New book examines Charlie Chaplin's 'war trilogy'
Icon dished comedy with bite
Charlie Chaplin has a widespread image as a comedic legend.
His most famous on-screen character is the winsome “Little Tramp.”
Yet, the actor/director delved into substantive humor that went beyond mere frivolity.
Wes D. Gehring dissects that particular aspect in his new book, “Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947” ($45 softcover; McFarland & Company, Inc. http://www.mcfarlandpub.com).
That trio of Chaplin’s works is “Shoulder Arms” (1918), “The Great Dictator” (1940) and “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947).
In his book, Gehring writes that “Shoulder Arms” injects Chaplin’s Tramp persona into World War I as a soldier on the Western Front.
“It was a controversial film at the time,” said Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
Gehring explains in his book that “dark film comedy” was simply not being done in 1918.
Additionally, “Shoulder Arms” brought a comedic theme into a serious and personal subject matter for millions of people -- World War I, which America was involved in.
As the author sees it, “Shoulder Arms” is a pro-war film “predicated upon the necessity of fighting to defeat Germany.” Chaplin vigorously promoted war bonds as a way to raise money for Uncle Sam’s military needs.
On the other hand, “The Great Dictator” -- released a year before America’s entry into World War II -- stands as “a plea to stop the insanity,” according to Gehring, a movie columnist for USA Today magazine and a Muncie resident.
“The Great Dictator” caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“It was an attack on Hitler … Roosevelt was real supportive of the film,” Gehring, 63, said in a phone interview this fall.
“The Great Dictator” features one of the most enduring scenes from 20th century cinema -- the title character’s choreographic maneuvers that bounce and elevate a balloon globe in a symbolic display of world domination.
Chaplin’s portrayal of a Hitler-like ruler is said to have caught the attention of the target of the biting satire.
“We don’t know what he thought of it, but we have, on the record, that he watched it twice,” said Gehring, surmising that Adolf Hitler must have had some kind of interest in the motion picture.
There is a different type of military angle to 1947’s “Monsieur Verdoux” -- a tale of a sinister man who weds, then kills, wealthy ladies for their riches.
Alluding to World War II, “Monsieur Verdoux” inserts newsreel footage of Hitler and Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.
Released in late summer, “Chaplin’s War Trilogy” contends the film is “a morality play about the murderous war-like inclinations of big business.”
Chaplin jumped from pro-war fervor in “Shoulder Arms” to pacifism in “The Great Dictator,” and then leapt into the corporate/economic side of the war equation in “Monsieur Verdoux.”
As Gehring sees it: “He delved just completely into the idea that war is a very profitable kind of thing.”
Gehring‘s photo-rich Chaplin book makes the point that the film’s “extreme dark comedy message-mindset is clearly based upon the horrific developments of World War II.”
The widow-hunting Verdoux is based on Frenchman Henri Landru, a real-life serial killer. Landru was executed in 1922, but not before murdering numerous women and making off with their financial assets.
Verdoux, according to “Chaplin’s War Trilogy,” conveyed the concept of “murder as business, or business being like murder.”
Gehring is well qualified to tie three of Chaplin’s war-related works together, according to David L. Smith, professor emeritus of telecommunications at Ball State University.
“I think he’s extremely well-versed in film,” said Smith, noting Gehring’s reputation as a “prolific” author who has written more than 30 cinema-related books that include biographies of acting legends James Dean and Steve McQueen.
Calling Gehring an “excellent researcher,” Smith indicated that writing about movies is in his blood: “He enjoys doing it. That’s his life.”
Gehring is a George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of telecommunications at Ball State University.
For his part, Smith -- who taught film at Ball State -- is the author of the exhaustive coffee-table book “Hoosiers in Hollywood,” and also wrote a biography of famous movie actor Clifton Webb, who starred in “Cheaper By the Dozen.”
On Aug. 24, Gehring spoke about Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His address was given at a program tied to the museum’s recognition of this year’s 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
Chaplin died on Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88.