Archive for Marx Bros

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Hitler

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2022 by dcairns

Something Chaplin never explains — Adenoid Hynkel does his speeches in Tomainian — a made-up Germanic tongue consisting of gibberish and little recognizable nonsenses like “wienerschnitzel mitt de lagerbeeren” — but reverts to English for casual conversations. Very occasionally he will revert to Tomainian in times of high emotion.

Also, he has a radio commentator, Herman Schtick, voiced by his OTHER brother-in-law, Wheeler Dryden, translating his speech. To whom? The English-speaking world, I guess. Which would explain the squeamish “His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people.”

Chaplin, in welcoming Dryden into his cinematic family, shows fine judgement. I’ve seen the guy on screen, in a short shown at Bologna, and he’s an intolerable ham. The kind of silent movie acting you thought was a myth. By keeping him off-camera, Chaplin gets the best out of him. He’s excellent as a prissy translator, although he’s probably copying Chaplin’s line readings.

Chaplin complained, sort of, that this film needed a lot of prep because of all the models and special effects. We’ve seen the toy plane with its miniature Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner, now we have the flat cityscape background and the infinite crowd, which is pretty impressive, even if only the front rows show any lifelike motion. Further back we have what may be cut-outs, photographic standees, perfectly matching the real people. And then smaller, brighter audience members who are probably a painting. The whole thing combined on a rear-projection screen for Chaplin to perform in front of.

There are three levels of joke going on. Possibly more. Dryden’s dry commentary is in comic contrast to Chaplin’s furious histrionics. Chaplin’s Hitlerian antics are an accurate parody of how AH appears to the non-German-speaker. And then there are the dumb jokes, like pouring a glass of water down the front of his jodhpurs.

The accurate aspect is strikingly so — Hitler was a raving maniac. It’s quite hard to see what his appeal was, but this is not merely linguistic or historic — it depends on whether fascistic stuff has any attratction to you. I read recently — where? — an account of Hitler’s rl schtick, portraying himself simultaneously as the strong hero who would raise Germany to supreme status, and as the poor victim of the world’s injustice. Some kind of “empathy boomerang” (B. Kite’s phrase) in operation — Hitler standing in for the audience, appropriating their grievances and reflecting them back and at the same time offering to revenge them. Quite reminiscent of a recent president’s stage persona, in fact.

The dumb jokes may be dumb but they serve a serious purpose — rupturing the Hitlerian effect to point up how ridiculous he is. If, as Mel Brooks claims, ridicule is more powerful than invective, would a film like this, made in Germany, have sunk the Nazis in 1932? I doubt it — there is no shortage of satire today and its targets flourish. The left dominates the world of satire and the right dominates the world. Woody Allen may be correct to argue in MANHATTAN that, in the case of Nazis, biting satire may be less effective than bricks and baseball bats.

The Tashlinesque cartoon gag of the microphone bending back from Hynkel’s fury may be a stretch — like the rotating artillery shell it doesn’t belong to the same kind of comic logic as the rest of the film. Though it anticipates the role animation would play in America’s propaganda war against Hitler.

Two supporting characters are introduced: Herring and Garbitsch. The names are Strangelovian/Carry On film silliness. The performances are opposites. The great Billy Gilbert, bringing a new flavour of the vaudevillian to Chaplin’s cinema, plays Herring as a fat buffoon. Which was an aspect of the real Herman Goering. We can thank Goering’s incompetence for allowing us to win the Battle of Britain. But he wasn’t a TOTAL idiot. The ample frontage decorated with medals on every available space is accurate — Hitler knew Goering loved his trinkets. But he would never have humiliated him as Hynkel does to Herring.

Garbitsch, played by Henry Daniell, is deadly serious. As a Goebbels parody, the performance is downright restrained. Chaplin totally gets the cult-like aspect of the Nazi Party. Typically in a cult the leader is somewhat crazy, believing his own bullshit, but his immediate underlings are just gangsters. They’re able to manipulate the leader so that profitable choices are made. Garbitsch, though, is like Goebbels in that he’s 100% a true believer. He may sometimes be surprised by his Fooey’s behaviour but he never allows himself to question his sanity.

OK, I’m wrong about the crowd — when they zieg heil, or the Tomainian equivalent, a large number of them raise their arms, including all the ones I thought were cut-outs. The ones in the far distance just sort of shimmer. Apparently — I recall reading this but don’t recall where — distant crowds were produced by laying popcorn or some such granular substance on a vibrating platform to make a shimmering effect.

Chaplin, we’re told by one of his assistants, genuinely admired Hitler’s performance style. And obviously it was a gift of a part to him.

The pratfall isn’t exactly the end of the scene, but it’s the end of the YouTube clip and the end of Hynkel’s public performance. A suitably deflating gag. Why have Chaplin play Hitler if you don’t have him fall down.

Famously, Hitler, a movie buff (Henry Hathaway’s LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was his favourite) got hold of a print of THE GREAT DICTATOR and ran it. Twice. His reaction, however, was not recorded. “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it,” said Chaplin.

Less famously, Churchill, also a movie enthusiast (“Hess or no Hess, I’m going to see the Marx Brothers,”), ran the film also. From Erik Larson’s history The Splendid and the Vile: Late the next night, exhausted, Churchill mistimed his landing on a chair and fell between it and an ottoman, wedging himself with his rear on the floor and his feet in the air. Colville [a secretary and secret diarist] witnessed the moment. “Having no false dignity,” Colville wrote, “he treated it as a complete joke and repeated several times, ‘A real Charlie Chaplin!'”

The Sunday Intertitle: The Last Gun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by dcairns

Charley Chase (of all people) talks tough in SITTIN’ PRETTY, directed by Leo McCarey in 1924. A typically well-ordered yet lunatic farce plot, in which Charley impersonates a police officer (borrowing his prospective father-in-law’s uniform) in order to dispel a particularly shameless carjacker from his auto, then gets roped into police business — capturing a rampant lunatic (played by Charley’s brother, James Parrott).

This leads to the most famous bit, an early run of the mirror sequence from DUCK SOUP (1933, also McCarey). Charley confuses his prey by donning a false beard and impersonating his reflection.

Clearly, McCarey must have seen Max Linder’s rendition of this gag in 7 YEARS BAD LUCK (1921). Or some other version now lost to time.

While much shorter than Groucho and Harpo’s version, this sequence contains many of the same ideas, including business with hats, and the crazy man retreating to one side to formulate his next plan, slightly undercranked. It doesn’t play on a gradual escalation of mistakes by the reflection, which reach such lunatic heights in the Marxian routine — surely, we think, Groucho must have got wise by now… or by now…? In this version, Charley’s first ridiculous mistake causes his whole act to be rumbled.

Instead, the comedy comes from Charley’s supernatural adeptness at anticipating what the madman will do next, so that he appears in a derby, a top hat and a straw boater just as his opponent does. No explanation is possible as to how he manages this, so McCarey simply stays with the bamboozled loon for the duration.

Here too, we may see the 1933 refinement of the routine as a big improvement — rather than temporarily leaving his hero’s viewpoint, McCarey makes one hero (Groucho) the one who’s being tricked and another (Harpo), the trickster, so the comedy comes from the tension generated by Groucho’s failure to get smart and Harpo’s illusion-jeopardising blunders.

Nevertheless, the short (one-reel) SITTIN’ PRETTY is an uncommonly satisfying little comedy.

 

Good Humor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 15, 2017 by dcairns

I have an article in the new Sight & Sound — for the Primal Screen column on silent film, I’ve contributed a piece on the Marx Bros’ only silent, the long-lost HUMOR RISK. Since the film doesn’t exist and nobody alive has seen it, I was forced to use my imagination…

The piece came out of a conversation with Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London at the Boone’s Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, and from my Marxian researches for my twin video essays which can be seen on the Arrow Academy release of THE 4 MARX BROS AT PARAMOUNT.