18 August 2008

Shoulder Arms (1918)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 46 mins.

In the waning years of the first World War, Charles Chaplin – always a comedian of the people – took his humor directly into the trenches for Shoulder Arms, a battlefield comedy following the life of a hapless French soldier (played by Chaplin). The same year he'd written, produced, directed, and starred in a short propaganda film promoting the U.S. Liberty Bond fundraising drive, but Shoulder Arms would possess an entirely different attitude. Yes, there are gleams of propaganda in Shoulder Arms; the Germans are buffoons and the rousing French Allied soldiers are able to outwit their nemeses in every conceivable fashion, but nothing is direct. Instead the film seems happier being something that would have brought laughter to families on the home-front and soldiers wading through the muddy dreck – the sort of film at the heart of the Chaplinesque experience.

Again, as he had with A Dog's Life, Chaplin wanted to make a feature-length film with First National, and he had intended for Shoulder Arms to be that release. He shot footage of the Doughboy soldier character pre-enlistment, but Shoulder Arms ended up being released as a shorter film focusing exclusively on the soldier in the army. (At 46 minutes, it is either Chaplin's longest short or shortest feature; no one can agree, although it's only a few minutes shy of what is agreed to be Chaplin's first feature, The Kid). The result is probably for the better. When the film opens we are delivered right into the brigade where the Doughboy is stationed and the laughs begin as soon as he appears on screen.

The most original set pieces of Shoulder Arms are famous schticks belonging in any discussion of Chaplin's most celebrated jokes. Trench life is depicted as utterly miserable and taken to the extremes; when a foxhole floods the water rises so high as to almost reach the sleeping soldiers' noses. The Doughboy opens a bottle by raising it into the air and allowing enemy fire to shatter the top. His large, clown-like shoes and poor direction make him an awful soldier during morning line-up. The best gag of all is probably the inspired slapstick of the Doughboy dressing up as a tree and going undercover.

Like some of Chaplin's earlier films, there are some aspects of Shoulder Arms that were twisted and repeated by Chaplin to perfection later in his career. Shoulder Arms and his 1940 satirical masterpiece The Great Dictator both share the plot-points of an ordinary soldier who is mistaken for the enemy's military leader (a tactic also utilized well in Ernest Lubitsch's hilarious 1942 war-time comedy To Be or Not To Be). This is not mentioned to minimize the humor of Shoulder Arms nor to downplay the success of The Great Dictator; the films are dissimilar enough that the gags are worked to different effect in each. While Shoulder Arms is not as splendid as The Great Dictator, it's one of Chaplin's funnier films from his early career.

Note: Chaplin re-released Shoulder Arms in 1959, alongside A Dog's Life and The Pilgrim as "The Chaplin Revue," with interlocking segments linking the films together.


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