SHOULDER ARMS (Charles Chaplin, 1918, USA, 46m, BW)
Cast: Syd Chaplin, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Tom Wilson, John Rand, Jack Wilson, Edna Purviance, Charles Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Running Time: 46 min.
Shoulder Arms is Charlie Chaplin's second film for First National Pictures. Released in 1918, it is a silent comedy set in France during World War I. The main part of the film actually occurs in a dream. It co-starred Edna Purviance and Sydney Chaplin, Chaplin's elder brother. It is Chaplin's shortest feature film as well as the first feature film that he directed.
Charlie is in boot camp in the "awkward squad." Once in France he gets no letters from home. He finally gets a package containing limburger cheese which requires a gas mask and which he throws over into the German trench. He goes "over the top" and captures thirteen Germans ("I surrounded them"), then volunteers to wander through the German lines disguised as a tree trunk. With the help of a French girl he captures the Kaiser and the Crown Prince and is given a statue and victory parade in New York and then ... fellow soldiers wake him from his dream.
Charlie gives his version of a recruit's absurd life as he plays an American soldier who dreams while in the trenches, somewhere in France, he can win the war single-handedly. The soldier answers mail call, deals with his tough drill sergeant, dines in the trenches, acts bravely over the constant shelling, shares crowded quarters with the sergeant (Syd Chaplin, Charlie's brother), and handles a bad case of lice. In battle, it shows Charlie as he captures a squad of 13 Germans during trench warfare and later volunteers to go behind enemy lines in a suicide mission. Over there he rescues a French girl (Edna Purviance) from the oafish Germans and, in the film's most hilarious piece, he "becomes" a tree to avoid the approaching enemy soldiers. There are some laughs, but time has done much to take away the importance of the film that it received upon its release and much of the slapstick gags don't seem that funny at this time.
Charles Chaplin's ("The Gold Rush"/"The Kid"/"Easy Street") irreverent but still patriotic silent war spoof three reeler was released while World War I was still in progress in its waning days. The public ate the so-called risky project up, as Chaplin was not certain how the public would take to a war spoof while the war was still being fought. It walks the line between comedy and tragedy in a lightweight way, as it has the Little Tramp as a recruit and then sent to war in the trenches. It's Charlie's second film for First National after leaving Mutual, and it comes before his fifth for First National, The Kid, became recognized as his first masterpiece.
Although Shoulder Arms proved to be one of Charlie Chaplin’s most popular shorts despite concerns that there would be a backlash against him for making a movie about a war in which he had not fought, it lacks the laughs of other films from the pre-feature stage of his career. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Shoulder Arms, with a running time of 45 minutes, is in fact a feature-length movie, but it has the feel of an extended short which has accidentally strayed into feature-length territory. Either way, Shoulder Arms suggests that Chaplin’s humour was less successful when he was removed from the familiar trappings of his tramp character. Although he of course wears the trademark moustache and has the familiar gait of the tramp, this little soldier could really be anyone.
Chaplin’s routines in Shoulder Arms mostly lack the intricate, split-second timing that was a feature of so much of his more successful work. And although there’s a reason for his unusually accomplished performance as a fighting soldier, this uncharacteristic skill gives rise to a cockiness that distances the Doughboy even further from the Little Tramp with which we’re so familiar. Distancing isn’t a problem if Chaplin undergoes a complete departure from his familiar screen persona, but there’s too much of the familiar tramp in his Doughboy character for us to consider him a different person.
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