Benzino Napaloni

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

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2 Responses to “Benzino Napaloni”

  1. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Perhaps a benzine reference? There were huge factories producing it. Very toxic.

  2. Yes, I think that’s got to be it.

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