Archive for the Politics Category

Hynkel, Hynkel, Little Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2022 by dcairns

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.

Ghetto Fabular

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2022 by dcairns

Met some of my new students yesterday. Oddly, our first official class has been postponed due to somebody called Elizabeth dying. There’s a national holiday to allow us to watch television, a spectacularly British idea which should become an annual, or daily, event.

Since the entire university is shutting down, my eleven screenings will be reduced to ten. I’m definitely starting with Keaton. But if I show SHERLOCK JR I can fit in a Chaplin too. Or a bunch of shorts — could cram in a Lumiere, a Melies, and a couple of something elses to show the development of silent film language… Maybe a Guy and a Feuillade?

I have a week and a bit to decide. It’ll be a last-minute thing, I’m sure.

A little more on THE GREAT DICTATOR. As I said before, the ghetto scenes show Chaplin more than usually constrained by the laws of good taste. While, normally, we can show Charlie having difficulties and we laugh but still have sympathy for him — as was shown in all the WWI gags — we can’t laugh when he’s being bullied by stormtroopers, even when they’re unreal Hollywood goon type stormtroopers. We can’t be encouraged to laugh along with those thugs. Chaplin can use their bullying to build up tension — increased by the fact that the Jewish barber character is an innocent who doesn’t even know what stormtroopers ARE, and so doesn’t realise what danger he’s in — and release that tension as laughter when Paulette starts clunking them with a frying pan. And we can laugh — just about — when she accidentally clunks the J.b. But the notion of being able to beat up Nazis in Nazi Germany without consequences, even if it’s “Tomainia” instead of Germany — is so obviously a fantasy that the film can’t really lay claim to being a satire while this material is being unfolded. It becomes even more a fairy tale than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which admits to being one (a shrewd bit of damage control by producer Harvey Weinstein, who must have known the film was unacceptable but would be extremely popular).

Sidenote: the slapstick business with the stormtroopers is also hampered by being shot and shown at 24fps, without undercranking, and the tracking shots seem to reinforce the HEAVIER quality this gives it.

When, later, Charlie is being strung up from a lamp post — lamp posts have been dangerous since EASY STREET — things are so serious they’re not funny at all. It’s a bigger problem than the one first diagnosed when he wanted to combine comedy and drama, and a friend advised that the two values would surely fight one another. Chaplin believed, and proved, that they could be held in balance. But I think it’s fair to say that in a comedy, violence by anti-Semites against Jews will be upsetting enough to kill subsequent laughter if it’s done with realistic intensity, and if it’s tamped down to be less upsetting, will seem like an unacceptable softening of the truth.

Of course, this is where having a copy of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED to look at would be very useful. It’s just possible that Jerry Lewis, king of the conflicted response, might have solved the problem, even if he did it unintentionally — his likely mingling of broad comedy, schmaltz, and horror could (and we can only speculate) have fermented into something truly unbearable. The late JLG said that the only film to make about the Holocaust would be a very technical study of how many bodies could be fit on a wheelbarrow, and it would be unbearable. Jer might be the man for that. (Welles: “When he goes too far, he’s wonderful. When he doesn’t he’s unbearable.”)

So, no, I’m not a huge fan of the stormtrooper schtick. And it’s interesting that this business is really the only use Chaplin makes of the J.b’s amnesia, other than as a convenient ellipsis to skip over most of the interwar years.* Our protagonist lays down no memories during this period, so we can jump ahead to the next bit of interest to us. And, to return to my crackpot theory, when the Jewish barber is imprisoned, he splits in two, like Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, one persona is exaggeratedly innocent. The other is pure malignity. One copes with his war trauma by a near-total memory dump. The other prepares a second global conflagration as revenge.

More Hynkel frolics soon!

*The return to the cobwebbed barber shop does give us a great uncanny moment, where the barber suddenly notices the disrepair, which makes no sense to him since he believes he’s been gone perhaps for a day. The camera tracks in to a medium shot, pans to a web-shrouded sink as he looks at it (a non-optical POV shot, effectively), then back to him, and Chaplin graces us with a very fleeting Look To Camera.

“Do you see this too?”

In the Ghetto

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2022 by dcairns

The Ghetto scenes are perhaps THE GREAT DICTATOR’s weaker inventions — it’s harder to mine comedy from nice people being nice, and the problem of how to depict the actual depredations of the Nazi state in a satire become more pressing. But they’re not terrible, or embarrassing, just occasionally uncomfortable.

Chaplin descends from the GHETTO sign using his new crane, and tracks through the environment (another T-junction naturally) as two Hynkel goons approach. Sliding past them he discovers a doorway to a courtyard and follows a civilian in.

The two main exposition guys, the gloomy Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch) and the perky Mr. Mann (Bernard Gorcey, yes, father of Leo) exchange reflections on Hynkel’s speech and the barber’s condition, without ever noting the curious resemblance between the two, and then Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, artfully smudged, is introduced.

Chaplin and Goddard had separated by this point, but still apparently got along, so she gets to be the only repeat leading lady of the feature films.

The introduction — a potted biography by Jaeckel, followed by another crane shot, drifting upwards of its own accord to capture her exit from the house — is clumsy enough to recall Billy Wilder’s dismissal of Chaplin as a talking picture man: “like a child of eight writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth.” One can accept the statement as being somewhat just, some of the time, without it actually being a deal-breaker: yes, this dialogue is certainly clumsy, but it’s somewhat beside the point. The key stuff in the film is not dialogue-dependent, until we come to the end.

“The airy-airy-airy-airy-Aryans,” is not a good song. I suspect it was left to the actors to make it up on the day. But that’s fine. Why give the bastards a good song? Chaplin could, of course, have written “authentic” Tomainian lyrics, but the stormtroopers are not supposed to be entertaining. They do use humour as part of their malevolence, in the manner of bullies everywhere. But they’re not allowed to be funny, which is good.

Among those playing stormtroopers in this film are: Hank Mann, the main prize-fighter from CITY LIGHTS, a Chaplin collaborator since A FILM JOHNNIE, ie Chaplin’s first year in movies… this is his last Chaplin perf but he kept acting until 1961; Eddie Gribbon (Canvasback in the JOE PALOOKA films); Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes in the FALCON films); George Lynn, who’s also in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The Lubitsch film reminds me: the Great Ernst said he was treating Nazis differently in his film than was customary. His Nazis are not smirking sadists, enjoying their work. They’ve been doing this for years, and they’re BORED of the incessant cruelty. It’s a very smart choice: Chaplin’s thugs have dated — you can understand him saying that if he’d known about the true conditions in Germany he couldn’t have made the film. Portraying them as thugs, bullies, gangsters, was the best solution most filmmakers could find to the problem of this unfamiliar variety of evil, making it comprehensible in some way to US audiences. But it diminishes the true evil.

Still, there’s something I like about Hollywood films with American actors playing Nazis — THE MORTAL STORM, for instance. Hynkel is specifically Tomainian — he has his own personal language, which besides him only Herring seems to speak. His hoods are just like everyone else, but worse.

What I’m getting at is that Nazism is a worse form of evil than any mere criminality, but as we’re increasingly seeing today it’s not necessarily specific to a race or nationality. Also, Lubitsch’s Nazis seem less inadequate as a dramatic depiction because they’re not trying to seem evil or vicious, just businesslike, banal, bored.