I used to say I didn’t like silent films but then I realised how ignorant that made me sound. It was probably true at the time but as I saw more films and developed a better understanding of the era I honed that statement into a more accurate one, I don’t like silent era comedies. That was probably true for a while too but then I watched ‘The General’. Buster Keaton was a revelation for me. His humour was intelligent, his ability to silently deliver so much emotion, so much pathos. I got into Keaton films and I’ve never looked back. I crossed over into European cinema of the silent era and realised quite how superior that was to its American brethren. Silents opened me up and a whole new world of cinematic delights lay before me. So I was finally able to boil that statement down to its true core, what I really meant. It was as follows: I hate Charlie Chaplin.
To me Charlie Chaplin is the unfunny uncle with the spinning bowtie who gets youngsters to pull his finger as he recites jokes from the 70’s about British Rail Buffet Cars and the Irish. The prat falls, sideswipes and general slapping of sticks leaves me cold, as does a silly walk and a Benny Hill style chase scene through a ‘Kiss Me Quick’ seaside town, moribund and rusting. What a joy it was then when I realised I couldn’t put off my film choice for today any longer. Ladies and gentlemen, with my head buried deep in my hands and slowly swivelling eyeballs, I give you Charlie Chaplin in his Great War Comedy Classic ‘Shoulder Arms’.
Great War comedy. I struggle with the concept. Maybe the year of production is its’ saving grace. With a release date of 20th October 1918 it was conceived, shot and released prior to the end of the conflict but in a time where the swinging tide of fortune was squarely with the Allies. As such this picture could be seen as a first hurrah for the upcoming victory. There’s also the chance it was, at least partially, destined as some comic relief for the troops at the front. Either way the film treads an uneasy path between disrespecting the dead or showing gratitude for their sacrifices. In terms of how the comedy is pitched I think Charlie and chums just about pull it off on the right side of decency.
The story is a simple one. The dude with the funny walk and the moustache goes through basic training. The basic training seems to consist solely of opportunities for our hero to do silly walks and wiggle his moustache. Once that is over, he’s sent directly to the front where he sets about doing stupid things with guns, backpacks, cheese etc. He takes some Germans hostage, meets a girl, gets chased around some trees for what feels like forever before kidnapping the Kaiser and ending up back with his boys in time for tea and biscuits.
That’s really it. I can honestly say I didn’t laugh once. More than that, I didn’t even smile once. My brain didn’t for one brief flash of a moment find anything in this film funny. Were the audiences of the time really rolling around in the aisles to this stuff? If so, I’m glad I wasn’t alive then. I’d have hated everyone. The background on the film is that it was Charlie’s directorial debut and only his second film following his move to First National Pictures. It comes in at only 45 minutes (which I am eternally grateful for) which also ranks it as his shortest feature. Apparently reviews at the time lauded it and it was his highest earning film to that point. I don’t get it.
I suppose due to the early date of production, the changing tastes of humour and cultural mores I should cut it some slack. At the time it probably was funny, it probably was valid and worthwhile, it probably was a success. But to me, now, in the 21st century it leaves me cold. I laughed out loud watching a Buster Keaton film just last week and here I am watching a Charlie Chaplin flick and feeling like I’ve suffered a Bells Palsy, on both sides!
And do you know what the real kicker is? After being forced through the 45 minutes of unfunny funny stuff, people falling over, getting hit in the face with cheese, chasing after a man pretending to be a tree and fat Germans getting stuck in drainage pipes, it all turns out to be a dream. For fucks sake, really? I used to write stuff like that at junior school. How do I finish this off? I’d think. I’ve written myself into a corner, there’s nowhere for the characters to go. I know, I’ll pretend it’s a dream. Fuck off.
So I guess you can tell this film really isn’t for me. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t engaging, I felt nothing for the characters. I hated it. I guess the best thing I have to say is that it only lasted 45 minutes. So please, unless you’re some kind of suicidal sadist with a deathwish and far too much time on your hands do anything else other than watch this film. No need to thank me.