Pay Day (1922)


  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Mack Swain
  • A laborer divides his meager paycheck between his home and the bar.

I spent the morning watching a series of Chaplin’s short film work, jumping around year by year in preparation of arriving at Pay Day, his final and reportedly favorite short. It may just be his most down to earth and relatable work as well, being about the everyday routine of working hard, struggling to support a household, and letting off some steam at the end of the day. Buster Keaton dealt with similar, basic life subject matter but largely in metaphorical terms in the form of a sinking boat or a puzzle of a house build. In Pay Day Chaplin just shows the typical day, punching in and out and then escaping the stresses of married life by going out on the town with some friends.

Production on Pay Day began as a slightly different project before it was interrupted by what sounds like a rather important and transitional vacation that Chaplin took throughout Europe in late 1921. With hysteria and public celebration following him at every stop, it was there that he noticed for the first time how much his almost decade-long Hollywood career had impacted those back on his home soil. Later in life he wrote My Wonderful Visit, a book about the monumental trip. Two interesting bits about his return to film and America as a new and rejuvenated man. He wasn’t sure that he was still funny and for some reason the project he was compelled to complete before beginning the next phase of his career–features–would be the small-scale and blue collar Pay Day.

In unsurprising news, I am happy to report that Chaplin’s skepticism about the waning of his comedic chops were unfounded as I got perhaps my biggest laugh of the day during the post nightclub scenes. A few of the gags in this sequence are a tipsy Chaplin and one of his cohorts unknowingly walking the streets sharing a sleeve each of two coats, Chaplin graciously offering up his signature cane as a doomed umbrella while ending up with his friend’s real one, the group of friends belting out a sloppy version of “Sweet Adeline” amid falling household items from an unhappy neighbor, and then the end of the night which sees various circumstances conspiring to keep him from boarding three or four consecutive crowded trolleys to head home.

My favorite aspect about the work of Chaplin, and it’s something I can’t help but bask in after watching a good deal of his work back to back even seen in his 1914 directorial debut Caught in the Rain, is the downright balletic quality of the filmmaking and performances. The feeling of sophistication is never tampered by the cartoonish or the low brow but rather stands out all the more because of it. There’s nothing glamorous about laying brick, dealing with a nagging spouse, or being generally uncomfortable with your lot in life—day after day after day. But in the hands of Chaplin there is bright and flowing life pumped into the gruff and mundane.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons this was his favorite. He hadn’t quite achieved perfection in his work by 1923 yet he was completely confident and dominant in the directing, editing, and acting chairs. Going back home to Europe forced a guy who was for the last ten years drowning in his work and personal drama to revisit his beginnings, witness the full scope of his profile, and take the time to actually notice the faces of those he was entertaining. Maybe it wasn’t until Pay Day that he finally felt like he understood the people on the other side of the screen.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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