There were only three movies where Chaplin went in drag for laughs. A Busy Day was the first; then another Keystone entry, The Masquerader; and finally, a year later for Essanay in A Woman. But what a difference a year makes! In the latter comedy, Chaplin goes all-out to be convincing as a woman; one might go so far as to say he’s more nuanced. In A Busy Day, he does nothing terribly memorable, as a woman or as a comic.
This is another of those Keystone comedies where the cast and crew set up at a real event – in this case, a military parade celebrating the opening of the harbor in San Pedro, CA. – and fished around for some comedy. And though the premise is that a woman’s (Chaplin) husband (Mack Swain) quickly deserts her to flirt with a pretty girl (Phyllis Allen), the first two minutes is a blatant re-tread of Kid Auto Races at Venice, with Chaplin-the-woman discovering the camera and hamming it up in front of it. (And, though not identified, the director of the film-within-a-film certainly looks like Mack Sennett himself.)
But just that two minutes is enough to show us how much characterization the Tramp had already developed. In Kid Auto Races, the Tramp was hogging the camera, but he did it far more subtly – just “happening” to get in front of the camera under every pretext possible, acting all coy when caught out. Here, it’s just an excuse for Chaplin to slap anyone who objects to him and then get slapped in return.
Most of the movie’s supposed laughs come simply from Chaplin doing what a lady-like woman would not do in public – hoisting her dress, using it instead of a handkerchief to blow her nose, etc. And all of the males in the movie feel quite free to slap this woman around, since we know she’s really a man underneath. Ha-ha.
Although the movie is only a half-reel long, it can’t get over quickly enough. You’ll find yourself very eager to see Chaplin out of the dress and back in the tramp outfit by movie’s end.