Charlie vs. “The Rookie”

Evening News (Harrisburg, PA) May 12, 1927

In 1927, a disinfectant salesman named Leo Loeb sued Chaplin for $50,000 claiming that the idea for Shoulder Arms was lifted from a scenario he wrote in 1918 while he was in the Marines called “The Rookie.” Loeb sent the scenario to the Chaplin Studios later that year. He received a rejection letter dated April 24, 1918 which stated that Chaplin did not wish to burlesque the government’s war activities.

The trial began in New York on May 5th 1927. Jurors and counsel were given printed sheets of paper with parallel columns containing a synopsis of “The Rookie” on one side and Shoulder Arms on the other. Chaplin’s film was also shown in court as evidence.

Leo Loeb took the witness stand first.  Chaplin’s attorney, Nathan Burkan, read 81 of the 159 long scenes of Shoulder Arms and after each reading asked the witness if there was anything in that scene that he could recall as having been taken from his scenario & to point out any similarity between the two. Mr. Loeb tried to explain that while no two scenes were exactly alike, his play had inspired Shoulder Arms & was an elaboration of it.

Chaplin spent two days on the witness stand. The first day, May 9th, he arrived in court with his attorney Nathan Burkan and his valet, Toriachi Kono. He was clad in a dark gray suit, blue shirt & matching collar, derby hat, his token button-up shoes, and carrying an ivory-headed snakewood cane on his arm.* He “threaded his way through a crowd of girls employed by the building” and took a seat at the defense table. When he was called to the stand, he handed his hat and cane to Kono.

In the witness chair, Chaplin put one foot underneath him and sat on it. In answer to questions by his attorney, Chaplin stated that his name was Charles Spencer Chaplin, he was 38 years old and was writer and director of his pictures. Mr. Burkan asked Chaplin if he had used Mr. Loeb’s scenario when writing Shoulder Arms. Chaplin replied:

“I did not. I never saw the scenario, nor did anyone ever call my attention to it.” After a pause he turned to the jury and, with a right hand slightly elevated, he added, “On my word of honor, gentlemen, and on my oath.”

Chaplin on the witness stand.

In reply to another question, he explained:

“My pictures are conceived as I go along. The creative mind doesn’t work from detailed directions.”

Chaplin explained that he thought of Shoulder Arms while he was campaigning in 1918 for the Third Liberty Loan.

While on the witness stand, Chaplin nervously swung his arms and legs and fidgeted in his chair.

Under cross-examination by Loeb’s attorney Mortimer Hays Chaplin said that he thought the “whole case was absurd.” “Do you still think so?” asked Mr. Hays. “Yes, I do, to be candid about it,” answered Chaplin.

On several occasions during Mr. Hay’s questioning, Chaplin “shrugged his shoulders and grinned ruefully to the amusement of spectators as they recognized the shoulder movement so often depicted on screen.”

Hays handed Chaplin a synopsis of “The Rookie” and asked him to look at the first scene. “Chaplin scrutinized the paper with expressions of exaggerated concentration which brought general laughter. He shrugged with a pathetic gesture of frustration and the spectators rocked in their seats.”

“I’m afraid I can’t read it,” he apologized to Hays, “I forgot to bring my glasses.”

Nathan Burkan offered up his glasses and Chaplin “tried them on his nose and then stared blankly at the paper. His expression and pantomime of his inability to see brought more laughter in which Judge Bondy joined.”

Judge Bondy leaned over the bench and proffered Chaplin the judicial spectacles. The actor took them with a bow, tried them frontwards, backwards, as a monocle with the extra glass riding over one ear, and then as a magnifying glass.

“I can read!” he cried with a happy smile and the crowd cheered.

There was more laughter when Chaplin described the original opening of Shoulder Arms and a scene showing Charlie quarreling with “my wife.” Chaplin sensing the situation added “that is, she was supposed to be my wife in the picture.” This brought even more laughter.

Chaplin said that he had gone over the Loeb scenario and that it was a “one, two, three, commonplace plot. Mine is the story of the inadequacy of a poor frail human being, immersed in the war.”

Chaplin had been patient under the sharp questioning of Hays but he became annoyed when the lawyer insisted on a yes or no answer to his questions.

“Don’t you see a similarity between your picture and the scenario of Mr. Loeb?” Hays asked. Chaplin replied, “Yes, but…”

“Answer yes or no,” Hays demanded. “There is a similarity in a general way, in background. But there is absolutely no similarity in action, thought, and the whole psychology.”

Chaplin once accused Hays of talking in generalities and asserted he did not know what the lawyer meant by his questions.

“Hays questioned him about a bunkhouse scene in his play, handed the printed play to him and asked: ‘Do you see where it is written?’ ‘You mean the bunk,’ queried Chaplin, and the lawyer replied, ‘No, I mean the bunkhouse.’ Chaplin interrupted to say ‘This is the bunk.’ This set the crowd off again. He grinned cheerfully when Judge Bondy rebuked him.”

Shoulder Arms is one of your greatest pictures, isn’t it?” asked Hays.

“Modesty forbids an answer,” Chaplin replied. “It was a lot of hard work.”

Chaplin’s testimony ended on May 10th. The next day a deposition by Sydney Chaplin was read in court by Nathan Burkan. Syd said he was a “gag” man during the making of Shoulder Arms and that he didn’t know where his brother derived the idea of the film.

Tom Harrington, Chaplin’s valet in 1918, corroborated other testimony by witnesses that Chaplin was on his Liberty Loan tour in the south in April 1918 when Loeb’s scenario was received and rejected by the studio.

The case ended in a mistrial on May 12th when jurors failed to agree on a verdict. Chaplin won the case when it was retried in November.


*One reporter noted that Chaplin’s ensemble included “no display of jewelry.”

New York Times, May 10-11, 1927
Portsmouth Daily Times, May 10, 1927
Reading Times, May 10, 1927


  1. I'm curious to know how Charlie behaved during a trial. His habits, his attitude, his little drawings, the way he answered … Divorces apart, he seems to have been sued quite often.

  2. I like the little note about how he tucked one leg under him and sat on it. I can just picture him doing that, too!

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