Wes Gehring has written extensively on film, with books on depression-era clowns, parody, and performers like Red Skelton, Carole Lombard, and Joe E. Brown. His latest book examines three films in which Charlie Chaplin explored different aspects of military conflict, including soldiers, dictators, even a murderer who profits from his crime.
“Chaplin’s War Trilogy” is a consistently interesting study. Beginning with some introductory background information on Chaplin and on screen comedy’s development, Gehring then discusses Chaplin’s charitable contribution to the war effort via his participation in bond rallies.
The book then explores how Chaplin’s 1918 film “Shoulder Arms” utilized war as a topic for a comedy film. A huge success in its time and considered a timeless classic today, “Shoulder Arms” is, according to Gehring, “an effective mix of dark comedy and (Chaplin’s) standard shtick….” He goes on to state that, “…his greatest ‘Shoulder Arms’ accomplishment was to not make the picture a rabid anti-German diatribe, like the Hun hysteria then gripping the nation.” Gehring offers a deep assessment of the film and provides excerpts from period reviews to display its impact upon its initial release.
It is Chaplin’s development of dark comedy that Gehring focuses on as he explores the events and films that lead up to “The Great Dictator” (1940), Chaplin’s first talkie. While “Shoulder Arms” remained supportive of military action, “The Great Dictator” had Chaplin playing the duel role of a Jewish soldier and the evil dictator he resembled. Of course this stems from Chaplin and Hitler’s having the same mustache, as well as a Nazi booklet proclaiming Chaplin to be “a little Jewish tumbler, as disgusting as he is boring.” Chaplin was not Jewish, but refused to deny it. And while he later admitted that had he known the extent of the Nazi atrocities he would not have made the film, “The Great Dictator” was a brilliantly dark satire on dictatorship.
After a chapter examining the time between “Great Dictator” and Chaplin’s next film, “Monsieur Verdoux” seven years later, Gehring discusses the controversial 1947 film that was too dark for its time. More and clearer information regarding Orson Welles’ contribution to “Monsieur Verdoux” (for which he received $5000 and the screen credit “idea by Orson Welles), as well as a fascinating examination of the title character, Gehring’s chapter on “Monsieur Verdoux” is a fitting culmination of his trilogy. Chaplin plays a character who woos rich women and the murders them in order to support another. When captured, his trial testimony compares it to profiting from war. The author then follows this with some discussion of Chaplin’s remaining films.
Chaplin’s work goes beyond the merely funny and extends into deeper and more thoughtful levels, especially as his career progressed. “Chaplin’s War Trilogy” is an intelligent look at one aspect of his enormous contribution to cinema. Recommended for libraries and research centers.