Archive for To Be or Not to Be

A case of mistaken identity

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2022 by dcairns

Chaplin gets to his big speech in THE GREAT DICTATOR in an almost indecent hurry.

First, Schultz and the Jewish barber escape their prison camp, No evidence as to HOW this is achieved, Chaplin simply cuts to them on the open road — vaguely similar to the closing shot of MODERN TIMES but not the same location. The escape itself is elided, as in DOWN BY LAW. This road shot also puts me in mind of the recurring interstitial image in Bunuel’s DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE.

Hynkel, duck hunting at the Osterlich border, falls in the water. Despite his costume, he is immediately mistaken for the Jewish barber and arrested.

Nobody, until now, has remarked on the curious resemblance between A.H. and the J.b. In fact, they still don’t notice it, they merely assume one is the other. This is fairly credible military/police thinking, though: they’re looking for a guy, and they see someone who looks like that guy, so they grab him.

Very good suspense when the barber has been misidentified but doesn’t know it.

Model shot — tracking shot! — a sort of tabletop miniature with haystacks with hatches — in the background, possibly the real Woodland Hills again.

So the invasion of Osterlich is on — scenes of violence and death in the ghetto, and Hannah’s farm is attacked. One stormtrooper knocks Hannah to the ground and strolls off, eating a bunch of grapes — anticipating Lubitsch’s later depiction of Nazis in TO BE OR NOT TO BE — rather than relishing their cruelty, they’re already BORED of it.

Hail the conquering Hynkel! The Jewish barber and Schultz are driven up to a big Nuremberg-type stand where he’s to address the conquering troops. He mounts the podium. More excellent suspense. Garbitsch and Herring are watching.

Comedy with collapsing chair. Keystone-vintage knockabout. Interestingly, the kind of gag that would work whether this was Hynkel or the barber. Maybe better suited to Hynkel, actually — comedy of deflation.

Henry Daniell makes a short fascist speech in front of the obvious painted backdrop. More of the film’s cardboard Nazism.

“You must speak,” says Schultz. “I can’t,” says the barber. An encapsulation of Chaplin’s own attitude as recently as the film before this one.

It was my intention to cover the speech today but I was working on another project, and now it’s 6pm, so I guess that’s for tomorrow. The speech is a big thing one-tenth of the film’s runtime.

TOMORROW — to be concluded

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.

In the Ghetto

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2022 by dcairns

The Ghetto scenes are perhaps THE GREAT DICTATOR’s weaker inventions — it’s harder to mine comedy from nice people being nice, and the problem of how to depict the actual depredations of the Nazi state in a satire become more pressing. But they’re not terrible, or embarrassing, just occasionally uncomfortable.

Chaplin descends from the GHETTO sign using his new crane, and tracks through the environment (another T-junction naturally) as two Hynkel goons approach. Sliding past them he discovers a doorway to a courtyard and follows a civilian in.

The two main exposition guys, the gloomy Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch) and the perky Mr. Mann (Bernard Gorcey, yes, father of Leo) exchange reflections on Hynkel’s speech and the barber’s condition, without ever noting the curious resemblance between the two, and then Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, artfully smudged, is introduced.

Chaplin and Goddard had separated by this point, but still apparently got along, so she gets to be the only repeat leading lady of the feature films.

The introduction — a potted biography by Jaeckel, followed by another crane shot, drifting upwards of its own accord to capture her exit from the house — is clumsy enough to recall Billy Wilder’s dismissal of Chaplin as a talking picture man: “like a child of eight writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth.” One can accept the statement as being somewhat just, some of the time, without it actually being a deal-breaker: yes, this dialogue is certainly clumsy, but it’s somewhat beside the point. The key stuff in the film is not dialogue-dependent, until we come to the end.

“The airy-airy-airy-airy-Aryans,” is not a good song. I suspect it was left to the actors to make it up on the day. But that’s fine. Why give the bastards a good song? Chaplin could, of course, have written “authentic” Tomainian lyrics, but the stormtroopers are not supposed to be entertaining. They do use humour as part of their malevolence, in the manner of bullies everywhere. But they’re not allowed to be funny, which is good.

Among those playing stormtroopers in this film are: Hank Mann, the main prize-fighter from CITY LIGHTS, a Chaplin collaborator since A FILM JOHNNIE, ie Chaplin’s first year in movies… this is his last Chaplin perf but he kept acting until 1961; Eddie Gribbon (Canvasback in the JOE PALOOKA films); Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes in the FALCON films); George Lynn, who’s also in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The Lubitsch film reminds me: the Great Ernst said he was treating Nazis differently in his film than was customary. His Nazis are not smirking sadists, enjoying their work. They’ve been doing this for years, and they’re BORED of the incessant cruelty. It’s a very smart choice: Chaplin’s thugs have dated — you can understand him saying that if he’d known about the true conditions in Germany he couldn’t have made the film. Portraying them as thugs, bullies, gangsters, was the best solution most filmmakers could find to the problem of this unfamiliar variety of evil, making it comprehensible in some way to US audiences. But it diminishes the true evil.

Still, there’s something I like about Hollywood films with American actors playing Nazis — THE MORTAL STORM, for instance. Hynkel is specifically Tomainian — he has his own personal language, which besides him only Herring seems to speak. His hoods are just like everyone else, but worse.

What I’m getting at is that Nazism is a worse form of evil than any mere criminality, but as we’re increasingly seeing today it’s not necessarily specific to a race or nationality. Also, Lubitsch’s Nazis seem less inadequate as a dramatic depiction because they’re not trying to seem evil or vicious, just businesslike, banal, bored.