Archive for November 25, 2022

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 use 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