Hynkel, Hynkel, Little Tsar

Skipping lightly over the meet-cute with Paulette and the second run-in with stormtroopers, where the barber is saved by the timely arrival of Schultz (who, of all people, ought to notice the barber’s curious resemblance to der fooey)m we return gratefully to the activities of the OTHER Chaplin.

The real Hitler’s life was governed by lassitude — he did, essentially, nothing, outside of his crap painting and his military service, even when faced with poverty. As leader of Germany, he likewise did as little as possible. So Chaplin’s dynamic, manic, busybusybusy Hynkel is more like a parody of a Hollywood studio boss — I wonder which? Long hours, ceaseless frenetic activity (all of it ego-boosting), different tasks chopped up into bite-sized portions, everyone waiting on his convenience. It’s definitely a Hollywood thing. Objectified flunkies (like DeMille’s chair-carrier), and making snap judgements on other people’s work, molesting his secretary. And the huge office. Harry Cohn had a giant office modelled on Mussolini’s. He spoke about visiting Mussolini (and his top director, Capra, kept a framed photo of Il Duce), with wonderment at the electric gizmo that allowed him to open the door from his desk when a visitor was leaving. “That son of a bitch!” Cohn told a visitor. And then opened the door with his own duplicate gizmo.

I love this sequence. The crazy outsized sets — one grand palatial lobby with stairway exists just so that Chaplin can trip while crossing it. It may appear elsewhere in the movie, but its sheer excessiveness in this sequence is a marvel — comparable to the moment in PLAYTIME where Hulot opens a door and startles a whole boardroom at a fancy table in a grand shiny set — which is never glimpsed again.

The spot gags are lovely — the bulletproof jumpsuit and the parachute hat (modelled by Sig Arno, Toto from THE PALM BEACH STORY and one of the few Germans in the film). The speed is impressive. The brutal blackness of the comedy very modern. With the operettafilm lavishness, the constant movement in and out of doors, the parodic grandeur, the sequence has hints of Lubitsch: the great Ernst touched base with Chaplin before via A WOMAN OF PARIS/THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, and would make his own, quite different anti-Nazi film a few years from now.

Fiona finds a relationship between the violent, fatal jokes here, and The Goon Show — a radio series which had its origins in shellshocked veteran Spike Milligan’s WWII experiences, and in the English tradition of absurdity. Chaplin’s music hall origins are no doubt an influence on his combining slapstick with sparse dialogue.

The sequence ends with some non-comic exposition — Garbitsch’s plan to borrow money from the banker Epstein. Hynkel’s “Let’s be big” is the only humour attempted. But Hynkel’s posing by the mirror, and the large bronze bust of him, result in a “doubling” effect perhaps intended to reflect upon the unremarked existence of a certain barber…

Sidenote: Henry Daniell, who plays Garbitsch, was a popular villain actor. Rarely anything else. But his first movie role was a lead, in the first, silent version of THE AWFUL TRUTH. He played the Cary Grant role.


7 Responses to “Hynkel, Hynkel, Little Tsar”

  1. Had to respond and say thank you for that wonderful headline!

    Danno Sullivan

    *** Expertease Podcast Parody – “The World’s Most Expert Experts” Free subscription: https://FunnyPodcast.co

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Recall reading that Hitler was acutely aware of being socially inferior to his aristocratic generals, just as self-made Hollywood moguls were surrounded by financial and creative elites. Hence the need for spaces that screamed the occupant’s alpha status and the visitor’s insignificance.

    Later variant: During the boom days of Silicon Valley, tech companies erected campuses rather than imposing headquarter buildings. Their founders were mostly nerds in their youth, and these sprawling facilities could be taken as fantasy versions of high school and college. The difference being, on these campuses they were the cool kids, the rich kids, the jocks, and the bullies.

  3. Parenthetically I think another very overlooked origin of the Goon Show is good old Ink and Paint. Part of what made Milligan seem so revolutionary was his embrace of the American: Tex Avery, Goofy, the Marx Brothers (it’s even there in his choice of name.)

  4. Henry Daniell was a better actor than his somewhat stereotyped roles would suggest.
    He goes toe to toe with Karloff for best career performance in “The Body Snatcher”.

  5. Excellent in The Suspect, too, in a role presumably planned for George Sanders (“I’m a rotter”). A fave of Cukor, also worked for Minnelli (a fine Theo Van Gogh in Lust for Life), Wilder, and a regular in the Sherlock Holmes films with Rathbone & Bruce. Always welcome, with his increasingly papery eyebags that make him look like he’s wearing spectacles made of skin.

  6. I’m fond of his performance in “Mister Cory” as the imperious boss who lords it over Tony Curtis’s busboy; Tony gets his own back by employing him once he makes it big.

  7. I would like to see his silent Awful Truth, I’m not sure it survives, and I know Leo McCary invented/improvised a lot of his version…

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