From the moment he entered movies, Charles Chaplin knew that he needed total creative autonomy in order to make the kind of comedy of which he alone was capable. This autonomy he finally achieved in 1918, when he built his own studio.
Hollywood was still rural, and the studio rose up among the orange groves in the grounds of an old mansion. Disguised on the outside as an old English village street, the interior of studio was, for those times, state of the art.
Chaplin celebrated his move with an amusing little documentary film, How to Make Movies, which showed the facilities and personnel of the studio, and his own daily routine. In fact the film was never completed or released; and this precious view of early Hollywood was not seen until 1959 when Chaplin included some shots in his compilation The Chaplin Revue.
“A Dog’s Life”
The films that Chaplin made in his own studio were a marked advance on any comedies previously made in Hollywood. They were generally longer – as much as 45 minutes, whereas few comedies before that time went beyond half an hour – and much more sophisticated in staging and structure. The first was A Dog’s Life, for which Chaplin found an excellent co-star, in the person of a charming mongrel dog, Scraps, whose battle for survival with the other dogs of the quarter is satirically compared with Charlie the Tramp’s own struggle for a place in society.
Along with his regular leading lady Edna Purviance – playing a much-abused singer and hostess working in the seedy Green Lantern bar – Chaplin is joined for the first time by his brother Sydney, who had shared his early struggles and helped him make his way on the variety theatres on the variety theatre circuit. An excellent comedian in his own right, Sydney plays the proprietor of the coffee stall which is victim to the pilfering of Charlie and Scraps. An odd feature of A Dog’s Life is that Chaplin has abandoned his usual cane – presumably because he needed his hand free to hold the dog’s leash.
The First World War was already raging when Chaplin opened his studio; and A Dog’s Life was finished in a hurry so that Chaplin could do his war effort by embarking on a tour to sell Liberty Bonds, persuading the public to buy investments that supported the war effort.
His friends were nervous of his next project, a comedy about the war, which was to become Shoulder Arms. Even Chaplin himself had momentary doubts about making comedy out of such a catastrophic event in human history. Yet with this film he proved definitively that there is only the thinnest division between comedy and tragedy. With great brilliance, Chaplin depicts the horrors of life in the trenches – mud, blood, hunger, vermin, longing for home, the waterlogged trenches and the ever-imminent danger of a lethal bullet or grenade – through the distorting mirror of comedy.
Few directors exerted such discipline upon themselves. His original plan was to show the little hero’s life before and after the war. In the end, though, he simplified the structure, discarding reels of wonderful comic material he had shot.
Despite all the initial fears, Shoulder Arms was and remains one of his greatest successes.
And no-one appreciated his comedy of the privations of life at the front more than the very men who had themselves endured it.
In 1959 Chaplin reissued A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms, slightly re-edited, in his omnibus film, The Chaplin Revue. He complemented them with a third film The Pilgrim. Made in 1922, this was Chaplin’s last film of less than normal feature length – it ran for an hour – and the last in which his leading lady was the charming Edna Purviance. The film is a gentle satire on small-town life and religion, with Chaplin as an escaped convict mistaken for the new pastor of a rural community. When the film first came out it suffered a good deal from censorship in some more puritanical states and cities of the United States.
Today we have no such problems with this charming comedy and its sharp but good-hearted fun at the expense of the small hypocrisies of life
Text by David Robinson / Copyright 2004 MK2 SA
More Articles on CharlieChaplin.com
- Chaplin at Keystone: The Tramp is Born
- Essanay - Chaplin Brand
- Mutual - Chaplin Specials
- Chaplin Revue
- The First National Shorts
- Filming the Kid
- Filming a Woman of Paris
- Filming the Gold Rush
- Filming the Circus
- Filming City Lights
- Filming Modern Times
- Filming The Great Dictator
- Filming Limelight
- Filming Monsieur Verdoux
- Filming A King in New York