Charlie Chaplin’s emergence as the world’s favorite film comedian almost precisely coincided with World War I. His first film, Making a Living, appeared in February 1914, just six months before his native Britain (along with France and Russia) went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Initially, he played supporting roles in comedy shorts from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company. But soon he created his enduring character—“the little tramp” or the “little fellow” as Chaplin called him. Combining sentimentality and slapstick, Chaplin’s tramp quickly became one of the most popular characters in film history and made Chaplin an international star. Chaplin’s first contract with Keystone had paid him only $150 a week for the first three months; by the time he signed with Mutual in 1916, he was earning $10,000 a week (as well as a bonus of $150,000) and making such classic films as The Immigrant.
When Chaplin signed his contract with Mutual, it included a clause stipulating that he could not leave the United States without the corporation’s approval. The British press criticized the provision since it meant that Chaplin, who was only twenty-seven years old, could not join the British Army. Two years later, when he signed a million-dollar contract with First National pictures, he faced similar criticism in the United States, which had recently entered the war. Chaplin apparently tried to enlist in the U.S.army; only when he was rejected as underweight did the criticism abate—although some in Britain still felt that he should join their military forces.
When Chaplin did finally appear in army khaki, it was in his classic film comedy Shoulder Arms. Although the idea of sending Charlie to war seems obvious in retrospect, many at the time advised against it. Movie producer Cecil B. De Mille, mindful of the criticism directed at Chaplin for not joining the Army, told him: “It’s dangerous at this time to make fun of the war.” But Chaplin persisted with the project.Originally planned as a five-reel or feature-length, film under the title Camouflage, he finished a three-reel (40-minute) version in September1918 and retitled it Shoulder Arms.
But Chaplin momentarily lost confidence in the project and considered scrapping it. Only after he showed it to his friend and fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks, who responded, Chaplin writes in his autobiography, with “roars of laughter,” did he reconsider. Released in October, shortly before the end of the war, it proved to be a huge hit—particularly, Chaplin says,with soldiers who appreciated his gentle mockery of heroic conventions of war.Moreover, when the war ended, advertisements for the film could invite everyone to enjoy a respite from wartime seriousness: “Shoulder Arms has come at the right time. People can laugh at it without any guilt feelings now.”
The film opens with Charlie in boot camp mocking the regimentation of military formations and drills. Almost immediately, he finds himself overseas in the mud, muck, and lice of the trenches. (When Chaplin re-released the film a half century later, he preceded the dramatization with the film footage of actual trench warfare in order to highlight the realism of his staged version.)Feigning heroism, Charlie prepares to go “over the top” (out of the trench and into the line of fire), only to lose his nerve at the last minute.Another memorable scene shows him reading a letter over the shoulder of another soldier and perfectly mimicking his reactions of apprehension and relief.
In the scene from Shoulder Arms included here Charlie heroically volunteers for a secret mission. Informed that he “may never return,”he vainly tries to volunteer someone else. The secret mission turns out to be a trip “behind enemy lines,” during which he walks around camouflaged as a tree. This brilliantly surreal episode shows him defeating a group of German soldiers intent on turning him into firewood. In the next sequence, he manages to evade capture by having his papier-mâché camouflage blend into a forest. “The expanses of no-man’s-land,” David Robinson reports in his book on Chaplin, “were provided, in those days of a still-rural Hollywood, by the back of Beverly Hills, while Wilshire Boulevard. . . provided the forest.”
Thus, Chaplin had recreated on the “back lots” of an emerging Hollywood a facsimile of the European theater of war. Even more remarkably, he had found a way to make audiences laugh at a subject that had recently filled them only with horror. With the war’s ending, they could share his mocking perspective on the heroic conventions of a war that had brought so much death and devastation.