Sunnyside is without a doubt the most bizarre of Chaplin’s short subjects. Whenever any of his other shorts fall wide off the mark, you can at least see what Chaplin was aiming at. Sunnyside is set in a small, idyllic rural town, but the story is aimless, you can’t tell if Chaplin really wanted to do a rural comedy or was trying for a parody of same. (It doesn’t help that the movie’s intertitles comment upon the movie a la Monty Python: “Charlie the farm hand etc., etc., etc.”; “And now, the romance.”)
Charlie’s boss runs a small hotel, and the boss’ sole idea of motivation is what Chaplin biographer John McCabe delicately referred to as “arse-kicking”; this running gag runs out of steam after about the third foot-laying. And Charlie is unusually docile, accepting his punishment meekly and not being very resourceful. (The movie’s best, albeit brief gags are when Charlie uses farm animals to dispatch the morning breakfast: He plants a chicken on top of a stovetop skillet to lay an egg, and he calls a cow in so that he can milk his coffee.)
Charlie seems to have a romance with a local girl (Edna Purviance, of course), but that’s thwarted quickly enough when a “city chap” checks into the hotel and effortlessly puts his designs upon Edna. There’s also a dream sequence where Charlie dances with some nymphs, probably only because Chaplin’s on-screen dancing has been praised and he hoped he could get some laughs out of it. No dice there, either.
Sunnyside has been well-documented, by Chaplin and countless others, as the signpost of a time when he lacked inspiration. The movie seems less than a failure, because you can’t even tell what it was aspiring to.