The Bond (29 September 2018)

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Release Date: 29 September 1918

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 10 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Sydney Chaplin, Dorothy Rosher

Story: The bonds of friendship, love, and marriage are explored in a series of vignettes, culminating in the Liberty Bond, which takes the shape of an outsized mallet the Little Tramp uses to knock out the Kaiser (Sydney Chaplin).

Production: As if in response to the long-running criticism he’d been receiving over his lack of participation in the war effort on behalf of either Britain or the US, in the spring of 1918 Charlie Chaplin embarked upon a tour promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds (launched in June 1917), securities used to fund the American war effort. He wasn’t alone in this endeavour, being paired up with Hollywood pals Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Teaming with the ‘king of Hollywood’ Fairbanks and ‘America’s sweetheart’ Pickford was a smart move and helped to rehabilitate Chaplin in the eyes of the American movie going public. It was not as though he’d been idle, though, having already signed 3000 photos for a Red Cross auction and donated many thousands of boxes of candy for soldiers’ care parcels.

Bond07Despite his past in vaudeville in the UK and touring America, Chaplin was apparently nervous about the requirement to give serious public speeches, essential a sales pitch on behalf of the war bonds movement. He came straight onto the tour from working on editing A Dog’s Life, setting out in early April 1918, and was reportedly so exhausted he simply slept for two whole days on the train taking him, Pickford and Fairbanks from Los Angeles to Washington. Chaplin needn’t have worried about whether he had a facility for such public speaking—once he’d warmed to the huge crowds that turned out to see the stars, he had no trouble exhorting each and every one of them to part with their hard-won cash to fund the American war machine (something that would seem contrary to his long-held principles). Of course, Chaplin would later use the form of public address in the climax of The Great Dictator (1940) to demolish such warmongering, speaking out passionately in the cause of peace.

Things didn’t go without incident, however. During that first stop in Washington, Chaplin got carried away, falling off the platform (along with his Marie Dressler, his Tillie’s Punctured Romance co-star) erected at a football field for their speeches and comically landing on top of the secretary of the navy, one Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chaplin later met President Wilson at the White House, and declared himself singularly unimpressed by the encounter.

Bond00There is a famous photo of Chaplin held aloft by Fairbanks, addressing a crowd of thousands (estimated say 30,000) at their next stop, Wall Street in New York. The crowds had been gathering since early morning on 8 April 1918 to see the stars who were scheduled to appear around noon. On the corner of Broad Street and Wall Street, Fairbanks allowed Chaplin to climb upon his shoulders, no doubt wary after the incident that had happened in Washington. Chaplin immediately got the crowd on his side with the disingenuous announcement: ‘Now listen! I’ve never made a speech before in my life, but believe me I can make one now!’ Perhaps Chaplin was simply playing a part when he demanded the audience part with their cash so America could ‘drive that old devil, the Kaiser, out of France’.

No doubt, Chaplin was only too aware he was being used by the Establishment for propaganda purposes, but he presumably thought this was a way to win back public favour and to avoid any further suspicion that he was not supportive of the war effort. This was a compromise he was willing to make in order to be allowed to continue to make the films he wanted, his way. While Pickford and Fairbanks headed north, Chaplin’s tour progressed to Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, then to New Orleans, all in the space of a few weeks. Chaplin found the effort and the travelling tiring, and he quit the planned three-week solo tour early, returning to Hollywood via a stop in Texas. The official cause given was simply ‘exhaustion’, although some media outlets reported that in personal appearances Chaplin, the great screen comedian, had been suffering from crippling stage fright. Alternatively, it is simply possible that the evident contradiction between his personal views about ‘the ogre of militarism’ and the shilling for war bonds was getting on top of him… His tour had, however, sold millions of war bonds and Chaplin himself had bought $350,000 worth, a small price to pay for a revival in public opinion towards him.

Chaplin was increasingly aware that he was neglecting his work and had spent a couple of months away from his brand new studio which lay idle—as long as he wasn’t working, neither was anyone else at his new studio. However, the time he’d spent on the Liberty Bonds tour was to impact his life greatly—the first part of the tour had served to cement his friendship with Fairbanks and Pickford, and he’d soon be joining with them in a radical new project…

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Back in Hollywood in early May 1918, Charlie Chaplin was desperate to get back to the work of filmmaking after his Liberty Bond tour duties. The idea of the Little Tramp going to war was irresistible to Chaplin, and he embarked upon a film called Camouflage (see Shoulder Arms). While making that one, though, he broke off in mid-August to make a propaganda short he’d promise to the Liberty Bond organisation. From 15 August 1918, the whole of the following week was given over to the creation of this film, eventually titled The Bond.

The ten-minute single reel short (685 feet in length) features Sydney Chaplin as the Kaiser, dressed in a uniform used for the work-in-progress Camouflage. The film was made up of four self-contained episodes each of which explores a different meaning of the word ‘bond’—friendship, love, marriage, and the Liberty Bond. Given the speed of production, Chaplin opted to use spare, almost expressionistic sets to suggest locations and backgrounds, resulting in one of his more artistic and experimental films. It is especially amusing when the Tramp hangs his cane from the crescent moon in the background. As well as Sydney Chaplin, the other members of the small cast were Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, and child actress Dorothy Rosher (as Cupid, hiding in the moon).

Bond04Under the ‘bond of friendship’, the Tramp (slightly more dapper than usual) meets Albert Austin beneath a lamp-post—all goes well until Albert asks for a loan. A particular vivacious and flirty Edna Purviance features in the ‘bond of love’ sequence, as she flirts with Chaplin on a park bench. Interestingly, given that his near future would include the film fantasy-suffused Sunnyside (1919), this sequence sees Cupid firing an arrow into Chaplin’s behind, causing him to float about as if in a ballet, before tying the pair together in silk bonds.

Bond02In the follow-up ‘bond of marriage’, Edna and Chaplin are seen at the altar, where everything is sweetness and romance, until the pastor performing the marriage demands payment, as do several others. Finally, the Liberty Bond sequence has Chaplin’s little fellow as a representative of ‘the people’, handing over their hard-won earnings and savings to ‘Uncle Sam’, who in turn funds the workers building the guns and ships for the war. The final scene has the Tramp set about the Kaiser with a huge mallet labelled ‘Liberty Bonds’—subtle it ain’t, but then it is unabashedly propaganda in intent. There was an alternative version made for British audiences where ‘Uncle Sam’ was replaced by ‘John Bull’, an equivalent British figure, in support of UK war bonds.

The resulting film was donated to the US Government who distributed to theatres across the country in the fall of 1918, with it playing repeatedly between September and December that year. Even though the war officially ended in November 1918, the fundraising effort continued.

NPG P283; Charlie Chaplin by Strauss-Peyton StudioAs well as the end of the war and the making of Chaplin’s war themed Shoulder Arms, the year 1918 also saw a dramatic change in Chaplin’s romantic life. Although she continued to appear in his films, things had cooled almost completely between Edna Purviance and Charlie Chaplin. Through letters Chaplin had reconnected with a friend from England, Hetty Kelly, writing to her in July 1918: ‘I am all that could be desired of a young man of 29 years. I am still a bachelor, but that is not my fault.’ He may have been technically correct in this claim, but by the middle of 1918 Charlie Chaplin had already met the woman who was to become his first wife: Mildred Harris.

Bond12HarrisA child actress since she’d been about 10, Harris was just 16 years old (she claimed to Chaplin to be 17) when she got involved with Chaplin. It was to be just the first of a series of romantic liaisons with younger women that were to get Chaplin into all sorts of hot water. Chaplin met Harris at a party at the beach house of Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s estranged husband. Actually their first meeting was in the back of director Eddie Sutherland’s car—she was already a passenger en route to the party when Sutherland stopped to pick up Chaplin to give him a ride. Sutherland recalled that Chaplin paid a huge amount of attention to Harris, both in the car and at the party after they arrived.

Chaplin’s ‘attention’ to young Mildred Harris resulted in her pregnancy and their marriage on 23 October 1918, just a few days after the release of Shoulder Arms (marriage being the only way to reasonably deal with the fact of her pregnancy back then in a socially-acceptable manner).

In his autobiography, Chaplin says little about Mildred Harris except to comment that he found her to be ‘no mental heavyweight’, which oddly seemed to suit him just fine, as he confided to Douglas Fairbanks. ‘I had no desire to marry an encyclopaedia,’ he noted, concluding that ‘to Mildred marriage was an adventure as thrilling as winning a beauty contest. She had no sense of reality. Although Mildred was young and pretty was I always to be in close proximity to her? Did I want that?’

Chaplin may have been a bit late in asking those questions after marriage, but the issue of the pregnancy came to naught as ‘after we were married, Mildred’s pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm’, raising the question of whether young Ms. Harris (or her ambitious mother, a movie studio wardrobe supervisor) had been wily enough to entrap the rich and not too old Charlie Chaplin into marriage? Either way, during the production of Sunnyside, which he had not enjoyed making, Chaplin concluded that ‘marriage was having an effect on my creative faculties’. In this case, this particular ‘bond of marriage’ was virtually doomed from then on…

Bond11Trivia: Building had commenced on Chaplin’s new studio in November 1917 and took three months, with Chaplin’s cameraman Rollie Totheroh filming much of the action. This spiralled into a bigger project to capture on film daily life behind the scenes at the studio, although Chaplin appeared to have no formal intention of making a film for public release from this material. Among the footage captured was Chaplin’s arrival at the studio, him putting on his Little Tramp outfit, and the comedy capers of Chaplin and several others from behind and in front of the camera, including Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, and Loyal Underwood playing cards. Chaplin is captured directing a (staged?) rehearsal and in attending to an actress’ hairdressing needs. There’s even footage of some fun taking place around the studio’s central asset, the pool. There was some vague thought of this material becoming a two-reel short under the title How To Make Movies (1918), but Chaplin concluded there would be limited public interest in the process. During the filming, Chaplin’s studio had been the location for his meetings with a series of famous and distinguished visitors, including Scottish performer Harry Lauder (pictured above), Winston Churchill, and Lord and Lady Mountbatten, many of whom Chaplin caught hamming it up on film.

Bond09Charlie Says: ‘We are all trying to appear modest and dignified … and genteelly indifferent to our personal ovations … We could see the crowds waiting for us, and we were all wondering whether the cheers were for Doug, or Mary, or Charlie, and sternly reminding ourselves that we were on a lofty patriotic mission and must comport ourselves accordingly … It was dreadfully thrilling. We at once adored these crowds and suspected them of invidious discrimination on behalf of each of use. And then, after the excitement had died down, we looked sheepishly at each other, and it took all our histrionic abilities to appear calm and unmoved, trying to look a bit blasé, as if we had been used to these wild national acclimations all our lives.’—Charlie Chaplin, interviewed by Alma Whitaker about the war bonds tour

Verdict: An odd propaganda-driven item, The Bond shows a different, almost neo-Expressionist side to Chaplin’s filmmaking, one rarely explored in his regular work. 

—Brian J. Robb

Next: Shoulder Arms [20 October 1918]

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

 

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