Charlie Chaplin in the First World War
Charlie Chaplin didn’t make his first film until 1914 – Making a Living was released by Keystone on 2 February – but the rates of production were so hectic, he had made 22 movies by the war’s outbreak and 36 by the year’s end. His talents and ability to learn were also prodigious: he had written and directed 20 of these films.
Growing up poor in London, the son of parents on the stage, Chaplin rapidly became a brilliant performer. Touring the United States twice with Fred Karno’s vaudeville show, he was spotted as a likely film-star. Disliking his initial film, he developed his Tramp persona for his second and third movies, Kid Auto Races at Venice and Mabel’s Strange Predicament. This character of contrasts soon made him extraordinarily successful.
So successful that he signed a new contract with Essanay and wrote, directed and starred in 15 pictures throughout 1915, including The Tramp and Work. By the time he joined Mutual in 1916 to create 12 more films, such as The Floorwalker and Easy Street, he had become the first great international star.
In the US and the United Kingdom he was a demigod: he was revered in France as ‘Charlot’. He was popular worldwide because silent films needed no translation and the message of his Tramp character was universal. Everywhere – except in Germany, where import restrictions and the war prevented his films from being shown until 1921. Even there, he was so famous that Allied troops allegedly stuck up cut-outs of him from the trenches in the hope the Germans would die laughing…
Combined with the need for cheap entertainment during the war, Charlie was responsible for film’s large growth in popularity, and for movies starting to be taken seriously as art. The only problems involved accusations that he wasn’t fighting. There were good reasons: for instance, his contract said he couldn’t leave the US.
Galvanised into action, he produced a propaganda film, campaigned to sell Liberty Bonds for the Allies and took the bold step of making a war comedy – Shoulder Arms – in which his character captures the Kaiser. The movie, his second for First National, came out in October 1918 and was an enormous hit. By the Armistice, film was undeniably the most popular art form and Charlie the world’s biggest superstar.