On this day back in 1918, Bapaume, France was retaken by the British forces and the Second Battle of Noyon ended.
You’ve watched clips of girls screaming at the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, and you’ve seen footage of the vast crowds at the original Woodstock. Maybe you’ve sighed, “Those were the days of true rockstars–man, that must’ve been exciting!” (Or maybe you sighed because you remember that time and wouldn’t mind reliving it). But that spirit of rockstardom was around earlier than the 1960s, or even the ’50s–many decades earlier, in fact. For if you ask me, few events would ever rock harder than the Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin United States tour for the benefit of the third Liberty Loan drive of 1918. Bear with me.
When the U.S. decided to enter the Great War in 1917, the finances for the huge venture had to come from somewhere, and taxes alone wouldn’t cut it. Thus, the government decided to issue a special series of bonds with the patriotic name of Liberty Loan Bonds. When people purchased them they were essentially loaning the government money for the war, to be paid back within a number of years (the interest rate was kept cautiously low). Back in 1917 and 1918, you could buy a bond for as little as $50 or much as $100,000, depending on what you could afford. (The poorest people could help, too, by buying “Thrift Stamps.”)
The results of the first couple Liberty Loan drives were pretty tepid, despite widespread ad campaigns. So for the third drive the government was taking no chances. Not only would they put out the largest ad campaign yet, but they were going to call on three of the most beloved and powerful people in the entire nation to donate their time to the cause: Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin.
All three dedicated April of 1918 to the bond drive. The schedule would be a whirlwind of appearances: taking off by train from Los Angeles on April 1, they would stop in towns and cities along the way to Chicago, then Washington D.C., and then finally New York City on April 8, where they would split up and continue touring in different parts of the country. Doug would tour in the Midwest (joined by Marguerite Clark), Charlie would cover the south, and Mary would speechify in the East. (William S. Hart had been recruited to tour separately in the west.) Stops included Salt Lake City, Omaha, Fort Wayne, Altoona, York, and so on–some stops were only for a few minutes before the “Three Star Special” train was on its merry way.
All three stars were happy to do their part to help the war effort. Mary had already been deeply devoted to the cause, even being the honorary colonel of the 143rd California Field Artillery unit. Fairbanks had raised a substantial sum for the Red Cross. And Charlie had been stung by criticism for not enlisting (he had registered for the draft but was underweight) and was eager to prove his patriotism, embarking on the tour immediately after spending four solid days and nights editing A Dog’s Life. (He basically slept through the first two days of the tour.)
Newspapers reported that Doug and Charlie’s publicists, Bennie Zeldman and Carlyle Robinson, would travel ahead and work with the various states’ loan organizations to arrange the receptions for the three stars when they came to town. The first stop after leaving in Los Angeles was Salt Lake City, and it proved to be a strong taste of what was to come:
…As the train pulled into the depot there rose such a shout that the walls of the structure trembled and even the shrill shriek of the engines could not be heard in the din.
Boys yelled and jumped, women screamed, men shouted and the guards and police were overpowered by nearly 20,000 people when it was realized that the famous trio had arrived. They burst through the gates and swarmed upon the train crying out for Doug, Mary and Charley. Only Fairbanks dared to brave the multitude that surrounded the train. He made a flying leap from the train right into the crowds, and followed the band that led the way to the speaking platform, which was erected in the depot.
As the crowd followed Fairbanks into the station or got as close to the station as it could, Miss Pickford and Charley Chaplin entered from the train. Even then they were besieged by hundreds, who, suspecting they would soon appear, waited to get a glimpse of the immortal pair.
The journalist also noted the delighted reactions from the people in the crowd at getting so close to their heroes:
Suddenly a shrill voice somewhere in that heaving sea of humanity cried out, “I touched her!” and immediately on every side there buzzed “Wasn’t she sweet?” “I touched all three,” “Isn’t Doug handsome?” “Charley hasn’t any mustache.” “Isn’t he the sweet thing?” “Oh! If auntie were only here,” and a thousand and one exclamations of delight and surprise.
And that was all before getting to the first major rally. When the trio arrived in Chicago on April 4, more massive crowds awaited them. As their car picked its way through the sea of thousands of faces, Doug got so excited that he grabbed a megaphone, climbed up onto the car’s roof, and started a giant group sing-a-long of “Over There.”
In Washington, D.C. they were joined by comedienne Marie Dressler and paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in horse-drawn carriages. After meeting President Wilson they gave speeches at a platform on a jam-packed football field. The three of them were heady with excitement. Charlie got so carried away by his energetic speechmaking that at one point he toppled off the platform and took Dressler with him, landing squarely on top of the assistant secretary of the Navy–who at the time was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The grand finale before Doug, Charlie and Mary would go their separate ways was in NYC, where they spent a couple days speaking at rallies uptown, midtown and on Wall Street. Flags waved jauntily from the buildings and enthusiastic crowds flooded the streets, clung to pillars and leaned out of windows. Some of the most iconic photos from the Liberty Loan drives were taken during those two days, especially the mindboggling photos of Charlie and Doug speaking to a sea of faces and hats numbering in the tens of thousands:
Mary sold one her gold curls for the cause–a rare prize indeed–and Doug did gymnastics for the delight of the countless onlookers. Charlie gave a stirring speech, shouted out with the help of a megaphone:
You people out there–I want you to forget all about percentages in this third Liberty Loan. Human life is at stake, and no one ought to worry about what rate of interest the bonds are going to bring or what he can make by purchasing them. Money is needed–money to support the great army and navy of Uncle Sam. This very minute the Germans occupy a position of advantage, and we have got to get the dollars. It ought to go over so that we can drive that old devil the Kaiser, out of France!
At one point, irrepressible Doug held Charlie up high on his shoulder to the cheers of the crowd, balancing him for three straight minutes–“It was just sheer nervousness that enabled me to do it.”
After the enormous rush of the NYC rallies the three stars continued their separate legs of the loan drive. Charlie and Mary managed to make it through the rest of April, but Doug rushed around city after city to the point of almost giving himself a nervous breakdown, ending his tour early on April 15. (Highly publicized problems with his first wife Beth no doubt contributed.)
The end result of this tour was incredible: tens of millions of dollars in Liberty bonds had been sold. Mary alone was reported to have sold around 40 million.
The April 1918 tour served as a very visible and highly successful act of patriotic fervor on the parts of Charlie, Doug and Mary. And it further served as proof of the huge impact film stars had on the hearts and minds of the public, perhaps for the first time. As a Utah journalist declared while covering the Salt Lake City leg of the tour: “No more effective agency for moving the people has been discovered than that offered in speeches by these people whose silent art is so familiar in every village in the land.”
Some wonderful, crisp footage of the trio (and Sessue Hayakawa!) giving speeches in Washington D.C. was compiled by Ron van Dopperen of the highly-recommended Shooting the Great War blog. (And by coincidence his blog also published an article about the Liberty Loan drives today–ha!) Just look at the passion in their faces and gestures. Enjoy:
“Three Movie Stars to Give Loan Boost Here on April 2.” Salt Lake Herald-Republican-Telegram, March 26, 1918.
Moloney, Stephen. “Crowds Carry Stars Off Feet, First Stop Rousing Ovation, Patriotism Pleases Gathering.” Salt Lake Herald-Republican-Telegram, April 3, 1918.
St. Clair, Labert. The Story of the Liberty Loans. Washington D.C.: James William Bryan Press, 1919. https://archive.org/stream/storylibertyloan00stcl#page/n9
Beauchamp, Cari. “Mary Pickford on the Road Selling Liberty Bonds.” https://marypickford.org/caris-articles/mary-on-the-road-selling-liberty-bonds/#_edn4
Goessel, Tracey. The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016.
Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1985.
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.