The resulting three reeler is one of Chaplin's early masterpieces, a film that nonchalantly moves between sentimentality, comic violence, and outright surrealism without losing sight of its serious subject matter. The fact that it ended up being one of the biggest hits of Chaplin's hit-laden career suggests that he knew exactly what he was doing when tackling such a risky topic.
Matters of taste aside, there was another stumbling block between Charlie and an effective service comedy. When he signed his contract with Mutual Pictures, it included a clause stipulating that he couldn't leave the United States without the studio's approval. Members of the European press started suggesting that he was a "slacker", since this arrangement conveniently enabled him to skip serving in the British Army. Two years later, a similar contract with First National also kept him out of the U.S. military...or so it seemed. That time, Chaplain tried to enlist, but was rejected for being underweight!
Shoulder Arms isn't much of a narrative, but at 40 minutes, it really doesn't have to be. It's basically an opportunity for Chaplain to riff on the absurdities of Army life and modern warfare. Everything up to and including mail call, food in the trenches, and infestations of lice, comes into play, with consistently hilarious results. One sequence, in which Charlie moves through enemy territory while camouflaged as a rickety tree is a gem, one of the more potently bizarre interludes in any Chaplin picture. That such a sequence can still generate belly laughs 87 years after it was shot speaks volumes about the man's talent. There's simply no over-estimating the enormity of his gifts as a screen performer.
Shoulder Arms arose from a lengthy period of trial and error, but that was par for the course with Chaplin. (Rent the thoroughly fascinating three-part documentary, The Unknown Chaplin, for details on Charlie's grueling creative process.) The idea had been germinating for some time. In late 1917, Chaplin even designed a postcard advertising a film called Private Chaplain U.S.A., upon which he drew a picture of himself dressed as a doughboy and wrote, "Ladies and Gentleman - Charlie in this picture lies down his cane and picks up the sword to fight for Democracy."
But, with all due respect to Saul Bass, designing posters is the easy part. Originally, Chaplin shot a pre-war sequence in which he escapes his mean-spirited wife and houseful of kids by joining the Army, then endures the indignities of a physical exam. But, after taking several months to film it, he trashed the footage and started fresh. Then, after completing the picture as we now know it, he was still somehow convinced that he'd blown it. It was only when his dear friend, Douglas Fairbanks, laughed raucously while watching the movie that Charlie knew he had, indeed, hit the mark. "Sweet Douglas," he later said, "he was my greatest audience."
Written, Produced, and Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Assistant Director: Charles Reisner
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Recruit), Edna Purviance (French Girl), Syd Chaplin (Sergeant/The Kaiser), Jack Wilson (German Crown Prince), Henry Bergman (German Sergeant/von Hindenburg), Tom Wilson (Training Camp Sergeant).
by Paul Tatara