Jan. 18, 2012

Shoulder Arms (1918)
Grade: 71/100

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin

What it's about. Charlie Chaplin is an incompetent Army recruit enduring basic training and making a muck of it. He collapses in his tent, exhausted. We next see him in the French trenches of World War I, where he survives a deluge and succeeds in taking an enemy trench.

Chaplin volunteers for a dangerous assignment in German-occupied territory, where his disguise as a tree fools various German soldiers. Finally discovered, he flees to a partially demolished house where an attractive French virgin (Edna Purviance) lives alone in peril from the Germans.

Chaplin and the virgin become quick friends, and Chaplin comes to her rescue when she arrested by the Germans and interrogated by a homely yet lascivious officer. Chaplin subdues, then impersonates, the officer to the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) and the German Crown Prince (Jack Wilson), who have shown up for an inspection of the front.

Chaplin then takes out and replaces the Kaiser's chauffeur while the Kaiser and Crown Prince are distracted by war plans. Finally, Chaplin drives his V.I.P.'s to Allied territory where they are arrested. Chaplin has won World War I practically single-handed! Sergeant York would be proud. But alas, it is all a dream, and Chaplin wakes up in his tent at training camp.

How others will see it. Chaplin released this film near the end of World War I, when an armistice was anticipated. Hollywood insiders worried that Chaplin's take on the war would be seen as frivolous, but the movie proved highly popular, notably among returning soldiers who could identify with the hardships and ludicrous heroism.

Today, though, Shoulder Arms is regarded as a minor effort, obscured by Chaplin's better known features from the 1920s and 1930s. The user ratings are unexpectedly low. Men 18 to 44 give it a respectable 7.4 out of 10, but women over 30 grade it only 6.2, and women over 45 give it a remarkably low 2.1.

By comparison, women over 45 give The Big Parade (1925) a 9.5, and also give City Lights (1931) an 8.9. The Big Parade is another silent movie about an American soldier's romance and heroism during World War I. City Lights is a Chaplin silent movie. Women over 45 adore those two films, but detest Shoulder Arms. Presumably, women believe the relationship between Chaplin and Purviance is shallow and unconvincing, while Chaplin's military adventures are too ridiculous, even as satire. Some may even see the movie as heresy, trivializing the slaughter of war, or as racist, given the German caricatures.

How I felt about it. Shoulder Arms is both a feature and a short. It was filmed as a five-reel feature, then enough stock was trimmed from the movie to turn it into a short. The cut footage has survived, but the Turner Classic Movies print is Chaplin's edited cut. Which, after all, is how it played in theaters.

There's no question that Shoulder Arms is amusing. It is difficult to believe throughout, of course, but that is as intended. It is a comedy. The drill sergeant fails to punish Chaplin for his incompetence. The German soldiers and officers are variously depicted as fat, foppish, foolish, pompous, or leering. They are given silly beards and monocles. It is preposterous to believe that Purviance would continue to live in a half-demolished house where she would be defenseless from German or Allied soldiers. She would flee West, along with the rest of the local population.

But while the situations may be contrived and the stereotypes are demeaning, that doesn't make the gags any less entertaining. Most hilarious of all is Chaplin's tree costume, which is laughable yet effective against the Germans. My take on the movie is that the framing of the adventures as merely a dream more or less saves it. The scenes can be as absurd as the imagination can take them, because they do not represent reality, instead only a volunteer's dreams of glory.