Chaplin started at Keystone studios in 1913 on $150 per week (about $720 a year). Within weeks of the first appearance as his Tramp persona in January of 1914 (Kid Auto Races, Mabel’s Strange Predicament), Chaplin had been taken into the hearts of the public (despite being uncredited in these early short films) and in June of that year, Keystone boss Mack Sennett was confident enough of his talents to let him direct himself. Chaplin would never be directed by anyone again. By the end of 1914, he moved to the Essanay Film Co. and by the middle of the following year,1915 he was arguably the most recognized face on the planet! Chaplin’s next company move, in 1916, took him from Essanay to The Mutual Film Corporation, where he became the highest paid employee of that company on a salary of $670,000.
The contract with Mutual, however, was restrictive for it included a clause that stipulated he could not leave the United States without studio approval. This led some journalists back in his home country, now two years into a brutal conflict, to suggest that this clause conveniently prevented him from serving in the British Army. Indeed two years later US journalists noted that a similar contract with First National kept him out of the U.S. military (though actually Chaplin had tried to enlist, but was rejected for being underweight!).
With such a potentially damaging rumour in the air, it is not surprising that, when Chaplin decided to make a comedy based on the horrors of war, his friends (like Cecil B. DeMille) tried to talk him out of it. However, Chaplin was convinced that it was possible to make a comedy so potent that it could cut through and even counter-balance the hell of modern warfare. Shoulder Arms (1918) is an example therefore of an artist at the peak of his powers, prepared to take an extra-ordinary risk with his fortune, fame and talent.
The idea had originated in 1917 with his design for a poster comprising a drawing of the tramp dressed as a soldier, to advertise an (as yet) imaginary film. The poster’s caption directly addressed the potent topic of his lack of military service. “Ladies and Gentleman,” it read. “Charlie lays down his cane and picks up the sword to fight for Democracy.”
But to design a poster was one thing; to actually make a comedy on this subject was something else. He commenced filming using his customary method of trial and error. He started by shooting a pre-war sequence in which the tramp escapes a mean-spirited wife and a houseful of kids by joining the Army, then has to endure the indignities of a physical examination (as Chaplin had perhaps already suffered from the US Military). But after several months, he discarded this footage and started over, searching for a seam of comedy that was delicately poised on the edge of tragedy.
Even after completing the film, he was not sure he had hit the mark … until he succeeded in making his good friend Douglas Fairbanks (right) roar with laughter at the private screening he had set up. Only then was Chaplin finally convinced he had something to put before the public.
As it turned out, Chaplin found his most appreciative audience among the men who had suffered the horrors of vermin, rain, homesickness, snipers, mud and floods of the trenches. Today we can still enjoy this three-reeler’s embrace of sentimentality, comic violence and surrealism in a comedy that never loses perspective on some of the most sensitive material … and which indeed ended up being one of Chaplin’s biggest hits.