Archive for Alexander Korda

The Man with the Moustache

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on July 22, 2022 by dcairns

It’s time to consider whether the Jewish Barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR is the same character Chaplin had been playing almost constantly for the past twenty-six years.

I’m not hedging my bets when I say that he is and isn’t. Maybe mostly is.

Most viewers are not troubled by the issue — it’s obviously Charlie, they say. It’s his appearance, without any of the traits than make Hynkel not-Charlie. But John Baxter, I seem to recall, in the first Chaplin biography I ever owned, was adamant that this was NOT the Tramp. He’s tied to a specific race, a specific job, and a specific voice.

Konrad Bercovici claimed, in suing Chaplin over THE GREAT DICTATOR, that he had suggested the idea of a Tramp-Hitler mistaken identity comedy in the mid-thirties, which is quite plausible. Chaplin claimed he never read the proposal, but Orson Welles had to struggle a bit to get credit for the story of MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Perhaps Chaplin, like a lot of geniuses, and a lot of assholes too, would absorb suggestions and then later “originate” them. Chaplin denied ever reading Bercovici’s outline, and in his memoir claims that Alexander Korda suggested the basic idea that became TGD.

The idea was to have Hitler and Charlie mistaken for one another. Which eventually happens. As commenters here have pointed out, there’s an obvious weirdness in the film, in that nobody seeing the Jewish Barber remarks on his resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel. But this isn’t too unusual — in The Comedy of Errors, despite both sets of twins knowing the existence of one another, and being actively looking for one another, nobody hits upon mistaken identity as a likely explanation for all the confusion surrounding their trip to Ephesus.

Possibly Chaplin was subconsciously influenced by the fact that he was famous before Hitler… nobody ever said to HIM, “You know, you look just like that fascist leader…”

Since the whole point of the story was to capitalize on the resemblance between the Little Fellow and Hitler, Chaplin had to reluctantly haul the Little Fellow into a talking picture. PERHAPS the movie could have been made as a talkie, but Chaplin was understandably unnerved about being the only hold-out from the silent era, and he wanted this film to be a comedy about, well, modern times. And Hitler was inherently a creature of the talkies: his resistible rise occurs in tandem with the sound craze (though he could potentially have “made it” in the silent era, as Mussolini did. Who knows?)

As Chaplin had predicted, dialogue changes the character. But so does this plot: Charlie must become more specific, so he’s a Jewish barber drafted into WWI. The way Chaplin’s voice makes him less universal is echoed by the story. He’s not a tramp. But maybe he’s still, in a sense, THE Tramp?

He HAS to be, because that’s the joke. Dialogue changes him, but he had changed before — the sadistic, intemperate lout of the early Keystone days, who still turned up in places in the last shorts, had faded from view in the features. Because he’s a kind of archetype, capable of appearing in different jobs and even in different historical periods (time-traveling Charlie only appears in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST and I guess in THE GREAT DICTATOR), the character is very flexible. Making him a talking clown isn’t necessarily even the biggest change (compare CC in THE PROPERTY MAN — a sadistic bully — with the lovelorn loner of THE GOLD RUSH), but it’s the most abrupt. The Jewish Barber, I think, straddles two identities — the specific role required of him by THE GREAT DICTATOR, and the universal character already established. He has one oversized shoe in each role. And at the end of the film, he’s Chaplin himself, out of character.

(A path not taken: Chaplin does not show Hynkel taking part in WWI, as Hitler did. He could have had both characters participating, getting invalided out, spending interwar years in the same hospital. But I think anything humanizing Hynkel wouldn’t be too helpful, and splitting the focus early on could be destructive.)


Waiting for the Big One

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by dcairns

I picked up a copy of British Film Editors by Roy Perkins & Martin Stollery. Very good! Specially-conducted interviews with lots of big names — Jim Clark, Antony Gibbs, Tony Lawson, Mick Audsley — but also a great gathering of archive material to assemble a history of the craft of editing in the UK. This doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know, but the smattering provided is probably more thorough than any existing source. Here’s a good bit from future director Charles Crichton on his early days working with Korda ~

“When I became one of the editors on Things to Come [William Cameron Menzies, 1936], I showed him a rough cut of a sequence showing London under attack from the air (this was before the war). The sequence was full of violence, gunfire, bombs, people running for their lives…Alex said, ‘Charlie, you have made a bloody mess of this. It should be that everyone is standing there worried, waiting because they know something is going to happen, and you haven’t put that in the cut at all.’ And I said, ‘But the director didn’t shoot such a scene. So he said, ‘You are a bloody fool, Charlie! You take the bits before he has said ‘Action!’ and you take the bits after he has said ‘Cut!’ and you put them together and you make a marvellous sequence. What’s wrong with you?’ … I was beginning to learn that the script is not the Bible, it is not a blueprint that must be followed, word for word, to the very last detail.”

Check out the film — though there are some atmospheric close-ups which I think must have been taken after Korda got the idea to generate suspense with waiting, there are several wide shots of people standing about in the big London set which look like they have indeed been pinched from the beginning or end of the take. I’ve occasionally used these little bits of non-acting myself, when stuck for footage, so I know it goes on.

Here’s another example of ingenuity and make-do, involving material that was recorded without the intention of it actually being used in the finished film. In the pre-war days, the film’s editor was often responsible for the soundtrack also. Esteemed cutter Reginald Beck faced a problem editing Carol Reed’s THE STARS LOOK DOWN in 1939 ~

“We practically ran out of money, and I hadn’t finished editing. There was a scene of a mining disaster and the sound crew had not shot me any effects. In the film there is seen some rushing water, flooding the mine, with tunnels collapsing, and pit props smashing, everything. And I had to devise sound effects for all that lot. For the pit-props smashing I went through all the takes and used the clapper-board modulation at the start of every take, manipulating several together to create the sound of rending wood.”

We must all look at this film ASAP! I bet it works — you can cut sounds together (literally splicing and gluing them, in those days) to create new sounds, and a movie’s worth of clapperboards would give you a whole range of sharp, wooden SNAP sounds, the volume and pitch depending on distance from the mic and acoustics of the set or location. SNAPsnapSNAPsnapsnapSNAP! I can imagine it. I can also imagine it being a little funny now we know how it was done.

Anything’s Better Than This

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2015 by dcairns


With trepidation I pressed Play on BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE (1948), about which I had heard nothing but terrible things. You get Robert Krasker cinematography in Technicolor, and you get to see David Niven acting rings around everyone, the only actor who can make the hoaky lines sound like they’ve just popped into his head (it helps that, despite Scottish parentage, he doesn’t attempt an accent), but otherwise it’s a slog, with all the exciting stuff happening between scenes and then getting served up as dripping goujons of exposition.

Our late friend Lawrie worked on this, and asked Niven why one earth he was making such a terrible film. “Well, I can’t act, you see, so I feel I have to accept any offer that comes as I may get found out and it’ll be my last.” How very wrong he was — but we can be grateful in a way, since it kept him busy and gave us more of his work to enjoy.

Lawrie took Niven for his screen test, which he described as hilarious. Niven donned a kilt and did a handstand. “Can you see anything?”

(Ultimately, in the movie, they kept Niven in trousers.)


By coincidence, my friend Alex reported watching Niven interviews on YouTube and the euphemism “anything” appeared again. In full raconteur mode, the star complained of the tight trousers he was forced to wear on WUTHERING HEIGHTS, designed by Omar Kiam, “a devout poof.” In Niven’s words, the problem with Kiam’s trousers was “there was never any room for anything.”

The lousy direction of BPC is credited to Anthony Kimmins and Alexander Korda, both of whom were capable of a lot better. Example: we meet Charles Snr. playing cards and explaining he’s too old to run a revolution in a damp climate. At a given point, an angle change reveals that Niven, the great white hope, is seated opposite. But the cut is handled so badly that it feels like a scene change. And the match on Niven throwing down a card should have been dead easy — it could have been a James Bond type introduction, with the card hitting the table in CU and a pan up to Niven. Tsk.

There’s one good bit that reminded me of the striking illusionism in Kimmins’ superior MINE OWN EXECUTIONER — the camera pans off a group of characters on a babbling studio brook onto a miniature heathery hillside — and if you look twice with a skeptical eye, you realise even the people on the hillside are tiny dolls set in dramatic poses. The main interest in the movie is how they’ve augmented their few, unpopulated scenic shots of actual Scotland, with matte paintings and miniatures and sets and cycloramas.

The matte paintings are awesome.