Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Little Tramp Goes to War. . .

I've been reading and enjoying Glen David Gold's new novel Sunnyside, which follows three Americans - one of them Charlie Chaplin - during the last years of the First World War. The novel begins with a surreal event - hundreds of apparent Chaplin sightings are reported all over the U.S. including one by a lighthouse keeper, named Lee who tries to rescue him in a storm.

Chaplin spent part of the war touring America to help raise money for liberty bonds, but he also made the silent movie Shoulder Arms in 1918. Having enjoyed Blackadder's take on the trenches, I was curious to see what an early comedy would make of the war. The movie is packaged with other shorts from those early days - including Sunnyside - on a DVD entitled The Chaplin Revue. While studio execs worried that the movie would be negatively perceived as making fun of the soldiers and the carnage, Chaplin was such a star that he could pretty well do whatever he wanted. And I quite enjoyed the movie's portrayal of the absurdity of war. There are scenes of Chaplin trying to keep pace with the marching soldiers while in tramp shuffling mode, scenes dealing with all the rain and mud in the trenches and a hilariously silly episode where he is sent to infiltrate enemy lines disguised ridiculously as a tree. In his dreams he captures the Kaiser and saves a beautiful woman.

There's another connection between Hollywood and the First World War that is revealed in this entertaining novel: the original Rin Tin Tin was rescued from a bombed building in France during the war by Lee Duncan, an American serviceman (and character in Sunnyside) and brought to America where the dog also became a huge Hollywood star. I'm always interested in contemporary fictional takes on the war and Gold's novel was original, well-written and fascinating in terms of its look at American war propaganda and the part that the rising film industry played.

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