Archive for Henry Daniell

Benzino Napaloni

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2022 by dcairns

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.”


The Fatal Pudding

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve written before about this recurring thing in Chaplin — metal in the mouth, choking.

As a tiny child, Chaplin tried to imitate a trick big brother Syd showed him, apparently swallowing a coin, but little Charlie took the trick literally, popped a penny in his gob and almost choked to death, saved only by mother Hannah’s timely application of the East End Heimlich, which involves lifting the sufferer by the ankles and pounding his back, newborn-style. We can assume the experience formed what the Scientologists call an engram, a compressed diamond of experience, in which the concepts of metal taste, choking, and performance became fused and permanently associated at a subconscious level.

See here for the breakdown. This motif turns up A LOT.

This is the most literal rendition of the idea. A one-scene subplot that goes nowhere — Schultz, hiding in the ghetto, an inverted Anne Frank, persuades his hosts to take part in a gunpowder plot, blowing up Heinkel’s palace. The lucky suicide bomber will be selected by the distribution of puddings, in one of which a coin is to be concealed. Hannah (Paulette Goddard, here named after Ma Chaplin), sabotage’s the plan by hiding a coin in every pudding.

The bomb plot may well derive from Guy Fawkes, and the coin-in-pudding theme is another bit of British culture (I think – does anyone else do this?). The Great British Christmas pudding traditionally conceals a penny — one lucky diner wins the jackpot and possibly a broken tooth. Chaplin always hated Christmas because it reminded him of the workhouse — another engram.

The dinner scene begins mid-track-and-pan, the camera sweeping across the table. When Schultz is revealed, standing at one end, something disc-shaped is swaying behind him — evidently a dinner gong has just been struck, but Chaplin has decided to cut this, rendering the scene’s start a little ragged.

The sequence is scored like a dance. Three of the Jewish barber’s co-conspirators find coins and transfer them to their neighbour’s pudding. The barber ends up with all of them, and his method of subterfuge is to swallow them down with a swig of water. Then the honourable Mr. Jaeckel declares that HE has the coin, and the barber’s all come back on him, hiccuping out of his mouth and chinking onto his plate.

Chaplin simplifies his set-up by arraying all the plotters along one side of the table, like The Last Supper. The camera plays a more significant role than in most of Chaplin’s comedy scenes — panning from one coin-shifter to another, pushing in from three-shot to one-shot, panning off the serious Mr. Jaeckel’s serious announcement to the barber’s comic digestive interruption.

Since Chaplin seems to take Hannah’s part, opposing direct action of this kind, this scene allows Schultz to be even more of an ass than usual. He tells his reluctant terrorist cell that the pudding idea derives from an ancient Aryan custom. He starts to say “Hail Hynkel!” then breaks off with a bathetic “Oh, what am I saying?” He gets very stuff when meek Mr. Agar questions why he isn’t going on the mission himself. (“If it’s a question of my honour, this is most embarrassing…”)

Chaplin liked Reginald Gardner, who plays Schultz and perfectly nails his combination of genuine nobility and stuffed-shirt nationalist psychopathy. He didn’t, apparently, care for Henry Daniell. A shame. HD, being classically trained, slightly awed Chaplin, who didn’t feel comfortable giving him notes. If Garbitsch was meant to be funnier, I think it’s fine that he didn’t turn out that way — he ends up embodying the evil of Nazism, which Heinkel can’t quite do because he has to personify the absurdity and insanity of it. It’s OK to hate Garbitsch — you can’t precisely hate Heinkel because you have to be able to laugh at him. And recognize that he’s crazy in a way that Garbitsch isn’t. Not that you LIKE him — but you welcome his appearances.

Pay-off, topping the topper — once the assassination is called off, the frugal barber carefully pockets all his regurgitated coins. A pocketful of sticky pennies.

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.