Archive for September 7, 2022

In the Ghetto

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2022 by dcairns

The Ghetto scenes are perhaps THE GREAT DICTATOR’s weaker inventions — it’s harder to mine comedy from nice people being nice, and the problem of how to depict the actual depredations of the Nazi state in a satire become more pressing. But they’re not terrible, or embarrassing, just occasionally uncomfortable.

Chaplin descends from the GHETTO sign using his new crane, and tracks through the environment (another T-junction naturally) as two Hynkel goons approach. Sliding past them he discovers a doorway to a courtyard and follows a civilian in.

The two main exposition guys, the gloomy Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch) and the perky Mr. Mann (Bernard Gorcey, yes, father of Leo) exchange reflections on Hynkel’s speech and the barber’s condition, without ever noting the curious resemblance between the two, and then Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, artfully smudged, is introduced.

Chaplin and Goddard had separated by this point, but still apparently got along, so she gets to be the only repeat leading lady of the feature films.

The introduction — a potted biography by Jaeckel, followed by another crane shot, drifting upwards of its own accord to capture her exit from the house — is clumsy enough to recall Billy Wilder’s dismissal of Chaplin as a talking picture man: “like a child of eight writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth.” One can accept the statement as being somewhat just, some of the time, without it actually being a deal-breaker: yes, this dialogue is certainly clumsy, but it’s somewhat beside the point. The key stuff in the film is not dialogue-dependent, until we come to the end.

“The airy-airy-airy-airy-Aryans,” is not a good song. I suspect it was left to the actors to make it up on the day. But that’s fine. Why give the bastards a good song? Chaplin could, of course, have written “authentic” Tomainian lyrics, but the stormtroopers are not supposed to be entertaining. They do use humour as part of their malevolence, in the manner of bullies everywhere. But they’re not allowed to be funny, which is good.

Among those playing stormtroopers in this film are: Hank Mann, the main prize-fighter from CITY LIGHTS, a Chaplin collaborator since A FILM JOHNNIE, ie Chaplin’s first year in movies… this is his last Chaplin perf but he kept acting until 1961; Eddie Gribbon (Canvasback in the JOE PALOOKA films); Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes in the FALCON films); George Lynn, who’s also in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The Lubitsch film reminds me: the Great Ernst said he was treating Nazis differently in his film than was customary. His Nazis are not smirking sadists, enjoying their work. They’ve been doing this for years, and they’re BORED of the incessant cruelty. It’s a very smart choice: Chaplin’s thugs have dated — you can understand him saying that if he’d known about the true conditions in Germany he couldn’t have made the film. Portraying them as thugs, bullies, gangsters, was the best solution most filmmakers could find to the problem of this unfamiliar variety of evil, making it comprehensible in some way to US audiences. But it diminishes the true evil.

Still, there’s something I like about Hollywood films with American actors playing Nazis — THE MORTAL STORM, for instance. Hynkel is specifically Tomainian — he has his own personal language, which besides him only Herring seems to speak. His hoods are just like everyone else, but worse.

What I’m getting at is that Nazism is a worse form of evil than any mere criminality, but as we’re increasingly seeing today it’s not necessarily specific to a race or nationality. Also, Lubitsch’s Nazis seem less inadequate as a dramatic depiction because they’re not trying to seem evil or vicious, just businesslike, banal, bored.