Archive for Charlie Chaplin

Tomorrow (the World) Belongs to Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 23, 2022 by dcairns

So, rather than shoving a blog post out at 11.45, I’m now starting this one at the comparatively godly hour of 9.27. I haven’t had time to watch anything except the films I’m engaged on for Criterion, so we’re stuck with THE GREAT DICTATOR and ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE to choose from.

Shadowplay — the daily blog about two films.

THE GREAT DICTATOR wins the toss.

The barber and Hannah’s romance deepens as he accidentally starts shaving her. This is odd, I think because we’re still not sure how mentally unstable the barber is. In fact, Chaplin seems to abandon the idea of an amnesiac and psychologically vulnerable hero — it plays no further role in the story.

Paulette Goddard’s makeover finally removes the theatrical smudges from her face, though.

Hynkel’s decision to be nice to the Jews until he can get his bank loan results in disconcertingly well-mannered stormtroopers in the ghetto.

Back to Hynkel himself — with some relief. And we see the great dictator actually dictate, to his glamorous stenographer. He dictates in the Tomainian tongue, and there’s a nice silly joke about his long speeches taking only a few key-punches to transcribe, while a single word (“gehfluten”) requires several lines or rapid typing. Even Hynkel finds this odd, and he’s a native. VERY silly — Jerry Lewis silly.

And then the gloriously strange sight of two brunettes, Chaplin and Daniell / Hynkel and Garbitsch, remarking on how brunettes are troublemakers and the world will be a better place when they’re all exterminated. But it’s no stranger than Hitler’s obsessive ideas about Aryanism, and the lunacy needed pointing out.

Hynkel climbs the curtains. I adore this bit. It’s every bit as good as the more celebrated balloon dance. The way Daniell keeps up the melodramatic banter, ignoring the obviously nutty spectacle before him…

“I want to be alone.”

The dance with the globe is the culmination of the whole “the son of a bitch is a ballet dancer” thing. Chaplin gets great effects by being dance-like in his movements, but rarely does he actually dance. Some of the comic incongruity tends to be erased when he does, as in the misbegotten SUNNYSIDE. But there’s incongruity to spare here: one dance part is, essentially, Adolf Hitler, and the other is planet earth.

And Chaplin the actor doesn’t leave the room — as with the dance with the bread rolls, the dance does not supplant performance, and Hynkel’s tender emotions for his prospective conquest are deeply sinister in their effect, as is his positively satanic laughter.

The dance has a full dramatic structure — seduction, consummation, and the tragic denouement — the balloon bursting is taken as a rejection by the psychopathic manbaby.

It’s one of my favourite kinds of high cinematic art, because it also finds room for low jokes — when Hynkel sobs at the end, he does it by presenting his arse to the audience and hopping up and down on the balls of his feet, so his backside bounces like a bunny rabbit.

You’ve all seen it before, I expect, but it’s worth re-re-re-re and re-watching.

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?”