Archive for Mel Brooks

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!'”

War & Piece

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2020 by dcairns

Not my appalling title, Mel Brooks’, seen on a movie poster in THE PRODUCERS.

I’m reading Inside Mr. Enderby by Anthony Burgess, in which the hapless and flatulent poet of the title finds his latest epic work plagiarized for an Italian horror film — an unlikely occurrence, one might think, but very, very loosely paralleled in my latest Bologna viewing, DONNE E SOLDATI, which employed the poet and film critic Attilio Bertolucci (father of Bernardo), as an ill-defined “artistic advisor.”

Exactly what role AB played is hard to say, but the film, the only one deirected by the team of Antonio Marchi and Luigi Malerba, is fascinating and borderline delightful. Let me enumerate the reasons ~

  1. An interesting story of medieval times, portraying the seasons-long seige of a citadel, during which the fraternization between the beseiged women and the beseiging men reaches such a passionate height that the conflict is eventually resolved.
  2. A distinctive way of telling the story: two voice-overs, one from each side, neither particularly identified with a character onscreen, both talking retrospectively as if from years later.
  3. Fantastic period detail, so convincing that when I saw the injured leader of the invaders (instantly dehorsed in his first battle, elaborate batwinged armour and all) with a leg in traction, I immediately accepted that the filmmakers had done their research and such bonesetting techniques were extant at the time.
  4. Convincing conflict: sharp editing makes the dummies dropped from battlements seem unusually convincing, even if we still know they’re dummies. And when the knights and peasants in the fort charge their enemies, we get a prefiguration of Welles’ great Battle of Shrewsbury in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT — handheld lurch and undercranking and all. It’s a tenth as long and not a hundredth as good but it’s pretty impressive all the same, and one wonders if Welles might have seen it. Still, the shakicam approach to middle-ages warfare goes all the way back to LA VIE DE JEANNE D’ARC in 1929.

We also get a fat man in armour, looking like a tank with legs, peeking fearfully round corners, which is very Falstaffian…

Asides from Bertolucci Sr.’s contribution, the movie was co-written by Marco Ferreri, who also appears (but I didn’t spot him) — some of his cynical wit is transmitted to us, though the movie is also tender and chivalric towards the women — the bitter realities of war are kept somewhat at bay.

This excellent film has seemingly fallen out of the history books altogether — of the extensive cast, the IMDb can only name six, with character names for just half of them. Il Cinema Ritrovato deserves a roast suckling pig as reward for rediscovering it.

Zero Tolerance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2019 by dcairns

A producer I was discussing the vicissitudes of the film business with once described it as “a process of continually deferred satisfaction” (credit where due: it was Eddie Dick) which seems about right.

Proof of this lies in THE PRODUCERS, where Mel Brooks can lay claim to having written an as-good-as-perfect script (OK, the first scene is like twenty pages long, but it’s GREAT) and assembled an as-good-as-perfect cast to play it. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are so good together, astonishing (it’s worth seeing RHINOCEROS, the Ionesco adaptation they’re in together too, although I would prefer Alexander Mackendrick to have made his version, with either Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov. He was going to matte rhinos into London landscapes.)

The first woman to wear lipstick in New York, and the man from whom Brooks stole the Elephant Man’s hairstyle.

BUT — to prove that there is no real satisfaction to be had for the labourer in film, Brooks was dissatisfied with Mostel’s performance throughout the shoot. Editor Ralph Rosenblum, in his excellent memoir, describes how Brooks filled the cutting room with explosive rage at Mostel’s intractability. He couldn’t let go of it and concentrate on the editing, his mind was still chewing over the trauma of the shoot, where he had tried to get Mostel to imbue Max Byalistock, conceived as a kind of humanoid id, with a form of sweetness and likability. If you see Nathan Lane in the role in the remake, you’ll see exactly what Brooks had in mind — Lane became his vision of the part.

The end credits list Zero merely as “Zero,” which seems affectionate — maybe Rosenblum is responsible, or maybe it’s phony showbiz affection, or a hidden gibe, or maybe Brooks loved Mostel as a man even if he hated — HATED! — the performance. A little mystery.

Yet I find Mostel ideal, and don’t find him remotely lacking in sweetness and likability, (“The most selfish man I ever met,” says Leo Bloom, affectionately.) But I agree with Mostel’s interpretation that the man is in essence villainous. Mostel played a lot of villains and finks in his pre-blacklist period, and being blacklisted probably didn’t make him any less explosive. But he’s always hugely human, therefore loveable.

(When The Producers stage musical was to open in London and Nathan Lane was unavailable, Brooks cast Jonathan Cake, who had played Mosley, then fired him for playing it too villanous. Nathan Lane somehow became available.)

Mel Brooks has had as long and rewarding a career as you could wish for, achieving wonderful things as director and producer and star and writer and lyricist. But by some cruel caprice of fate, he can’t see how magnificent the lead actor in his first film is.