Chaplin’s War Trilogy
An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947
by Wes D. Gehring
“A Pablo Picasso painting might seem an unusual catalyst for a book on Charlie Chaplin.”
And so begins Wes Gehring’s Chaplin’s War Trilogy (which does, indeed, feature a black-and-white reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica in the frontispiece). Gehring makes the point that the painting of a horrific wartime attack puts him in mind of another piece of art generated from the same crucible of pain and horror, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. And as I’d had my own, less learned, encounters with the movies featured here, I looked forward to a more complete examination.
Complete is a good descriptor, too. Gehring knows that to examine such iconic films, it needs to be in the context of their time, and the case of one of cinema’s first auteurs, also in the context of his life. Thus, Chaplin’s War Trilogy first serves as a fairly complete overview of Chaplin’s life and career, not just the parts directly involved in the three films that form the core of this book. The roots of art go deep, and Gehring attempts, with fair success, to find from whence these movies, with their increasingly complicated ethical outlooks, came.
Beginning with Chaplin’s truly Dickensian childhood in London, Gehring traces the origins of Chaplin’s Victorian outlook, his music hall career and success, which led to Mack Sennett plucking him from an American tour for the movies. That childhood gave birth in time to Chaplin’s signature character, The Tramp, the perpetual underdog in perpetual battle against oppressive authority figures, sometimes winning, just as often losing. There is an essential darkness in that setup, and slapstick comedy always has a dark, violent subtext; that often matters little in most silent shorts, as the actors are generally indestructible cartoon characters (look at Sennett’s Keystone Kops hurtling like meteors through a chaotic universe, none the worse for wear). With Chaplin’s Tramp, though, we have a perceptive artist actively engaging audience sympathies and emotions.
After tracing Chaplin’s artistic influences, Gehring begins to drill down into his subject with Chaplin’s incredibly successful Liberty Bonds Tour of 1918, traveling America pounding the drum with fellow matinee idols Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, for war bonds. It’s during this period that the first movie, Shoulder Arms plays, and Chaplin’s darker tendencies begin to get full play. How could they not? It’s The Little Tramp goes to war, for pete’s sake!
Shoulder Arms was the only one of the featured movies I had not yet seen, and I set to correcting that. It’s only 45 minutes long, and time well spent; Chaplin’s genius manages to find humor even in the terrible conditions of a WWI trench. As Gehring points out repeatedly – and it is, indeed, a point well worth repeating – Chaplin works hard to not fall into the rabid anti-German sentiments of the time. One of the other major box office winners was a propaganda film called The Kaiser – Beast of Berlin. Chaplin treats the enemy soldiers with a fair bit of sympathy – except, of course, for the officers, who are all cads, drunkards and bounders.
Gehring then takes Chaplin through the time he could do no wrong, even into City Lights and Modern Times, essentially silent movies made long after The Jazz Singer had supposedly put paid to them. He pulls together contemporary reviews, all still lauding Chaplin, even for his stubborn refusal to commit to sound. But Gehring also points out that the authority figures in Modern Times are the Police, often in full Depression union-busting mode, which will return to haunt Chaplin, along with his several failed marriages and resulting scandals.
The Great Dictator is the cornerstone of this trilogy, and its darkness is not too problematic, as it is tempered by the lighter side of Chaplin’s dual roles, a Jewish barber who is, for all intents and purposes, the classic Tramp character, although with a profession and a shop to go with it. The Great Dictator‘s controversy stems from the very idea of using Hitler for laughs – though with the typically long gestation period of Chaplin’s later works (four years between Modern Times and Dictator), it is important to remember the true horrors of the Third Reich had not yet occurred. Gehring also documents the forces working against even making the movie, mainly fears that Hitler would close the German market to Hollywood movies. That would happen in any case as America entered the war, and Franklin Roosevelt rather famously cheered on the production.
All the analysis and reviews of the time made me drag out my Criterion blu-ray again to watch favorite parts. No matter how you may feel about the movie itself, Chaplin is brilliant as Adenoid Hynkel, his hours of studying newsreel footage of Hitler resulting in one of the great comic performances – and satiric put-downs – in film history.
Gehring chronicles Chaplin’s marital problems throughout, and though those might have played into the eventual making of Monsieur Verdoux – easily his blackest comedy (certainly one of the blackest comedies ever), Gehring shows that other forces were in play. Based on the real-life serial murderer Henri Landru, it serves ultimately as a condemnation of the military-industrial complex; Verdoux, at his sentencing to the guillotine, pronounces that basically he was doing exactly what nations did in war – killing to survive – but “numbers sanctify”. The same actor who was a cheerleader for the war effort in 1918, who pleaded for peace at the end of Dictator, now savagely condemns the machinery of war; the Tramp is nowhere in sight, and lacking that safety net (or release valve), the movie confuses American audiences and is savagely drubbed by most of the American critics.
Life will get progressively worse for Chaplin, as the post-WWII Red Scare begins to percolate through America, and Chaplin – who had never become an American citizen – was constantly under fire for his liberal pronouncements and his friendship with subversive artist-types. There was a continual threat of his being called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and when he went to London in 1952 for the opening of Limelight, his re-entry visa was revoked.
Gehring is kind in his outlining of Chaplin’s post-exile career; his last two movies, A King in New York (which contains a not-terribly caustic attack against HUAC) and Countess from Hong Kong were made in unfamiliar circumstances and do not reach the heights of Chaplin’s earlier works, but lesser Chaplin is still equal to the best of many. In Gehring’s analysis, it is more likely the sex scandals than any actual political involvements that led to the revoking of Chaplin’s visa (and given America’s ingrained neurosis about anything having to do with sex, this has the ring of truth).
In the arc of the artist’s life, this fall from grace thirty years after he was the major draw for the Liberty Bonds Drive (and for a country he had only recently adopted, no less) is bewildering and not a little crazy-making. Verdoux is the father of many justly-lauded Ealing comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. American cinema would soon enough embrace dark comedy and even begin to consider what they had lost to paranoia and jingoism, resulting in Chaplin receiving the only Honorary Oscar given out in 1972, and a 12 minute standing ovation. And since some politicians lately have been bloviating about resurrecting the HUAC, it is very important to consider the damage that was done last time, to no lasting benefit.
Wes Gehring is reportedly finishing up another book, logically enough about the dark comedies of the 1970s, the direct descendents of The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. After the care and detail lavished on that dark cinema’s great progenitors, I am impatiently looking forward to reading it, too.
Oh, alright, times are hard, money is tight, so this is the best-looking Shoulder Arms I could find online. You’re welcome: