Should Charlie Chaplin continue making films or enter the trenches? The controversy over the fact that the British actor was not fighting alongside his own people erupted in 1915. At the beginning of his fame, Chaplin was already faced criticism. Twenty-five years later, it was his turn to question moral and political convictions at the dawn of the Second World War.
In 1914, Americans discovered this young music-hall comedian on movie screens in Keystone’s burlesque films. Within a few months, Chaplin became one of their stars. His character was a hit with audiences, who loved his costume, movements and funny faces. Because of the First World War, distribution of his first short films to the old continent was delayed until 1915, but the Tramp become just as popular there, with both civilians and soldiers.
Chaplin did not leave his second home, but he bolstered the troops’ morale with his comedies. Nevertheless, he joined the war effort in 1918 by producing a short propaganda film in favor of the Third Liberty Loan. That same year, he filmed Shoulder Arms, in which a heroic Tramp succeeds in capturing the Kaiser. The film combines comic situations with the realism of the trenches. Released a few weeks before the Armistice, the film was a huge success.
Chaplin’s political consciousness sharpened even more during the interwar period, as did his concerns about the economy. The rise of fascism in the early 1930s worried this man who had become a staunch pacifist. He implemented a politically engaged cinema by filming The Great Dictator in 1939 and 1940. Chaplin painted a caricature of dictatorship, mixing irony and tragedy. Oppressed by society, the Tramp also plays the role of a Jewish barber. For his first full-ledged “talkie”, the filmmaker dared to say out loud what many would have preferred to keep silent.
The exhibition presented by the Musée de l’Elysée assembles original prints and vintage documents from the Chaplin Archives. The Archive's photographs were deposited at the museum in 2011. Film extracts (from Lobster, MK2, Gaumont Pathé Archives, Transit Film/Berlin Filmothek Bundesarchiv), photographs of the two world wars from the museum’s collection and posters from the Cinemathèque suisse and private collections enhance our understanding of Chaplin's stance towards History.