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World One War: Charlie Chaplin
One of cinemas most iconic legends of the ‘silent-era’ played his part for the propaganda of the allies during the First World War.
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, better known as ‘Charlie Chaplin’, was an English comic actor, film director and composer of the silent film era. Becoming one of the most well-known stars in the world before the end of the Great War; Chaplin used mime, slapstick and visual comedy to reach his audience.
His most famous role was that of ‘The Tramp’, which he first played in ‘Kid Auto Races at Venice’ in 1914. From that year he wrote, directed and produced most of his films.
At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Charlie Chaplin was becoming a successful star due to his ‘tramp’.
The ‘tramp’ character quickly became the most popular ‘act’ in Keystone director Mack Sennett’s company of players. He subsequently became an overnight success.
The author Martin Sieff in his book ‘Chaplin: A Life’ wrote in 2008 “"Chaplin was not just 'big', he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. ... It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most”
During the First World War, Chaplin wrote and starred in a number of propaganda films designed to show America that the war was a worthy cause.
In 1916, Chaplin starred in ‘Zepped’, a short propaganda film which was discovered in 2009.
When the United States entered the war in the spring of 1917, Chaplin became a spokesman for Liberty Bonds with his close friends, and later co-owners, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
It was during this period that Chaplin created at his own expense and starred in ‘The Bond’, a propaganda film for the Liberty Load Committee. The film was designed to help sell U.S Liberty Bonds for the allied cause of World War One. Another propaganda film of Chaplin’s was ‘Shoulder Arms’ which was released in 1918. The film was a silent comedy set in France during World War One. The film also co-starred Edna Purviance and Chaplin’s older brother, Sydney Chaplin. The film was the shortest Chaplin ever produced, running at a total length of 46 minutes. Shoulder Arms proved to be one of Chaplin’s most popular. A review in the New York Times, dated October 21st 1918 stated
“'The fool's funny,' was the chuckling observation of one of those who saw Charlie Chaplin's new film. Shoulder Arms, at the Strand yesterday — and, apparently, that's the way everybody felt. There have been learned discussions as to whether Chaplin's comedy is low or high, artistic or crude, but no one can deny that when he impersonates a screen fool he is funny. Most of those who go to find fault with him remain to laugh. They may still find fault, but they will keep on laughing."
During the same period, Chaplin’s old mentor and friend, D.W. Griffith produced a classic propaganda film titled ‘Hearts of the World’. The film was shot on location in England and the Western Front, and was produced at the behest of the British Government who wished the population of America to change their neutral mind-set.
Lillian Gish who played ‘The Girl’ in the film stated
“Hearts of the World enjoyed great success until the Armistice when people lost interest in war films. The film inflamed audiences. Its depiction of German brutality bordered on the absurd. Whenever a German came near me, he beat me or kicked me”
She also noted
“I don't believe that Mr Griffith ever forgave himself for making "Hearts of the World…”War is the villain," he repeated, "not any particular people."
Despite Chaplin’s pro-allied stance, he was often criticised by the British Press for not joining the army. Despite the accusations, Chaplin had enlisted for military service, but was denied due to his height. In contrast to his lack of active service, Chaplin raised vast sums of money for the allied war effort, took part in war bond drives and spoke at rallies.
On a side note, he was in fact the first actor to appear on the front cover of ‘Time’ Magazine on July 6th 1925. Not only did he benefit the war drive and benefit from the war drive, he was one of the founders of United Artists in 1919.
Chaplin, during his long career and watching the world go to war twice, made this remarkable yet true observation
“I hope we shall abolish war and settle all differences at the conference table . . . I hope we shall abolish all hydrogen and atom bombs before they abolish us first”