Archive for Woody Allen

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!'”

Comedy Star

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2022 by dcairns

THE CIRCUS continues. More evidence of the nasty ringmaster mistreating his daughter — he’s starving her. Presumably concerned that she needs to remain slim for the trapeze. This circus is a lot like a movie studio, only he’s not giving her speed a la Judy Garland.

A star is discovered — Chaplin, asleep in the chariot/cart — the seed has been planted — the audience called for him. The ringmaster knows he’s a meal ticket. It IS a bit like Chaplin’s own story, how he was on the verge of getting canned from Keystone for being so difficult, until the box office receipts came in from his first films. The audience had spoken. Mack Sennett does not seem to have been as mean as Al Ernest Garcia is here, though.

Garcia is one of those effective but colourless supporting characters Chaplin liked. He didn’t want the attention on anyone but himself, but the actors around him needed to be very skilled indeed. Garcia plays the drunken millionaire’s butler in CITY LIGHTS and the factory boss in MODERN TIMES, and I’d never put one and one and one together before and realised it’s the same guy.

I recognise Tiny Sandford, the head props man, though — he’s Charlie’s co-worker in MODERN TIMES.

Making breakfast the next morning — there’s a good chicken-strangling gag — and Charlie has a waistcoat pocket full of salt for his meagre repast, rather the way Harpo might. Charlie is very fastidious about food, as we saw earlier with the hot dog. This is all a set-up for the meet cute, for the girl is hungry. Charlie is at first furious when he finds her eating his single slice of bread. A thief — a rival thief — must be fought off. But a girl is another matter. He ends up sharing the bread, and then she eats it so fast she gives him indigestion. Production designer Danny Hall’s painting of a sword swallower doesn’t help him.

Immediately, Charlie is behaving like a father, a benign one to contrast with the nasty real one. It’s his first time in this role since THE KID, the first time his romantic interest has been acknowledged as rather young for him, the relationship ambiguous. A few films later we have MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT, which take this further — the relationship is played as platonic and paternal. The Paulette Goddard films are slightly more romantic — maybe because they were a couple and it felt safer. It feels to me like Chaplin, unlike Woody Allen for decades, was becoming aware that audiences didn’t want to see him wooing and winning much younger women. Chaplin was rather handsome, but his Tramp guise negated some of that. And his scandalous divorce made any intimation of sexual desire dangerous.

So, anyway, Charlie has met the girl. Now he has to audition as a clown. Told to be funny, he does some Chaplinesque things. A backwards kick, a funny walk, hoisting himself up with his cane. “That’s awful!” says the ringmaster. Now we get a longish sequence where clowns demonstrate routines and Charlie tries to copy their schtick. This seems to be the stuff Walter Kerr objected to so strongly in The Silent Clowns.

For me, the problem is that none of it is particularly funny. The clown routines, performed by regulars Henry Bergman and Albert Austin with Heinie Conklin (a prospector in THE GOLD RUSH, and a specialist in racist caricatures), aren’t terribly interesting, though Charlie laughs and claps to try to convince us. His screwing them up isn’t interesting either. There’s a conflict of response, a confusion — is Charlie destroying the comedy, resulting in something unfunny, or is he destroying bad comedy, resulting in something that IS funny? Maybe the latter is the intention, but it’s not clear to me.

It SHOULD work, since Charlie is working in a mode he knew well — the incompetent and rascally assistant. In the William Tell routine, that’s also the role he’s actually asked to play. It’s the Auguste (Chaplin) and the whiteface clown (Bergman). Arrogant leader and minion who messes up. Workman and boss. Laurel & Hardy. Chaplin had been doing this since Keystone (WORK; HIS MUSICAL CAREER). But making the task performed a comedy routine seems to overcomplicate it.

The William Tell routine is something Chaplin had played with when Scottish comic Harry Lauder had visited his studio. There’s a piece of film. Here, Charlie elaborates it by substituting a banana skin for the apple, making a surreal mash-up of different slapstick ingredients, but it lands in that strange are of is-this-supposed-to-be-funny? It’s not clear that Charlie’s improvisation is worse than the original act.

Then there’s the barbershop act, which gets done very differently in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and had been done differently in SUNNYSIDE, but deleted. This one’s all buckets of foam getting slapped over everyone. There might have been a convincing conflict between a routine that’s all meaningless capering, and one based on character. This had been the actual conflict Chaplin faced and overcame at Keystone. But it won’t do here, I guess, because the Tramp character is not a comedian or a comic genius.

This is the trouble with comic plot ideas — they have to be serviceable story engines that move things along and lead to a climax — but they also have to create opportunities for amusing things to happen. Charlie’s inability to be funny on cue fulfils the former but not the latter, or at least, not in this scene.

Anyway, Charlie gets fired, not so much for failure to do the required gags, but for getting foam all over the boss, which we recognise as a real no-no. Chaplin now needs to find a narrative excuse to keep Charlie at the circus, and fortunately he’s really good at coming up with solutions. Here he relies on an old favourite (see, for instance, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE): an industrial dispute. The props men go on strike. A replacement must be found. Charlie is using an unconscious prop man as human furniture when Tiny Sandford finds him. He’s discovered again, hired again, the show’s on again.

TO BE CONTINUED

Nixon on Ice

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2020 by dcairns

SLEEPER came up in conversation the other day. You might want to consider getting frozen until this is all over (Covid-19/Trump/the Marvel universe).

The specific bit referred to is the reference to Nixon. Woody Allen has been revived from cryogenics in the year 2173, two hundred years after being put on ice. The people who have defrosted him try to bring him up to speed on historical developments.

A bit of TV news footage is screened for him: Dick Nixon addresses the nation. “Some of us have a theory that he might once have been a president of the United States, but that he did something horrendous so that all records, everything was wiped out about him. There is nothing in the history books, there are no pictures on stamps, no money…”

“Yes,” says Woody, “He actually was president of the United States, but I know that whenever he used to leave the White House the secret service used to count the silverware.”

What’s impressive here is that the movie opened in December 1973 and was presumably shot months earlier, and Nixon didn’t resign until August ’74. So that we could say that among his other accomplishments, WA doesn’t get enough credit for being a prophet.

(Please don’t let’s make this a referendum on his guilt or innocence vis-a-vis sex crimes. You’re allowed your opinion and I’m hanging on to my lack of one.)

I wonder how Trump will fare. Nixon, of course, was not erased from history but he certainly didn’t get commemorative stamps, just a bloated biopic. Trump seems unfilmable as even while he’s happening, he remains unimaginable. And there’s no inner life there to explore. Oliver Stone admitted he had to make his fictional Nixon gifted with more self-awareness than the real guy (as when he compares himself ruefully to Kennedy).

Back to SLEEPER: I had to look up a reference right before this one. It’s explained that our civilisation was largely wiped out by a war, when “a man called Albert Shanker got ahold of a nuclear warhead.” I had no idea who that was and probably audiences at the time outside the US didn’t either, but Shanker was president of the United Federation of Teachers. Which I find very funny, even without looking deeper into his character to discover what it was that made Allen feel he couldn’t be trusted with a nuke.