There’s something chilling? ironic? depressing? that this World War One centenary year is taking place at the very same time that World War Three, 3.5 or Four (depending on how you count) seems to be breaking out. I am really tired of things exploding onscreen and off. But…comedians have found things to laugh about even amidst the bleakness of warfare.
This month TCM is showing tons of movies about the First World War, and today, three famous comedies on the subject:
2:00pm (E.S.T.) The Better ‘Ole (1926)
I’m very excited about this one – -I’ve wanted to see it for ages, and never have. Based on a 1917 West End musical stage hit, it stars Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother. To learn more about Sydney, see my article here.) The film was directed by Chuck Reisner and was one of the very first Vitaphone films (there’s a music soundtrack but no dialogue or sync sound)
3:45am (E.S.T.) Shoulder Arms (1918)
Charlie Chaplin’s World War One comedy Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days. As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.
As comic subject matter this was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.
4:30pm (E.S.T.): Doughboys (1930)
Doughboys is Buster Keaton’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.
To learn more about silent and slapstick film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.