Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Charlie Chaplin on Wall Street: The tale behind the 1918 photo



The comedy legend Charlie Chaplin was born 125 years ago today in London, so I thought I'd use the opportunity to re-post one of my favorite photographs of Wall Street.

In the 1918 photo above, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks draw tens of thousands to Wall Street and the foot of the United States Sub Treasury building (i.e. today's Federal Hall) to drum up support for World War I war bonds (or, more precisely, Liberty Bonds).

The United States had entered the conflict the prior year, on April 6, 1917, and began selling bonds to raise funds for the war effort.  Although many Americans were caught up in a patriot fervor, war bond sales were initially quite weak.  Most Americans in the late 1910s had never bought a bond of any kind.

To promote sales, the government began enlisting celebrities from several fields of entertainment, most notably motion pictures.  Since the New York area was filled with film stars -- Hollywood not yet being the center of the film business -- its streets were soon filled with dutiful movie stars, extolling the patriotic and moral virtues of supporting their county through bond sales.

My favorite instance of this was the sale of doughnuts -- considered a symbol of wartime -- on the street by glamorous movie stars like Martha Mansfield.  The Sub Treasury building, New York's largest bond repository, was often the center of such rallies and fund drives.  (There were even doughnut auctions held on the steps here.)  It made sense to bring the biggest stars to the Sub Treasury to drum up the most publicity.

And so, on April 9, 1918, as the New York Tribune headline goes, "20,000 Throng Wall Street to Hear Movie Stars Tell How To Win War."

Chaplin threw himself into the war effort, embarking on a nationwide tour to promote the sale of bonds.  That year he would make a propaganda film called The Bond:



But there may have been a bit of self-promotion in his appearance at the Sub Treasury.  His film A Dog's Life would conveniently open in movie theaters five days later.

People weren't used to hearing their movie stars speak in 1918.  "I never made a speech before in my life," he proclaimed through a megaphone that noon, standing in front of the statue of George Washington. "But I believe I can make one now."



The dashing Fairbanks -- known for swashbucklers and romances -- happily broke character, goofing around with Chaplin to the delight of the crowd.  "Folks, I'm so hoarse from urging people to buy Liberty bonds that I can hardly speak."

As eager as audiences were to hear their matinee idols, it was their horseplay that caused the greatest satisfaction:

"It was difficult for the lay ear to determine whether Chaplin or Fairbanks got the most enthusiastic reception.   But there one was feature that got more than either. That was the combination of Chaplin and Fairbanks.   The later carried the former around on his shoulders, and the 20,000-odd crowd howled with delight."


Afterwards, Fairbanks and vocalist Harvey Hindemeyer led the crowd in a rendition of "Over There," the American war anthem written by Broadway impresario George M. Cohan the previous year. (The story behind that song was featured in our podcast on the birth of the Broadway musical.)

Mary Pickford was also on a war bonds tour through America at this time.  The following year, Pickford, her secret lover Fairbanks, Chaplin and the film director D.W. Griffith would start the film studio United Artists.


2 comments:

  1. look at all the people! amazing.

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  2. Much of that area is boxed out with security gates now, but it's mind-boggling to see how many people could stand there.

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