SHOULDER ARMS (1918)
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Shoulder Arms, released in 1918, was Charlie Chaplin’s second film for First National Films.
In his Autobiography Chaplin wrote: “I was worried about getting an idea for my second picture. Then the thought came to me: why not a comedy about the war? I told several friends of my intention, but they shook their heads. Said De Mille: ‘It’s dangerous at this time to make fun of the war.’ Dangerous or not, the idea excited me. Shoulder Arms was originally planned to be five reels. The beginning was to be “home life,” the middle “the war,” and the end “the banqueting,” showing all the crowned heads of Europe celebrating my heroic act of capturing the Kaiser.”
Chaplin started filming Shoulder Arms at the end of May 1918, and it was released at the end of October 1918. These were the dying days of World War I—the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Shoulder Arms was his longest film to date, running at forty six minutes, and was his first feature length film. The original plan was revised and the scenes of home life (which took a month to shoot) were discarded.
In the film, Charlie is recruited to the “awkward squad”, and has great trouble straightening his wayward feet. Posted to the front line in France, he experiences all the discomforts of life in the trenches. He meets a French girl, played by Edna Purviance, and rescues her from German troops. He disguises himself as a tree, and later kidnaps the German Kaiser. It was all a dream, as he finds out when he wakes up, still in the “awkward squad”.
Chaplin had considerable doubts about the film when it was complete. He wrote: The picture took a long time to make and I was not satisfied with it, and I got everybody in the studio feeling the same way—and now Douglas Fairbanks wanted to see it. From the beginning Fairbanks went into roars of laughter, stopping only for coughing spells. When it was over and we came out into the daylight, his eyes were wet from laughing.”
With hindsight, Chaplin had no reason to doubt. Audiences loved it. With the release of the film coming so close to the end of the war, the timing was perfect for troops returning home from the trenches to see it. They loved it just as much as Douglas Fairbanks.