) passes in front of them, catching the half-closed eye of the suddenly awakening womanizing father. Before his distaff side can release another snore he slips from the bench to join the flirt a bit further along the wooded path. They quickly get to know one another and he suggests he might procure them a drink from a nearby refreshment stand.
While the would-be homewrecker waits in her web along tramps a wandering spider, our always cheerful Charlie finding her to be such a lovely being he asks if he might sit down. The flirt is clearly fickle and before the father can even return she has struck up a friendship with her new courtier. He returns to find someone else in his would-be bed and furious commands our hero to cease and desist. A fight naturally follows which, despite some nice rear-end passes, ends it the Tramp’s defeat.
Now sitting alone on the bench along come a couple of males (Billy Armstrong and Leo White, the latter described in the credits as “the Loafer”) determining, without explanation, to sit extremely close to the Tramp who has already situated himself at the far end of the bench. They talk, gesticulating actively, eventually turning toward him. But when they look up, apparently for some noise overhead, he steals a sip from the straw of the nearest man’s drink, much like his attempt to take a swig of Fatty Arbuckle’s soda in the previous movie. Outraged by his behavior the two reprimand him, the far one poking him with his cane.
The Tramp, cornered as he literally is, pushes back on the cane, dislodging the man on the outside before taking up the bottle of the man next to him and hitting him over the head, both being temporarily put out of commission.
meanwhile, in a nearby glen the young flirt has suggested to the womanizer that they might play “Hide and Seek.” He loves the idea, and she blindfolds him so that she might disappear, the Tramp appearing just at that moment and taking up the game in her place. As the man feyly waves his hand in search of his young companion, the Tramp relieves him of his bottle of soda, pauses, and hooks the crook of his cane around the elder’s neck leading him carefully to the edge of the lake. Searching for exactly the right spot he turns the man around to face him, the womanizer finally reaching out to feel the face of what he presumes might be love in delight. But when he reaches the moustache, the mask falls, and he is appalled to see the Tramp meeting his gaze. Chaplin’s character takes up the bottle, hits him over the head, and deposits him into the lake, similarly pulling the policeman who comes up behind, having observed the incident, into the deep waters.
Discovering the just awakening mother and daughter still on their bench, the Tramp asks if he might sit beside them and strikes a conversation in which, it is apparent, they truly enjoy his company. Both invite him home, delighted by having such a good-looking young man in their midst, the daughter having evidently fallen immediately in love with him and her mother perceiving that she finally found the right man for her child.
Her husband meanwhile struggles up to the bank to return to the urban paradise only to discover he is now alone. Fortunately, he quickly discerns his friend, the man the Tramp has previously hit over the head, on a nearby bench and share their stories of the terrible woes. He invites the friend home, hardly able to resist, without the help of his friend, other women he encounters along the way.
Sharing a snack of donuts, meantime, the Tramp has become quite popular with the two women. And when her father returns, his daughter is delighted to be able to introduce him to his new boyfriend. Obviously, the two immediate recognize one another as their foe, the father almost immediately attacking the young man with the Tramp pushing, pulling. and slapping back. Hearing the fracas, the father’s friend enters the room only to discover their mutual enemy in their midst and proceeds also enter into the fray. At one point, holding onto the front of the Tramp’s pants, he twirls him around room until he has yanked off young man’s drawers, the Tramp rushing outside in his underwear to scandalize an entire posse of neighbors, all women, who seem to be just passing by.
The result is mixed, particularly since his upper lip still sports his unforgettable bristle. Fortunately, at this very moment his new lover arrives to witness his get-up. Realizing what he plans, she breaks into laughter, delighted at the idea that he might be able to fool her father. Ordering him to shave off his moustache, she offers him a pair of her shoes, and voilá, he has magically become her best friend from school, Miss Nora Nettlerash, a real knockout.
Downstairs meanwhile the father of the house discerns that his friend has now spent some time in the kitchen getting to know his wife. We all know people who act entirely out of self-interest imagine that everyone behaves precisely as they do. He suspects the worst, stirring up another brouhaha about his friend’s untoward attentions to his wife. The two battle it out with the wife, shocked by his suspicions entering the room to say her piece. At the very moment when her husband swings his open hand toward the face of his former friend, the target ducks, and the slap comes hard against the cheek of his wife.
And this time Chaplin is playing it as pure camp, swaying his hips, leading on her two suitors with every feminine gesture in his repertoire. The girl definitely knows how to lead a man on and at the very moment he leans in for the kiss butt-knocking them away at the very last instant.
finally, in total frustration the man of the house tosses his equally greedy friend out. Ready now to beg for her love, he finds Nora in the living room and kneeling on the floor while he strokes her buttocks and hips he begs for her love, in the process pulling down her dress to reveal the same stripped shorts that his friend had discovered under the Tramp’s pants.
War is declared, but at that very moment
his wife arrives with rolling pin in hand, his daughter pleading for her cause.
The Tramp begs them all to put down their weapons suggesting an armistice of
sorts: permission to marry his daughter if he keeps quiet about the gentleman’s
philandering. “Come shake—and your wife will never know what I know.” Begrudgingly,
the elder takes the
A Woman plays almost like an athletic balletic version of a Feydeau farce, where instead of retiring into closets and hiding under beds, the desirous couples put their bodies into action to get what they want. But what they want is not always made so evident. Obviously the old man wants the love of every young woman he encounters, and the Tramp desires his daughter and she him. What to make with the Loafer’s phallic poke of the cane? And the friend is equally ambiguous in his desires. He clearly wants love, but there’s something queer in his approaches to it, sitting so extraordinarily close to two passersby, pulling the pants off a young man, holding the hand of a kitchen-bound wife, and kissing his friend—all unintentionally and accidental of course, but there it is nonetheless caught by the camera.
And the wife? What does she get out of all the chaos going on around her? One sort of wishes that she, following her husband’s lead, might throw the lot of them out. Perhaps then she’d at least some peace so that she might not have to take to that park bench to sleep.
It’s hardly a surprise that Chaplin retired his drag act after this brilliant performance.
*Some DVDs, the would-be viewer should be warned, combine this film with another Chaplin movie, Mabel’s Busy Day combining it to create a more normal seeming early half-realer. The two films, however, are not related.
**A reedited version of this film, so I’ve read, cuts the section where the Tramp misses his cue and interferes with his replacement’s entry. Added intertitles unintentionally reveal the surprise ending.
Los Angeles, February 15, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).