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Charlie Chaplin celebrated in the new exhibition at Deal Kent Museum of the Moving Image


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When the Kent Museum of the Moving Image reopens tomorrow, it will be with a new exhibition, celebrating a larger than life character, and actor, from the past.

While researching the exhibition World War One on Film and in the Media, managers at the Deal museum turned up some surprises, including the effect Charlie Chaplin had on the war effort.

Charlie Chaplin as the tramp
Charlie Chaplin as the tramp

His films were the staple fare of frontline cinemas for the troops and kept them both fighting and laughing.

He kept spirits up at what was possibly the most important time of all back at the beginning of the 20th century.

His emergence as the world's favourite film comedian coincided with the start of the First World War - so much so that his first film, Making a Living, appeared just six months before Britain (along with France and Russia) went to war.

But it wasn't just the morale of those back home that he boosted.

The curators of the Kent Museum of the Moving Image, in Deal, David Francis and Joss Marsh, say he was vital in keeping up the troops' morale (also known as Tommies).

The pair said: "It wasn't just the rum ration, or leave, or discipline, or courage. It was the world's most famous Tramp."

There is written evidence of this, as wartime poet Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother: "I absolutely worship Charlie Chaplin."

"It's a remarkable testimony, about a man branded a coward and a shirker for not returning to Britain, to serve, (and regularly sent white feathers in the post)," they said.

Garry Tower with the Chaplin standee set to appear at the Kent Museum of the Moving Image
Garry Tower with the Chaplin standee set to appear at the Kent Museum of the Moving Image

"From a man you might not expect to appreciate silent comedy, or the low-brow medium of cinema.

"But what Chaplin gave Owen, and his men, and millions more was the release, the healing, and the defiance of laughter."

Millions watched his antics in improvised and purpose-built front-line cinemas – in ramshackle sheds, in tents, in tunnels, in barns, and in bombed-out houses.

Films like Dough and Dynamite and The Bank were also shown in hospitals to shellshocked troops behind the lines or back home, as a kind of laughter therapy. They were even projected onto the ceiling, where the most injured could see them.

And it wasn't just the laughs that he gave people. The Tramp - Chaplin's famous character on screen - also became a symbol of wartime endurance through the use of his slapstick technique, so called after the real stick with which performers were lambasted in the Italian commedia d'arte.

Charlie Chaplin in The Circus
Charlie Chaplin in The Circus

The Tramp endured violence repeatedly, but also got back up, to fight another day, just as every soldier hoped to.

Chaplin also referred to his character as a "Little Fellow", standing for every man who volunteered or was conscripted in the war.

When the museum reopens on Friday, July 30, the exhibition, which also includes some rare Chaplin material and illustrations, will also feature a recreation of a life-size Charlie Chaplin "standee."

They were commonly stood outside cinema frontages - and sometimes pinched and taken to the trenches.

There they were set up to defy the "enemy", for whom Chaplin films were verboten.

"We know what the standee looked like, just as we know something about frontline cinemas," the couple said, "thanks to the research of our friend Dr. Nicholas Hiley."

Dr Hiley sent Kent MOMI two colour postcards featuring the Chaplin standee, by the king of saucy seaside postcards, Donald McGill.

From these, with talented local friends and volunteers - artist Julie Sumner; John MacLellan, digital editor and printer Garry Kemp - the museum has recreated the standee for the exhibition, and visitors can be snapped with it...for the first time in more than 100 years.

Just don't pinch it!

* The museum can be found at 41 Stanhope Road, Deal, CT14 6AD. Its summer opening hours are 11am to 6pm.

Find out more at kentmomi.org, call 01304 239515 or email info@kentmomi.org

For more days out across Kent click here.

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