Chaplin’s War Trilogy
An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947
Wes D. Gehring
Foreword by Conrad Lane
Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2014
Paperback. vii+232 p. ISBN 978-0786474653. $45.00
Charlie Chaplin, Director
Evanston (Illinois): Northwestern University Press, 2014
Paperback. xii+341 p. ISBN 978-0810129528. $29.95
Reviewed by Delphine Letort
Université du Maine – Le Mans
The two books reviewed offer a stimulating insight into a century of cinema through the lens of Charlie Chaplin’s filmmaking, which Wes D. Gehring and Donna Kornhaber broach from distinct and complementary viewpoints. While Chaplin’s War Trilogy revisits Chaplin’s biography through the evolution of his art, blending the man and the characters he created for himself, Charlie Chaplin, Director sheds light on an often-neglected aspect of his filmmaking – directorial abilities that have failed to draw the same enthusiastic responses as the actor’s performances. The Chaplinesque visual style is often reduced to the screen persona of the Little Tramp, which Gehring understands as instrumental to the success of his films, whereas Kornhaber reassesses the visual and sonic techniques that paradoxically made Chaplin both ahead of his time and old-fashioned. Not only was the Little Tramp an economic social outsider, entertaining amusing dreams of social grandeur from the margins of the mainstream, but Chaplin’s visual style also departed from the norms of classical Hollywood cinema that made him approach the status of an “independent author” [Kornhaber : 18]. Both books are complementary to each other, emphasizing and illuminating different aspects of Chaplin’s career: when Kornhaber analyzes Chaplin’s transition from silent to talking films and remarks an unusual use of sound compared with the realist trend that accompanied the early days of the talkies, Gehring observes that dark humor underlies Chaplin’s appropriation of slapstick.
Wes D. Gehring is the author of more than thirty books dedicated to Hollywood cinema. His work touches on a broad range of subjects – from the study of film genres (especially screwball comedy and parody) to the writing of biographies of film directors (Leo McCarey, Robert Wise, Frank Capra, among others) and actors (Irene Dunn, Joe E. Brown, the Marx Brothers, Carole Lombard, James Dean, Steve McQueen, etc.) Drawing on his 1983 biographical essay dedicated to “the Little Tramp” (Charlie Chaplin : A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), Chaplin’s War Trilogy : An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947 combines biographical information with critical analysis to proffer illuminating insight into Chaplin’s exploration of dark comedy in his three war films Shoulder Arms (1918), The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The study is by no way restricted to the films mentioned in the title as Gehring strives to retrace a genealogy of Chaplin’s dark humor through a close examination of his early career, thus identifying a number of consistent themes that run through his filmography. Chaplin’s Essanay shorts and Mutual films provide a template for the development of dark comedy as a genre that allowed the “little fellow” to fashion his idiosyncratic style. Infused in the narrative are references to Gehring’s childhood cinema memories, experiences that might account for his long-lasting scholarly interest in the comedy genre. Gehring’s reading of Chaplin’s evolving practise is enriched by his background as a historian, which permits him to situate each film in context and to explain the wave of ‘Chaplinitis’ or Chaplin-mania that helped kick off the 1918 bond tour organized to support America’s entrance into the war in 1917. Chaplin’s dark humor seems to permeate Gehring’s writing style as he recounts various anecdotes and quotes from an array of primary sources (including newspapers) that help the reader understand the context in which the director devised his art of black humor. The book further includes photographs that convey a behind-the-scenes look into the private life of the “most famous man in the world” [31, 54, 78] and cartoons that give a glimpse of his influence in popular culture [34, 64].
Arguing that the “catalyst for Chaplin comedy often came from the most macabre realities” , Gehring delves into the creative process that undergirded the Tramp’s performances and the extent to which they articulated Chaplin’s anti-war stance. The staples of dark comedy spice up his films and add a distinct touch of the macabre to his war narratives. Gehring gives a multitude of examples showing how the macabre weaves itself into his comic scenes, underlining the absurd of situations which, he contends, the following axiom aptly epitomizes: “Life is a tragedy in close-up, and a comedy in long shot” . The use of title cards in Shoulder Arms is a case in point; “I surrounded them” reads the intertitle after Charlie single-handedly brings back a platoon of enemy prisoners . Gehring is able to retrace the evolution of Chaplin’s black humor by focusing on the tropes that repeatedly crop up in his filmography – including the figures of dogs, children, and objects used to set up “visual puns” . While triggering laughter, the mistaking of one look-alike object for another often allows for a casual treatment of death – which Gehring defines as another element of dark comedy. The Gold Rush implicitly refers to the tragic adventure of the 19th-century Donner Party, whose members resorted to cannibalism when stranded in the mountains, when Charlie and Mack feast on the Tramp’s boots [12, 80]. The application of dark comedy to war film further highlights the “man as beast” metaphor that allows Chaplin to critique the pointless motives of the conflict. “I wanted to shock everyone”  he observed, thus using black humor as a genre-bending tool. While this is a strategy that gained the Little Tramp worldwide fame from the 1910’s to the 1930’s, The Great Dictator caused his fall from critical and popular favor. Gehring explains that the film represented “an application of dark comedy for which neither the filmmaker nor the public was yet prepared” . Hynkel’s ballet-like performance with the balloon adds a sexual dimension to his black humor, an aspect that was further developed in Monsieur Verdoux and subsequent films.
As the twelve chapters of the book unfold, more and more space is given to the negative responses aroused by Chaplin’s dark humor, pointing out a growing rift between the comedian and his American audience. While aficionados of the Little Tramp condoned Chaplin’s sexual scandals, the accusations leveled against his communist sympathies tarnished his career after 1940. It may be striking to view Monsieur Verdoux as part of the war trilogy, considering the film is based on the notorious story of French wife-killer Henri Landru. Nonetheless, Gehring contends that a civilian life is “not a demilitarized zone” , for Verdoux’s serial murders metaphorically evoke war killing. Each film articulates a personal statement of the “citizen artist” , which attracted the attention of the HUAC and led to the denial of his re-entry visa during a trip to England in 1952 .
Following the chronology of Chaplin’s filmography, which permits her to retrace the artistic evolution of his approach to improving film techniques, Donna Kornhaber identifies the staples of his style as expressive of a “profound philosophical skepticism” . Although the scholar never mentions the notion of dark humor that Gehring associates with Chaplin’s slapstick, Kornhaber underlines the director’s distinctive use of the genre by comparing his early films with Harold Lloyd’s and Buster Keaton’s. Placing Chaplin in the context of early cinema in the first chapter permits the scholar to outline the basic tenets of his filmmaking and storytelling, drawing attention to the treatment of space that characterizes the mise-en-scene of his silent films. Chaplin’s theatrical background influences camera placements: “unwilling to subdivide space for narrative emphasis, Chaplin pushes all the action to the front”  in his shorts. Drawing on a wide variety of theoretical and film history sources, Kornhaber portrays the singularity of Chaplin as a filmmaker who refused to compromise his conception of space and editing to comply with narrative demand. A close examination of Chaplin’s early filmmaking techniques reveals his determination not to abide by those narrative and editing techniques that Griffith employed in Birth of a Nation, helping shape classical Hollywood style. Arguing that Chaplin’s slapstick comedies differ from the style of 1920s’ Hollywood legends Lloyd and Keaton, Kornhaber depicts a context of production that contrasts his Little Tramp persona with Lloyd’s boyish physical features and Keaton’s playful actions and stunts. Chaplin’s independence from the studio system allowed him to pursue a career that was denied to the stars whose heyday ended with the transition to sound.
The second chapter emphasises the notion of movement that, according to Kornhaber, blossomed in Chaplin’s films of the silent era. Kornhaber notes that Lloyd’s and Keaton’s iconic status relies on “still frames” that are almost impossible to find in Chaplin’s films because his “comedy unfolds not in a series of individual comic set-pieces but in a stream of ongoing movements and interactions – with objects, with other figures, with the world around him” . While Chaplin explores spatial composition to design the choreography of bodies that propels the narrative, his commitment to “unbroken filmic space” – an aspect that was often deemed as “primitivism”  – is also significant of a philosophical stance. Chaplin makes use of framing to produce misperceptions that are actually sources of ambiguity; his world is in a perpetual flux as one object can be used for another, which generates a sense of openness in the narrative that acts as a counterpoint to the necessary closure that prevails in classical cinema. Interesting pages are devoted to Limelight, that Kornhaber views as a “piece of mediation” between the silent and sound eras , considering Chaplin incorporates sounds to direct the viewer’s gaze at diegetic elements, for instance undermining the authority of public speakers by using saxophone mouthpiece sounds that provide “a joke on the technical reality of talkies” .
The third chapter quite logically focuses on Chaplin’s adaptation to the sound era; Kornhaber notes that Chaplin creatively combines sound and visual images to demonstrate that “speech itself can harm, and speech itself can control” in The Great Dictator. The microphones bend away from Hynkel’s hateful delivery, displaying traces of the silent slapstick that the director did not relinquish for sound. Chaplin’s late films nonetheless indicate a shift: the title “substituting speech for style”  aptly describes a turn in the filmmaker’s approach to filmmaking. There is no role for the Little Tramp in Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight and A King in New York; Chaplin engaged with dialogue in a newfound manner, dramatizing the philosophical message he wished to put across. With such assertions as “This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it” , Monsieur Verdoux makes Chaplin’s self-conscious thoughts public. Chaplin’s late films were imbued with political meaning, which caused many critics and viewers to lament the disappearance of the amusing Little Tramp. Kornhaber does not perceive a single touch of dark humor in these late productions although she observes intertextual references that introduce a self-reflexive dimension, making Chaplin “the persistent critique to what the cinema became in Griffith’s wake” .
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