On this day back in 1918, the French cruiser Dupetit-Thouars was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, and the Second Battle of the Marne ended.
When Chaplin decided in the spring of 1918 that the setting for his next comedy would be the trenches of the Great War, many of his friends and coworkers were concerned. How could anyone insert slapstick routines into such a brutal conflict? How could that possibly be done in good taste?
As it turns out, they needn’t have worried. The idea was, after all, in the capable hands of Charlie Chaplin itself. The resulting Shoulder Arms (1918) turned out to be both a great success in its time and a classic comedy for us today.
Originally, the three-reel Shoulder Arms was going to be longer and have a bit more of a plot. First, Charlie would be shown with several kids and a domineering off-screen wife (we only see the occasional flying rolling pin and a gigantic chemise drying on a clothesline); then he would be shown undergoing his physical examination at a recruitment office and panicking when he thinks the doctor’s going to be a woman (since he had to strip down); then we’d see his antics as a bumbling soldier in the trenches; and lastly, the film would end with him capturing the Kaiser and being honored with a royal banquet.
Although big chunks of these scenes were shot, Chaplin ultimately decided to scrap them and pare the film down to a simpler premise: doughboy Charlie is a clumsy new recruit who can barely follow commands, and copes matter-of-factly with life in the trenches. In time, he finds chances to prove his bravery. I’d say this was a wise move, not only because it gave Chaplin lots of room to come up with clever, battleground-related gags, but it made his character a bit more of a universal figure.
There’s really not a dull moment in Shoulder Arms, and Chaplin clearly took special care to pack in laughs knowing it would be seen by countless servicemen and their families. Classic moments include Charlie disguising himself as a tree and details like the extra touches Charlie made to his uniform (they include a coffee pot, an egg beater, and a mouse trap for those pesky vermin). In a sequence that was quoted by fans for years afterwards, Charlie proudly returns from “going over the top” with not one, not five, but thirteen captured Germans. When asked how on earth he did it, he simply says: “I surrounded them.”
He seems to have taken special care with his trench set, as well–especially since he was filming as the real war was still raging. The barbed wire, mud puddles and stacks of sandbags have a surprisingly authentic look, although (like in most WWI movies) the trenches seem wider than the majority used in actual combat zones.
Shoulder Arms was a huge success at the time and won rave reviews, particularly because it walked that fine line between humor and tragedy so brilliantly well. Picture-Play Magazine said, “After all that has been said and done it might seem that to find comedy in the greatest tragedy of all time would be an impossible task. But the truth is that tragedy and comedy are but twins.” Much of Chaplin’s success was due to his insistence on showing the grittiness of life in the trenches, with touches of funny hyperbole. When the dugout becomes flooded, Charlie dutifully goes to bed in his submerged bunk with a gramophone horn serving as a breathing apparatus. He hangs a cheese grater on the dugout wall–a useful backscratcher when “critters” get bothersome. Constant gunshots and shellfire provide handy ways to open a bottle or light a cigarette–simply hold the item above the trench wall, and bang!–task accomplished. Picture-Play concluded: “There are a score of comedians who would have overstepped the bounds–who would have made their comedy gross and offensive. Chaplin made no mistakes.”
In my opinion, two of the funniest and most human moments of Shoulder Arms happen when Charlie’s squad is ordered to go over the top. About to scale the trench’s wall, Charlie briefly strikes a heroic pose–and the second he starts climbing his ladder topples over. Trying again, he gets a brief peek at the exploding shells and gunfire and jumps back down–and politely makes an “after you!” gesture at the soldier behind him. How many soldiers must’ve had wry sympathy with that desire to be a strong, courageous hero of war–mixed with the cold dread of the realities that entailed?
Other human touches involve Chaplin’s handling of the German soldiers. Anti-Hun propaganda was everywhere at the time, and it likely wouldn’t have raised eyebrows if he’d portrayed the soldiers as cruel and vicious. Instead, he makes them merely bumbling, especially the ridiculously shrimpy general (5’5″ Charlie towers over him). When Charlie captures his 13 Germans, he offers them all cigarettes. Only the general rudely declines, and Charlie promptly spanks him–to the delight of the German soldiers.
Prior to making this film, Chaplin had sometimes been criticized for not enlisting in the war, especially by British newspapers (it’s said that he received white feathers in the mail for years). In fact he had registered for the draft, but didn’t pass his physical examination due to being underweight. Even his hard work on behalf of the Liberty Loans program didn’t seem to satisfy some critics.
But with Shoulder Arms Chaplin proved that for a man who never saw the frontlines, he had a remarkable gift for intuiting what would make the average soldier laugh. And in this writer’s opinion, that laughter would turn out to be his single greatest contribution to the war effort.
- Shoulder Arms was released a little over two weeks before Armistice Day.
- Chaplin’s brother Sydney played a fellow soldier as well as the Kaiser.
- The “tree disguise” scenes were shot in the Hollywood countryside (there was such a thing at the time) during a summer heat wave–quite an ordeal for Chaplin in that cumbersome costume.
- Chaplin worked obsessively on Shoulder Arms as he did on all his films, but did take a break for a day to entertain set visitor Marie Dressler. Another interruption occurred when Chaplin realized his propaganda film The Bond (1918) was due to be completed (it was a donation for the Liberty Bond drive).
- The deleted scenes from Shoulder Arms can be viewed here, courtesy of the official Charlie Chaplin YouTube page: