“Chaplin’s Funny Feet Walk Into War Comedy”

Ninety-eight years ago today, Chaplin’s satire of WWI, Shoulder Arms, was released. The following is an excerpt from a June 1918 article by Grace Kingsley in which she observes Chaplin, and brother Syd, grappling with a title for the film (Charlie considered calling it “Hearts of Fate”) and filming a sequence with children (which was, of course, never used). I’ve included illustrations from the original article, by Harry Barndollar, as well as real photos.

“Chaplin’s Funny Feet Walk Into War Comedy” by Grace Kingsley Los Angeles Times, June 30th, 1918

“Shoulder Arms,” Mr. Chaplin christened his picture the other day after wrinkling a whole hour over the problem, out at the studio, the while the comedian, Brer Sid and the rest of us drank innumerable cups of tea. All the name had to suggest was patriotism and fun, and drama and punch and a few other things like that. Of course the christening wasn’t effected without a lot of skirmishing. Sid Chaplin must have his joke, for one thing.

“Call it ‘The Bums Of Berlin!'” he suggested.

But Brer Charlie wasn’t going to have any low-comedy names, because his bright necklace of laughter is really strung on a stout little thread of seriousness.

The Fat Comedian, who is inclined to be sentimental, suggested it be called “Hearts Of Fate.”

“Hearts Of Lettuce,” parodied Sid Chaplin.

Why not call It ‘Charlie Carries On,” suggested the Thin Heavy, which sounded reasonable, too. But the comedian took a reflective munch of his third slice of cake, and a quick gulp of tea, got up and walked into the door of a set, emerged on the other side and triumphantly announced:

“Shoulder Arms!”

“Which you must admit has punch in its sound, suggests either comedy or pathos, and altogether, like the Mother Hubbard wrapper of the senator’s speech, “covers everything and touches nothing.”

Charlie & Syd in Shoulder Arms

“And now, Sid,” said Charlie, “tell the lady the plot.”

Sid looked perplexed. “Don’t I just wish you could!” laughed Charlie.

As a matter of fact, the plot always thickens slowly as Chaplin proceeds with his pictures. But he’s always certain about the theme. That’s the vital thing which many comedy makers overlook, according to Charlie–the theme which makes for success in comedy just as much as it does in heavy drama, he declares.

“The story is a sketchy thing,” explains Charlie seriously, “really it’s just a ….”

But there, we nearly told. …

Of course, you know Charlie uses a number of children in this production. In fact, these scenes are all finished, and it is here that Charlie has achieved a fairly Barrie-esque whimsicality. But not without much hard labor were the scenes made, with the comedian directing the youngsters every minute.

A school teacher–at $2700 a day! That was Chaplin during the making of these scenes.

“And although I love those kids dearly, and though they were just as clever as they could be–well, I take back all I ever said about school teachers,” grinned the comedian.

It seems they all had a great day at Venice last week with the kids taking in all the joys of the Midway under Chaplin’s sole supervision, the mommers being specially requested to stay behind. One youngster got stage fright or something during the mad progress of the merry-go-round, and Chaplin had to achieve an athletic rescue; another Chaplin found at the helm of the peanut roaster, where he was trying to persuade the owner to let him run the machine; another had to be forcibly peeled like a plaster off the roller coaster after his fourth round trip; but on the whole Charlie says he thoroughly enjoyed being nursemaid for a day.

One of the youngsters fell and hurt himself a bit. “Actors don’t cry,” Charlie remonstrated. “Whereupon,” he related, all the kids got together and speculated on what might make an actor cry. Finally one of them said, “Well, I’ll bet If Charlie fell out of a balloon he’d cry.” Which seemed to settle the matter. “And a funny little thing happened when a strange little boy walked up to me and told me timidly that he ‘liked me better than he did any of the other Charlies.'”

“I had an awful time getting any of the children to play the Kaiser. They wouldn’t even be bribed–they said It would be disloyal to the United States. Finally, how do you think I got one of the youngsters to play tho part? Well, I just told him I’d hit him awfully hard. And he said, ‘Well, all right, If you’ll promise to hit the Kaiser awful hard, I’ll play him.'”

Source: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr Facebook Charlie puts Kaiser makeup on one of the children.
There was some debate a few years ago about whether or not this child is Doug, Jr.  I don’t believe that it is. To me, he looks like the child wearing the bowler in the above photos.


  1. Fun, as always, to visit Discovering Chaplin. Especially today when I discovered a picture of my dad, Rollie's son (extreme left behind the tripod leg, white shirt, shorts and knee sox), with Charlie and the three kids on Market Street a couple of blocks inland from the Venice boardwalk.DT

  2. The kids and I just watched Shoulder Arms last night and I didn't even know it was its anniversary! What a fun coincidence. Great article discovery, and how cool that DT found his dad in your photo.

  3. I believe the taller child is True Eames Boardman, who lived until 2003. He was a minor actor and script writer, the son of actor True Boardman, who died in 1918.

  4. Yes, that's True Boardman. And I'm pretty sure it's True in the "Charlie puts Kaiser makeup…" picture as well. My dad had vague memories of being there. I think he was close to 90 when I came across that picture, less cropped so that it included the two cameras and of course Rollie too. The problem is that my dad was also in a couple of Fox Sunshine Comedies right about the same time and the experiences all kind of jumbled together all together in his mind after 85 years. DT

  5. Great photos of Chaplin with the kids, filmed at Venice. David Totheroh lent me a similar photo, which I used in my Chaplin locations book Silent Traces, including the cover. Do you know the source of the other photos? Thanks so much – John Bengtson

  6. Great – thank you Jess. There are so many fun details like these waiting to be re-discovered in all of the online archives. Cheers, John

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