[Book Review] Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947
Wes Gehring has written comprehensively on the subject of film, authoring 32 film-related books covering forties film funnymen, depression-era clowns, and award-winning biographies on James Dean, Carole Lombard, Steve McQueen, Robert Wise and Red Skelton. His 2014 book is the first in a series focusing of the subgenre of dark comedies. It examines three specific films in which Charlie Chaplin explored the topic of war and the evolution of his personal views and his use of dark comedy, spanning almost thirty years from being pro-war in Shoulder Arms (1918), a pacifist and anti-war in The Great Dictator (1940), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) is about the individual’s war against society and business interests that provoked international wars.
“Chaplin’s War Trilogy” is a comprehensive and fascinating study of three of Chaplin’s pictures. It also covers everything before and after each film was created in order to present a portrait of how his viewpoint and portrayal of war on camera changed over time. It begins with some information about the early history of the development of dark comedy in literature and cinema and how it has evolved to current cinema. Gehrig then provides some background on Chaplin’s early life and career leading up to 1918 and his participation in the war bond rallies during that year.
The book then looks at Chaplin’s 1918 picture Shoulder Arms and how he used war as a comedic topic and also the various ways that he utilized dark comedy. The author provides us with a great deal of examples that offer up the absurd, morbid, and the “man as beast” sequences within the film that are darkly comedic along with other elements that were standard Chaplin comedy. Gehring’s analysis is in depth, providing information about other war propaganda films of the era and the critical and commercial reception upon Shoulder Arms initial release. While the picture is in support of the pro-war cause, Gehring states that Chaplin’s “greatest Shoulder Arms accomplishment was to not make the picture a rabid anti-German diatribe.”
Several chapters cover the events and films that would end up leading to the release of The Great Dictator (1940). His first talkie would be the result of an obsession with Napoleon and trying to get a motion picture made about the dictator, which morphed into a timelier scenario in which we would play the dual roles of a Jewish barber and an evil dictator that resembled Hitler.
While Shoulder Arms is decidedly pro-war and supportive of military action, this one is more pacifistic and anti-war. The author delves further into its origins, the links between Chaplin and Hitler, and the controversial aspect of using dark comedy throughout the picture to discuss the direct threat of society towards the individual.
Gehring gives a large amount of information regarding its commercial success and the critical reviews, stating that Picasso’s “Guernica and Chaplin’s Dictator remain as watershed examples of art’s retaliation against man’s dark side.”
After covering the seven years in between The Great Dictator and his next film Monsieur Verdoux, Gehring delves into Chaplin’s controversial and poorly received 1947 picture that was slightly ahead of its time. He covers Chaplin’s obsession of the macabre, the real life inspiration for the story, Orson Welles involvement, abandoning the Tramp character, his reasoning behind pushing the envelope on the dark elements and the ways in which he further advanced them.
Chaplin plays a character that marries rich women and then murders them to receive their inheritance so that he can support his family. When the character is captured and put on trial he compares what he does to the business of war, calling himself a mere amateur when compared to the big businesses profiting on mass killings during war.
The final chapters deal with the after effects of Monsieur Verdoux and the later years of his life and career. While the theme and primary focus of this book is Chaplin’s three war films and his evolving perspective with the use of dark comedy and his stance on war, it is so much more.
It goes deep into the man’s career and his large cinematic contributions and it also observes how the world was and changed during those times. This is highly recommended for cinephiles, Chaplin fans, silent era film fans, and fans of the golden age of Hollywood.
His follow up to the theme of dark comedies is the 2016 new release titled Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970: Twelve American Films.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 10/10
This book was published by McFarland and can be purchased online at www.mcfarlandpub.com or by calling their order line (800-53-2187). It is also available as an ebook from all major ebook providers, for a complete list of providers see www.mcfarlandpub.com/customers/ebooks.
Author Bio: Raul J. Vantassle is a jazz musician whose key strokes move about the page creating an explosion of formlessness to form, or just total bullshit. His heroes include John Waters, Robert Crumb, Charles Bukowski, and the Cobra Commander. His Knowledge of film goes across the board but he specializes in Asian and cult cinema. He may be the filthiest person alive. You can visit his blog here.