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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Comparing Best Of Old With Newest Of New

Deadwood, South Dakota Gets Comedy's Greatest Since Shoulder Arms For Thanksgiving 1935

Suppose they took a poll in 1926 ... 1927 ... or 1935 ... to name the Greatest Of All Comedies so far made. What, or whose, would head the list? From ad evidence here, Shoulder Arms appears to have been at or near the top. It came back, and often, after acclaimed first-runs during 1918 and through '19. San Francisco's Strand Theatre played an "Exclusive First Run" for two weeks at thirty cent evening admission, loges at forty, not what you'd call cheap seats ninety-five years ago ("All Prices Include War Tax"). I guess it's safe to say that Shoulder Arms made the biggest impression of any Chaplin comedy up to that time. He'd not ring the bell so loudly again until The Kid three years later. Chaplin would lease his First National comedies to Pathé for 20's reissue. Their merchandising emphasized Shoulder Arms' growing repute as funniest among Chaplin comedies, a best of all laugh-makers, in fact. The two Rialto dates shown below represent 1926 (accompanying feature Diplomacy), and but a year later, Shoulder Arms back and billed over Children Of Divorce, with Clara Bow.

Pathe Ad For Chaplins To Come in 1925
MGM had no vested interest in Shoulder Arms, but cited it still as benchmark against which their 1935 release, A Night In The Opera, would be measured. The ad at top was not homemade by Deadwood Theatre (South Dakota) staff, being instead part of suggested campaign material supplied by Metro in Opera's pressbook. Was Shoulder Arms indeed settled by 1935 as the Greatest of Comedies to that date? The film would have been out of circulation for a while. To my knowledge, there was no pre-1935 reissue with added track or effects, as had been case with Chaplin's Mutual shorts, revived by RKO during the early thirties. Shoulder Arms wouldn't come back to meaningful extent until packaged in 1959 for The Chaplin Revue, where it joined other First National shorts A Dog's Life and The Pilgrim.

 Spring 1927 Trade Ad For Shoulder Arms Revival
The 1927 run with Clara Bow may well have been among last Shoulder Arms sightings for quite some decades, leaving fans given toward nostalgia to  recall it as funniest of all. Was Shoulder Arms' legend enhanced for being out of circulation? I understood it to be a Chaplin best for quite a while before catching up finally to a print and being disappointed. Part of that may be modern presentation, Shoulder Arms among ones that Chaplin monkeyed with for authorized reissues (stretch-printing ... alternate, and some say, lesser takes pressed into latter-day service because primary negatives were worn out). The film is Public Domain now and there are purists who have made earlier versions of Shoulder Arms available on DVD, these sourced from surviving 16mm that date in some instances back to the 20's. So how far afield is the Shoulder Arms we see today from what 1918 and later silent era audiences called Chaplin's, or anyone's, finest?

More of Chaplin, Shoulder Arms, and his First National comedies at Greenbriar Archive here.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Now you have made me want to acquire a copy of the PD version of SHOULDER ARMS.

Much prefer original version of THE KID and THE GOLD RUSH to Chaplin's later re-issues.

Can you suggest where to acquire the best copy of PD SHOULDER ARMS?

12:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Don't know offhand who sells the PD "Shoulder Arms," but I understand there are several distributors that have it.

4:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some Chaplin observations:

It seems odd, but I've loved films for so many years--seeking out the good and the not so good, but always for the love of them--and yet I've never seen "Shoulder Arms." A few stills, perhaps a clip or two, but that's all.

You suggest what a phenomenon Chaplin was, like a great tidal surge, utterly overwhelming. It reached far inland. Even much later, when the medium with which he established his popularity--the silent film--was no more, and when he had withdrawn more and more to the splendors of a self-imagined life, there was never a time when his artistic expressions were considered unworthy of interest.

Such expressions of the mature Chaplin were shadowed by melancholy, as though he realized that however high he might reach, there was no good thing he could hold. The lesson, which he never quite learned, was that love can never be a possession, but only something given freely. Then one has it all the more.

He also lost his way at times. The great passion which fused disparate elements into the sustained brilliance of "The Gold Rush" or "City Lights," most of the Mutuals and many of those made under the fabulous First National contract--perhaps including "Shoulder Arms"--had cooled or at least found other, maybe better avenues.

There was a lasting marriage, at last, with a sweet, lovely young woman, and children, not all of whom thought him a stranger.

I've never been carried away by Chaplin, even when inundated. I remember a college showing of "The Gold Rush," and how the floor of that old lecture hall seemed to shudder with each wave of hilarity. But I sense that the acquaintance ought to renewed.

Thank you.


4:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Historian Richard M. Roberts does a beautiful job of summing up "Shoulder Arms" and its tangled afterlife:

Another great Greenbriar article in which you hit the nail on the head. SHOULDER ARMS was indeed Chaplin’s hugest Comedy Hit at the time it came out and continued to be the benchmark in which his and others comedies were judged for a long time after. This is one of the things I get snarky with Chaplin “experts” who tend to dismiss it today as being mechanical and a “lesser” Chaplin. The main reason it was a huge hit is the timeliness of it, it came out soon after the Armistice was signed and folk could feel a bit more comfortable about laughing at the War, but the other reason it was so successful, and this is what most of the Chaplin experts miss, is that it was truly original for the time. No other comics had really dared to make fun Of War, and especially a current war in this instance, before Chaplin, and the returning soldiers (and the ones still in Europe waiting to be shipped home) understood the jokes in far too well. Today, after being buried in buddy war comedies, SHOULDER ARMS looks a bit to regulation, but it is the reason all of those other War Comedies exist in the first place, like many true pioneering efforts, it now looks clichéd thanks to all that came and stole from it after.

But it is indeed also true that we are not seeing the same SHOULDER ARMS that our Grandaddies and Great-Grandaddies saw. I have three prints of SHOULDER ARMS, all of them quite different from each other. Chaplin shot two negs for domestic and foreign, and apparently the original A neg was worn out making prints for the first run. The Pathe reissues were made from the B foreign neg, and is still apparently different from the original A neg prints.

By the time Chaplin began to think about reissuing the First National shorts in the 1940’s. he apparently had to have Rollie Totheroh assemble a new C and D neg on SHOULDER ARMS from the outtakes, as the original A and B negatives were too worn to make new prints of, and these cobbled-together versions are what ended up being stretch-printed for THE CHAPLIN REVUE. I have a Kodascope of the Pathe reissue, which is a lot better than the CHAPLIN REVIEW version, but it is apparently different from the original version. David Shepard claims to have seen an original First National print in some foreign archive, and he says it’s a whole different film. Of course, the Chaplin estate now won’t allow anything else but the CHAPLIN REVIEW version to be released these days, which is a pity, about the best you can do video wise is Shepards old Image DVD, which used the CHAPLIN REVIEW material but without the stretch printing, but also added the deleted scenes as extras.

I also have a pirated edition made some time in the 30’s, which has many variant takes but still does not seem to be the original A neg version. Sadly, Chaplin prints were run to ribbons and Chaplin was good at getting all prints returned to them and destroyed after exhibition, so who knows if we’ll ever really see the absolute original version. Same with A DOGS LIFE, I have four different prints of that, all very variant, including a South American original First National release and a print that does indeed appear to be an original First National release version but is from a very beaten and worn pre-print and only runs two reels.

In any event, hope this helps.

Wishing You and Ann a Happy Thanksgiving,


4:54 AM  

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