The Sunday Intertitle: Behind the Seen

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2022 by dcairns

“You don’t count, I discount you. I give you the great laugh of all time, the laugh of acceptance — which melts you down.” Ray Bradbury in Kevin Brownlow’s doc The Tramp and the Dictator, attempting to summarise what Chaplin does to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and perhaps more accurately summarising the end of his own novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I wonder if he made the connection, and I wonder if he was in any way thinking of Chaplin, or Nazism, when he wrote the book. Dark & Cooger’s Pandemonium Carnival seems wholly a manifestation of supernatural evil, but maybe its cyclical behaviour, returning again and again to plague humanity, could be a gesture towards political madness and badness, which seems set on an eternal return of its own.

I miss Ray B.

The Brownlow documentary is excellent, of course.

When Kenneth Branagh narrates that two mysterious suitcases belonging to Sydney Chaplin were found in the Chaplin villa in Switzerland, I immediately flashed on how alarming it might be to have the job of opening them, knowing what we know about Syd’s proclivities. They might contain anything — the missing bits of the Black Dahlia, for instance. I’m barely even kidding here.

Instead, to our relief and gratification, we get Syd’s home movies, which include behind-the-scenes shots, in colour, of the shooting of THE GREAT DICTATOR. Also holiday film of topless native girls, filmed with a lascivious eye to the viewfinder. But that’s relatively innocent in comparison to Syd’s history of aggravated sexual assault (only one incident, so far as we know, but a singularly horrible one).

In the film of TGD’s ballroom scene, Syd seems to have his eye on an attractive blonde extra. I can only hope she escaped unscathed.

Interesting to see Chaplin and Grace Hayle dancing, from the wrong angle, with camera tremor, and in colour. When you see Keaton performing via a documentary camera in BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN, his stylisation becomes more apparent: he’s acting for THAT camera, not THIS one. Chaplin’s stylisation is nearly always apparent, I think. And Grace H. is always almost completely real, which is why we feel a bit sorry for her Madame Napaloni, even though we probably needn’t.

Later, when we see Billy Gilbert, NOT acting, laughing at something Chaplin has said, he seems as vaudevillian and exaggerated in life as he does when performing (above right, left of frame).

We also get to see Chaplin staging WWI in Woodland Hills, and the ghetto on the back lot, surrounded by Los Angeles with its palm trees, and everything is in too-gaudy colour, both more and less real than the scenes in the finished movie.

In this extra feature, made for the European DVD of TGD, my man Costa-Gavras goes deep on the world’s tolerant approach to Hitler as Chaplin set out to make his denunciation. Chaplin can seem naive and woolly, the self-educated man full of opinions he likes, but the fact is on Hitler he was bang on, and most of the rest of the world was horribly wrong.

He also talks about Napaloni’s arrival by rail, the scene I just discussed yesterday — he finds the clapped-together production values intriguing, and is sure Chaplin meant the cardboard production design to signify the emptiness, the deep falsity of the two dictators. And he sings the praises of Heinkel’s dance with the globe — and one might think of the Dance of the Eurocrats at the end of his most recent film, the criminally neglected ADULTS IN THE ROOM.

Oh yes, it’s Sunday, we need an intertitle. Brownlow’s documentary provides one, untranslated, as the VO notes “audiences did not respond to [Hitler] as a silent actor.” Despite the low angle framing, making the little man in short trousers look big, the vital element of the voice is missing. Hitler needed radio and talking pictures to convey his message beyond his immediate presence. They were invented at just the right time for him, and you might argue the wrong time for Chaplin.

God knows, Hitler’s actual words — “Germany’s freedom will rise again just as people and fatherland will resist, stronger than ever!” — are not particularly meaningful. They have the tone of prophecy rather than political analysis, which presumably worked in their favour, but you would need A.H.’s salesmanship to put them across.

Chaplin said Hitler was the greatest actor he’d ever seen.

More fun with Charlie and Adolf next week!

Benzino Napaloni

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2022 by dcairns

When I try to Google “Benzino” to see what, if anything, it’s a reference to, all I get is some rapper.

What we get in THE GREAT DICTATOR is Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni dictator of Bacteria, who is Benito Mussolini dictator of Italy, a gift to the caricaturist. Oakie questioned why Chaplin didn’t hire an Italian. “What would be funny about that?”

The two got on well, but enjoyed some of the same competitiveness as their characters, with Oakie keen to upstage Chaplin. “If you want to upstage me, turn and look right into the camera,” advised Chaplin, “That’ll do it every time.”

First, Hynkel bestows another medal on Herring (Billy Gilbert) — this requires a long speech in Tomainian/Gibberish — I haven’t remarked yet that this is sort of a logical evolution from the nonsense song in MODERN TIMES, which was fake Italian/French/Esperanto. Fake German is used to introduce Chaplin’s more verbose characters here, as if to prove he doesn’t need words with meanings, and he lapses into it throughout. He seems to be almost the only one who uses his native tongue.

Billy Gilbert hyperventilates with emotion throughout this. Goering loved medals, and Hitler would keep inventing new ones. The result here is that the large Gilbert frontage is almost entirely occupied, and Heinkel has to hunt hard to find a bare spot, punching the needle right into his underling’s rib cage like Travolta giving Thurman the adrenalin shot.

Using people as objects is a big Chaplin trope, and so Heinkel, wanting to kiss Herring, seizes hold of his ears to move his head down into position, shoving his fat slobbery face away once he’s finished with it. A certain fellow-feeling forces most thesps to avoid using their fellow troupers this way, but Chaplin has no such fellow-feeling. He’s the big man here.

Herring’s place in the sun, such as it is, doesn’t last long. First he accidentally headbutts der Fooey when everyone’s bowing, then the news comes in that Napaloni’s preparing to invade Osterlich. Herring, having failed to foresee this, is immediately in disgrace, his medals plucked from his breast like feathers from a chicken. All with a tirade in Tomainian. This continues until even his buttons are ripped off and his uniform is falling apart in yards of sailcloth.

Notable that Chaplin isn’t moved to attack Stalin for the Soviet-German non-aggression pact. This squabble with Napaloni and its resolution is effectively the Chaplinverse version of that.

Just as Heinkel is signing a declaration of war against Bacteria, the man himself is on the phone. Advised to “be nice,” Garbitsch applies the oil. We learn that Napaloni, like all the world’s most evil men, is a keen golfer. Heinkel, like the Jewish barber minutes before, assumes mutism, in his case to avoid speaking with N — he is evidently a coward as well as a bully. “Just now he’s a little hoarse. No, I mean he can’t talk.” Now, this is a dreadful joke, but I like it. The pun is not good or clever but the idea that Napaloni should imagine that just now Heinkel is a small horse is a fantastically stupid idea.

Rather weak scenic painting at the railway station as Napaloni is awaited. The buildings are pure L.S. Lowrie. I like the sweep of the station ceiling though.

The return of the bland radio announcer: well, it’s a public occasion, the news media would be there. Rather than Wheeler Dryden as Heinrich Schtick, it’s the more reassured American narrator.

Problems with the train — involving special effects which are just good enough to get the gag across. We meet Napaloni, who is too proud to get out without a carpet, and his long-suffering wife. The mistreatment of Mrs. Napaloni is one of the film’s meaner gags, but as the wife of a fascist leader she surely doesn’t deserve TOO much sympathy.

Chaplin had originally planned to give Heinkel a wife, and he’d planned for Fanny Brice to play her. That would certainly have upset the Nazis. The gag would have been that Heinkel is too busy plotting world domination to sleep with his wife, who is going out of her mind with sexual frustration. Undercutting the Fuhrer’s masculinity is a good idea, but Chaplin probably couldn’t have gotten that kind of thing past the censor even if he’d wanted — it was all going to be suggestiveness with bananas and stuff.

It seems to me that Napaloni’s accent has more to do with Chico Marx’s accent than with any real Italian’s. Oakie wasn’t known as a dialect comedian so it’s not surprising his attempt at the voice should be slightly second-hand. It begs the question, why wasn’t Chico engaged for the part, but I guess he was contracted elsewhere. And having a bigger guy with a big round face seems important for this role — though I note with surprise that Oakie isn’t much taller than CC.

Grace Hayle, who plays Mrs N, WAS something of a dialect expert, going by her varied credits. She plays the permanently exhausted and overheated dictator’s wife quite sympathetically. Her suffering is just to reinforce how awful these men are.

The upstaging begins — Heinkel has been anxious to get some favourable photos taken, but Napaloni is as skilled at photobombing as he is with the regular kind of bombardment. Now we get almost literal upstaging, as the two rulers compete as to who is standing further back in frame, and thus gets to be full-face in shot. Claude Rains in a two-shot with Gloria Stuart, trying to turn it into a single. Olivier with Michael Caine. (Mankiewicz responded by shooting a single closeup on Caine as coverage, and Larry didn’t try it again.) In this case, Hynkel nearly winds up under the train.

It’s unusual to see Chaplin playing a character who comes off worst in interactions, but then it’s unusual to see him not playing the Tramp.

“Tomainia,” declares Napaloni. “Verr’ nice.”

TBC

Escape, Capture, Escape

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on November 25, 2022 by dcairns

Short-lived bids for freedom in THE GREAT DICTATOR (cont).

A man hurries down the street, filmed from what looks like much the same high angle used earlier. Chaplin pulls off a rare (for him) Langian linkage, from everyone saying “Good night” in the previous scene, to the rushing informant here saying “Good morning.”

Word is out (somehow — doesn’t matter how) that Schultz is hiding in the ghetto. The Jewish barber is also wanted for questioning.

(I may have told this one before — reputedly genuine Nazi-era joke. A comedian had been making jokes about the regime — maybe the one about Hitler having a cheese named after him? — and is ordered to report to Gestapo HQ for questioning. He reports to the front desk and they ask him, “Do you have any offensive weapons?” He answers, “Why, will I need them?”)

Comedy business with Chaplin hiding in a small tea-chest (looks undercranked but isn’t), to the surprise of Mr. Mann (Bernard Gorcey).

The Jewish barber is sent to alert Schultz but reverts to silent comedy form under stress — he can’t get the words out. He does it in pantomime, but Reginald Gardner is not a fellow silent comedian so he doesn’t understand. “Did you tell him?” asks Hannah. “Yes,” says Chaplin, hilariously. It’s a slightly abstract humour — I mean, it isn’t funny just because it’s not true. Many things are not true, but not many things are funny. It seems to be funny because it’s OBVIOUSLY untrue and SORT OF true at the same time. Somehow that makes The J.b.’s “Yes” even more wrong.

Business with getting all Schultz’s things together so they can hide on the roof and leave no incriminating traces. Obviously they have to take Schultz’s golf clubs because they would be a dead giveaway. This leads to the J.b teetering on a roof beam out over the street, a hatbox obscuring his vision. This is almost a straight reprise of the blindfolded rollerskating by a ledge in MODERN TIMES. Engages the audience’s poignancy-dramatic irony-Oh no! factor.

I don’t know if Chaplin decided that the terror of high places was too useful a comic device to leave to Harold Lloyd, or if he saw this as a contest he could win. Quite a lot of Chaplin sequences us vertigo peril… THE GOLD RUSH and THE CIRCUS also have high-up suspense sequences. Lloyd tends to win on thrills because his staging is more convincing. Keaton beats all because he wasn’t, it seemed, overly concerned about dying. But Keaton doesn’t milk the mortal peril aspect as avidly as Lloyd.

At any rate, the Jewish barber is saved from a nasty plunge but manages to drop most of Schultz’s possessions into the street. Poor Schultz goes through a rapid loss of personal possessions, sort of like the divesting undergone by Monroe in RIVER OF NO RETURN or Tallulah in LIFEBOAT. Oddly, the heavy falling objects do not alert the stormtroopers. Best not to worry about that.

Nicely thought-out gag where the J.b. falls through a skylight into a bed, apologizes to the tenants, tries to leave by the door, is spotted by stormtroopers, retreats back into the flat, and is grabbed from above by fresh stormtroopers, who have also nabbed Schultz. The potential chase sequence is over before it started. Some strong angles here, but they’re not bravura touches for the sake of showing off, the low angles are pretty well naturally forced upon the camera by the situation.

Walking in step stuff at the prison camp. We can’t really call it a concentration camp because the cruelty involved was beyond Chaplin’s imagination at the time, probably beyond most people’s. The UK is running concentration camps now. Do we fail to revolt against this because we consider these sufficiently different in type or severity, or because we think it’s OK to concentrate the right kind of people, or because our imaginations fail us?

The Jewish barber goes to sleep. The cue for what was, at one point, going to be the cruelest twist ending in cinema: after the big speech at the end, he would WAKE UP, back in his prison camp bed, never having escaped. It would have been very strong. In a sense, it might have made the film even more relevant in a post-war world. But in 1940 it might have been intolerable.

Meanwhile, Hannah and her friends escape to Osterlich, where there are vineyards and a bucolic idyll of the SUNNYSIDE variety, only shorter. We know they’re not safe.

And now we return you to the palace of Adenoid Hynkel, awaiting a guest…

TO BE CONTINUED