Food Fighters

Maybe, just maybe, the food fight in THE GREAT DICTATOR was an influence on the deleted pie fight from DR STRANGELOVE? Is it even possible that the fruit-slinging that concludes the Marx Bros’ DUCK SOUP lies behind both? Maybe that’s a stretch. But reducing the horrors of war to the absurdity of food-flinging evidently has an honourable tradition. Maybe Laurel & Hardy suggested the theme by naming their great custard pie fight film THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY?

Chaplin is no slouch when it comes to foodstuffs as ammunition. A childhood of near-starvation left him with a complicated relationship with food — nearly every Chaplin film seems to have a gag about the absence of food, the smelliness of food, the noisiness of digestion, the perils of ingestion, or the use of various platters as ballistic weapons. BEHIND THE SCREEN featured one of comparatively few pitched pie fights in the silent screen’s history.

“To the buffet!” proclaims Billy Gilbert as Garbitsch, and audiences who like anticipating things may already be imagining some sploshy chaos. The swank dinners in Chaplin films always feature bizarre menus, selected not for compatibility but for slapstick possibilities. Here, the presence of the dictator of Bacteria, which stands for Italy, excuses the ever-present spaghetti. Surprisingly, mustard will prove more significant in the battle of the buffet.

Great reaction from Gilbert after he clears the buffet of undesirables, and then finds he’s to be included in their number. The actor has a unique ability to make his eyes stand out like horrified plums, loosely embedded in a slack pudding of a face — only the affronted orbs display emotion, but they compensate by sheer intensity for the limpness of the surrounding flesh.

Chaplin immediately recoils from an odorous Camemberg, a callback to countless cheese jokes in his past, most relevantly SHOULDER ARMS, where a similarly noisome cheese becomes a chemical weapon of devastating power.

Considering this kind of thing is new to him — dialogue played over the silent set-up for a gag where cream and mustard will be confused — he manages it very well. I can’t say that he’s as great a talking comic as he is a silent one, but he shows skill at combining the two forms — only Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy really got to try the same thing.

The dispute as to whether the treaty will be signed before or after Napaloni’s troops are removed from the Osterlich border is classic vaudeville/music hall crosstalk. Anticipating the negotiation scenes in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. Fiona points out that Chaplin told Groucho he envied his facility with dialogue, adding weight to my hypothesis that Napaloni is a straight steal of Chico’s mangling of English. Here, however, Heinkel is the one playing it deliberately dense, attempting to wear the Bacterian dictator down by sheer refusal to recognize the basis of their argument.

Heinkel makes an angry gesture and spatters cream on the head of a flunky who’s tossing the spaghetti. Napaloni, in a rage, accidentally bites into the treaty, having incorporated it into his sandwich the way he intends to incorporate Osterlich into his empire.

The battle then becomes a matter of demonstrating with the buffet what the military forces of each dictator will do to the other’s. Napaloni stabs a huge sausage into a Devil’s Tower Wyoming heap of mashed potato, then swats it sideways. Heinkel bombards the punch bowl with an orange (I think it’s an orange. We’re in black and white so it’s more of a grey.)

The blocking of the scene is very simple but very, very effective. The two bosses and their two underlings are lines up along the table. Sometimes the leaders face off, sometimes they turn and complain to their seconds, a babel of Tomainian and Bacterian tirades. Dialogue as sheer noise. Overlapping a year before CITIZEN KANE, but to rather different effect.

Heinkel slathers mustard on his fresh plate of strawberries, and —

Then Napaloni bites into a too-mustardy sandwich. Well, he asked for the extra-hot English mustard, and it seems he can’t take it. Notably, perhaps, Chaplin denies Jack Oakie his own close-up, but the two men writhing on the divan as their throats combust is quite amusing.

Mustard was, of course, fully weaponized in the First World War, with far from hilarious consequences.

“Aiuta!” screams Il Duce. Either Chaplin couldn’t be bothered coming up with cod-Italian and resorted to the real thing, or Oakie is improvising.

This is all to get the characters into a furious political discussion in which neither can actually speak — they just mouth at each other in scorching muteness in between stuffing their gobs with hankies.

Recovering a bit, Heinkel attempts to demonstrate on a fistful of spaghetti how he will tear the Bacterians apart. Unfortunately for him, the many strands of pasta exhibit the same unbreakable qualities of the stacks of sticks or fasces used by the ancient Romans to signify group strength — E pluribus unum –– and which give the Fascist movement its name. Heinkel is left huffing as he stretches the spaghetti like a minute Charles Atlas demonstrating dynamic tension.

At an opportune moment he releases one end and twangs Napaloni in the kisser. So it’s war! Chaplin wields a sausage like a short sword, while Oakie grabs a pie. As Chekov says, you can’t introduce a custard pie in act two without going splurch in the kisser almost immediately, so a hack from the international press is introduced, peeping into the buffet room, his snooping features plastered in pie at once.

By the time Henry Daniell reenters, Heinkel and Napaloni are threatening one another with huge platters of mashed potato and something unidentifiable. Mutually assured destruction. Herring defuses the crisis and the stage is set for Tomainia’s invasion of Osterlich.

Very nice closing gag where Napaloni hands his mash to the Bacterian ambassador (Carter DeHaven? Really?), a much (even) smaller man, who totters under the unexpected weight of the potatoes, before crashing to the floor, offscreen. We don’t get to enjoy the sight of him buried in spud, but again Chaplin is enjoying the use of the audience’s imagination, which has the added advantage that he doesn’t have to cut away from HIMSELF.

TO BE CONCLUDED

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3 Responses to “Food Fighters”

  1. One of the great food fights, with no visible enemy, is the end of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies. The two Maries – who’ve spent the whole film disrupting everything they can – repent, go back to the banquetting room, try to restore it to order and say they’ll be good and work hard and everything will be wonderful. Then they lie on the table and say they’re happy. One of them asks if they’re lying and the other says they’re not.
    The chandelier falls on them and World War III begins, following with a dedication to people who get upset over trodden-on lettuce.
    It seems one of the censors was outraged by the waste of food in the food fight. I wonder if Chytilová decided he’d inadvertently provided the perfect ending.

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Recall an interview with Gloria DeHaven, MGM ingenue and Carter’s daughter. Think she mentioned him becoming a sort of employee of Chaplin, contentedly working in off-camera capacities.

    Now that you mention it, the focus on mustard and the two men gagging must has registered as a direct reference to gas warfare, still within living memory of a lot of the audience and still feared at that moment. WWI had long been acceptable fodder for light comedy, but did Chaplin get any flack for comedic simulation of a gas attack?

  3. Daisies is such a wonderfully odd film. “Don’t do it,” VC’s friends advised, “You’ll break your neck.”

    “But I want to break my neck,” she replied, heroically.

    I’m not aware of anyone making the mustard connection in a negative way. I think by the time TGD came out, it was so clearly on the right side of history, nobody was inclined to be critical.

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