Archive for November 12, 2022

Most amusing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2022 by dcairns

THE GREAT DICTATOR, continued.

With carefully dreadful dramatic efficiency, the Jewish barber’s date with Hannah (Paulette Goddard) coincides with the state’s decision to start persecuting the Jews again. The same terrible story logic prevails in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF where a pogrom interrupts one of the daughters’ weddings. Efficient storytelling can seem rather crass in the face of real world horrors.

And everyone was having such a nice time. “That Hynkel isn’t such a bad fellow after all,” observes Hannah, before things kick off. “Most amusing,” agrees the barber, who at this stage in the narrative is not a deep political thinker, but is it seems a student of comedy.

The ghetto’s Hynkel button salesman is doing a roaring trade. Charlie orders two with a finger gesture known in the UK as a rude sign akin to “flipping the bird,” and reversed by Churchill a little later as the V for Victory sign.

When Hynkel starts broadcasting his antisemitic Tomainian bile through the loudspeakers, we dissolve to a big closeup with vaguely radiographic shadows behind him. This noir treatment isn’t pursued much elsewhere, as Hynkel has to appear at least as absurd as he is threatening, but when his words directly threaten the other Chaplin character, he has to be taken seriously. Such is the movie’s balancing act.

The barber returns the two buttons.

The button salesman is uncredited and though there are several ambiguous IMDb credits like “Ghetto man”, it’s not clear who he is. He looks a bit like Chaplin’s brother Syd, though, who was around shooting colour home movies of the set. Anyone else think it could be him?

Hynkel’s hate speech clears the ghetto like those bits in westerns when a duel is imminent. As Charlie and Paulette run for cover, the speech accelerates along with them, a witty and inventive touch that shows how deft Chaplin could be with sound. We can be glad he spent his whole youth in silent cinema, but if talkies had hit sooner I reckon he’d have given us even more audiovisual slapstick like this.

When the barber drops his derby, he goes back for it in the best Indiana Jones manner, and it becomes a kind of terrifying schoolyard game — as Hynkel’s rant drops in volume, Charlie is tempted to tiptoe towards the fallen hat, but then Hynkel suddenly shrieks louder and he scuttles to perceived safety.

A nice bit of “He’s behind me, isn’t he?” and a neat stormtrooper dodge, and then we dissolve into an even more alarming ECU of the dictator. There can’t be many ECUs in Chaplin’s oeuvre — I’m tempted to suggest this is the first. Correct me if you have another candidate.

It feels very much like a Karl Struss shot, rather than a Rollie Totheroh shot.

I just acquired Chaplin’s book My Life in Pictures, which is really good. It has this impressive still of Hynkel. It’s striking how seldom he appears like this in the movie, a scary, demonic maniac. He’s always somewhat alarming, of course, but Chaplin wants to give him the reductio ad absurdum treatment. Emphasizing his menace would probably have just flattered the Nazis. (We don’t know what Hitler thought of the film, though we’re told he ran it twice. He must have found it at least interesting, but he couldn’t have felt flattered by it.)

The arrival of more stormtroopers singing their moronic song — perhaps not fully understanding the Nazi threat, Chaplin stated that his main motivation in making the film was to mock the absurd racial claims of superiority — this arrival provokes Chaplin into some dramatic crane movement, hoisting the camera up as the protags retreat into their courtyard, then swooping down on Hannah as she dissolves into hysterics. Supposedly Chaplin had never seen a camera crane before 1939 and thought it was a new invention, but we do see some high angle movement in MODERN TIMES which must have been achieved with a crane. (It’s possible I’m misremembering a MT anecdote as a TGD one.)

As Mr. Jaeckel takes charge, the microphone boom sweeps through shot, apparently escaping everyone’s notice. The day is saved by Commander Schultz’s orders that the residents of this building shouldn’t be molested. I have fun at Schultz’s expense but we can be grateful for his intervention.

Seeing off the last of the stormtroopers, Chaplin executes a perfect Del Boy lean-and-fall gag.

As the barbershop is torched, our protags retreat to the rooftop, watching the miniature inferno via the miracle of rear projection. The illusion is pretty convincing in the daylight scene, less so at night, though adding some fire sound effects might have helped.

The two brief rooftop scenes are divided by a shot of Hynkel at the piano, clearly meant to echo Nero.

Mr Jaeckel, the film’s humanist info-dump, arrives to announce that Schultz is hiding out in the cellar, a fugitive from Hynkel: he’s gone from being the Schindler type good Tomainian to some topsy-turvy Anne Frank. Before either of those people had been heard of.

TO BE CONTINUED