Facial Hair Friday: Charlie Chaplin

Today’s Facial Hair Friday post comes from Callie Belback in the National Archives History Office. It’s on Charlie Chaplin, who, while in character, wore one of the more iconic fake mustaches in history.

In 1972, five years before his death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Charlie Chaplin an Honorary Award for the “incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art form of this century.” Remembered for his comedic acting in silent films, especially for his character Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin starred in, wrote, and directed some of the most memorable films of the 20th century. When in character as Little Tramp, Chaplin wore the iconic mustache that is almost synonymous with his name.

By 1915, Chaplin had become his own director. Working with Essanay Studios for $1,250 a week, Chaplin produced 12 different two-reeler films, among them The Tramp (1915), The Vagabond (1916), and Easy Street (1917). In April of 1917, however, President Woodrow Wilson announced the United States’ entrance into World War I. Patriotic fervor was high, and men and women all across the country endeavored to contribute to the war effort. The press criticized Chaplin for not enlisting to fight. However, Chaplin contributed to the war effort in another way: by selling bonds.

In order to fund the military, the United States Government began selling special bonds named Liberty Bonds. Initially, bond sales were quite weak. In 1917, most Americans had never bought a bond of any kind and were unfamiliar with the process. To promote the sale, the U.S. Government enlisted help from entertainment celebrities. 

Charlie Chaplin making his first speech for the third Liberty Loan in front of the State, War, and Navy Building, Washington, DC, on the first anniversary of U.S. entry into war, 4/6/1918. (National Archives Identifier 530715)

On April 6, 1918, the first anniversary of the United States’ participation in World War I, Chaplin stood in front of the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington, DC (now named the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) and spoke in front of a large crowd, extolling the benefits of the Third Liberty Bond campaign. Regaling the audience with humor and patriotic sentiment, Chaplin became an official public figure for the U.S. Liberty Bond. Throughout the war, he traveled around the United States to spread the “Buy Liberty Bonds” slogan. 

His efforts even enabled him to meet the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and future President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A few months later, on September 16, 1918, Frank R. Wilson, Director of Loan Publicity, announced a new campaign that included 35 different film productions. The actors and managers involved in the films financed the production themselves, at an estimated $1 million in cost. These films were to be distributed around the country, and they advertised the benefits of participating in the Fourth Liberty Bond campaign. 

Chaplin named his film The Bond. The film constituted four different sketches that illustrated the benefits of various bonds such as the bond of friendship, marriage, and of course the Liberty Bond. A British variant was also produced, one that swapped out the Uncle Sam cameo for John Bull and the name of Liberty Bonds replaced with War Bonds. 

Chaplin was so successful at his war efforts that an English gelding was named after him. On July 14, 1919, “Charlie Chaplin,” the horse, was paraded in the Paris Peace Parade in celebration of the end of the war.

Charlie Chaplin is well known for his contribution to American entertainment culture and, indeed, his famous fake facial hair. However, his undertaking in support of the U.S. war effort is a major contribution worth noting.

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