Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) – Two little Hitlers

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The following is my second of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first “all-talking” movie, is not a perfect film – there are dead spots here and there, and it wavers nervously between political farce and humanistic melodrama. Yet it is as compelling as anything in the Chaplin canon.

For one thing, you couldn’t find a movie that is more “of its time.” Chaplin’s uncanny resemblance to Hitler (they were also born within a week of each other) inevitably dictated (sorry) that Chaplin would have to take on the monster of his era. Chaplin later said that, had he known of the horrors of the actual concentration camps (portrayed fairly benignly here), he could never have made this movie. Yet one should be grateful he took on its subject matter at all, as history tells us how pacifist much of Hollywood (and America) was willing to be at the time.

The story concerns Chaplin’s version of Hitler, “Der Phooey” Adenoid Hynkel, and his country of Tomania, which he hopes to ruthlessly expand to include the entire globe. (Lest there be any doubt about this goal, there’s the movie’s famous, wordless scene in which Hynkel makes love to his “intended” by dancing and playing with an inflated globe of the Earth.)

Chaplin also plays Hynkel’s inadvertent double, an innocent Jewish barber who comes upon Hynkel’s Tomania after years in a psychiatric ward following World War I. The barber returns to his modest Jewish community and his business, thinking that everything is back to normal, only to be thrust into the center of anything-but-normal.

Chaplin’s burlesque of Hitler can be described only as spot-on; even the gibberish is perfect. As for the age-old question of whether the barber character is an extension of Chaplin’s Tramp, all you can do is look at the derby hat, toothbrush moustache, and waddle-walk, and think to yourself: He sure ain’t Monsieur Verdoux.

The movie begins a bit clumsily, as it’s pretty obvious that Chaplin is trying to do some silent-movie comedy at sound speed. But soon enough, the movie gets in sync and provides many memorable set-pieces: the globe dance, the barber shaving a customer in time to the radio music, the coins in the pudding, etc.

And this movie should stand as the final word to any critic who says that Chaplin never let another actor be his equal or upstage him. To a man (we’ll discuss the woman in a moment), Chaplin the director gets wonderful performances, of varying kinds, from his peers. Reginald Gardiner is rather touching as Schultz, the Tomanian officer who grants the barber some slack due to their shared past. Comic veteran Billy Gilbert is adorable as Hynkel’s flunkie Herring, forever sputtering and hoping for a ray of Hynkel’s approval. Henry Daniell is just fascinating as Hynkel’s advisor Garbitsch, bringing more to the role than seems asked of him; you get the feeling Garbitsch could have been a powermonger to overtake Hynkel if Chaplin had let him. The most sober (without being maudlin) of the downtrodden Jews is the cynical Jaeckel, understatedly played by Maurice Moscovich.

And let us give a manic salute to Jack Oakie for his Mussolini take-off, Napaloni. Chaplin gives Oakie generous leeway to show Napaloni’s passive-aggressive superiority to the neurotic Hynkel, and Oakie makes the most of every minute he’s on-screen.

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Then there’s the famous finale, where the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and is called upon to address the world just before Hynkel’s forces are set to take over a nearby country of refuge. Chaplin famously “dropped the mask” here and delivered a heartfelt, six-minute speech devoted to humanity. The speech has mostly been a sore spot, even among many Chaplin buffs, since the movie was first released. And I have to say it: The speech works for me.

Of course, the speech is very out-of-character; it’s doubtful that the simplistic barber could conjure up such verbosity on the spot. That leaves Chaplin-the-celebrity addressing us, and many people have said he should have shut up then and there. But whenever I watch and hear that final speech, I think about 1940 and how much different (and presumably nicer) the world would have been if the real Hitler had found it in himself to say something like that. And aren’t movies just wish-fulfillment, anyway? On those terms, I can accept that speech quite handily.

(If the speech is missing anything, it’s that comic punctuation Chaplin used to include — a gag that would “snap” the pathos and keep it from getting too icky, as in City Lights when the Tramp lingers on the sight of the blind girl and she unknowingly throws water in his face. Maybe the speech could have been “leavened” by a cutaway or two to Hynkel having been forced into taking the barber’s place at the insane asylum, sitting bound-up in a strait-jacket and going into hysterics as he listens to the barber giving his power away.)

What I find much harder to ignore (or accept) about the movie is Paulette Goddard as Hannah, the simple, modest cleaning woman of the Jewish ghetto. Hannah is a poorly written character to start with – she’s little more than Chaplin’s love letter to Goddard (who was Mrs. Chaplin at the time) – and Goddard herself doesn’t add much to the role. Hannah is forever giving “Rah-rah, let’s beat those nasty storm troopers” speeches to the point of tedium. One such speech occurs when Hynkel, in an effort to finagle a loan from a Jewish businessman, decides to temporarily quit persecuting the ghetto’s Jews. When the storm troopers unexpectedly treat Hannah and the barber politely, Hannah looks straight into the camera and expostulates about the world’s goodness in a way to make you turn away in embarrassment.

Complaints aside, The Great Dictator remains compelling and often hilarious Chaplin viewing. It was his biggest money-maker to date, so there must have been at least a few other people who agreed with Chaplin’s sentiments in that closing speech.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, about the ongoing debate on Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton.)

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Charlie Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton: Who cares??

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The following is my first of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

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I first came across Charlie Chaplin when I was 11 years old and just “getting into” silent movies. I didn’t start watching Buster Keaton movies until a few years later, mainly because I never had access to any of them until a local PBS station began showing them. I find both men, in their individual ways, brilliant silent-film comedians.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been listening to the ridiculous debate about Chaplin versus Keaton — which comic is funnier, less sentimental, more artistic, etc. — as though great movie comics are so plentiful that we must compare apples to oranges. For the final word on this subject, I have two quotes. The first quote is from The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr’s invaluable study of silent-film comedy; the second is a seemingly irrelevant quote about a completely different subject by Susan Sontag. (However, in Sontag’s case, replace “The Doors and Dostoyevsky” with “Keaton and Chaplin,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

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* “…[Keaton] has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal but as Chaplin’s superior. This, I think, is waste effort, a misreading of Keaton’s very values…Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester. The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.” – Walter Kerr, 1975

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* “If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?” – Susan Sontag, 1996

(If you liked this blog, please click here to read my second blogathon entry, about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.)

CELEBRITY (1998) – Woody Allen’s weak take on the excesses of fame

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Three caveats about the cast of Woody Allen’s Celebrity must top this review. First, this movie got more than the usual publicity for an Allen film solely because Leonardo Dicaprio is in it. But any teenaged Leo fans must be forewarned: The guy from Titanic takes up about 10 of the movie’s 113 minutes, and the rest of the film will leave you either bewildered or apathetic.

Secondly, when I heard that Kenneth Branagh was in the movie, I envisioned the wonderful British actor bring grace and suavity to the lead role. Instead, Branagh ends up doing an uncanny imitation of Allen — the gestures, the stuttering, even the wardrobe. This nebbishy impersonation makes his character — a womanizing journalist who drives around in an Aspen-Martin — quite implausible, bordering on intolerable.

Lastly, the unsung heroine of the movie is Allen alumnus Judy Davis, whose performance as Robin, the journalist’s neurotic ex-wife, creates the movie’s only believable character. With all the fuss that critics have made about Branagh’s and Dicaprio’s appearances, there was barely a whisper about Davis’s work. But without her, the movie would be downright soulless.

Branagh plays Lee Simon, a lowly travel writer who itches to become a celebrity journalist. But writer-director Allen doesn’t begin to get the details down. Star-chasing Simon carries only a pocket-sized notepad, on which he occasionally scribbles some notes. As the husband of a local newspaper editor, I can tell you that the backpacks of my wife’s staffers weigh more than Simon does.

(Simon is also an aspiring novelist and scriptwriter, yet he still composes on a typewriter, and he had only a single manuscript of his half-completed novel. Forget computers, even–hasn’t this guy ever heard of copy machines?)

Simon inexplicably gets assigned celebrity beats and does his best to foul them up. In the middle of an orgy with the room-trashing heartthrob (Dicaprio), Simon tries to get the guy to green-light his script. And Simon’s date with a hot fashion model (Charlize Theron) is ruined when he plows his sports car into a showroom during a passionate kiss.

In the meantime, Allen inserts some scattershot satire. We’re meant to lament a pop culture that makes celebrities of one-hit wonders and supermodels. This lecture disguised as a movie carries little weight, coming from a director who shuns publicity yet still gets photographed at only the poshest hot spots and fashion shows. In middle-class America, we call that having our cake and eating it too.

The rest of Allen’s standard big-name cast — including Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, and Melanie Griffith — come off as ciphers. And Allen, once renowned for his movies’ memorable females, here presents Bebe Neuwirth (of “Cheers” and “Frasier”) as a prostitute who tutors Robin, in the most insulting female movie scene of the year.

A lot of Woody Allen’s latter-day work features interesting characters and insights that are far offset by Allen’s obsession with sexual mechanics. Celebrity is a prime example.

W.C. Fields in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (1933) – And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!

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As parody (in this case, of old stage melodramas), The Fatal Glass of Beer was ahead of its time. Roundly panned upon its initial release for its cheap look and over-the-top acting, its sense of bad taste is positively quaint in this post-Mel Brooks era. Plus, it’s still funny as all get-out.

Fields plays Mr. Snavely who, with his wife (Rosemary Theby), live in a modest cabin in the Yukon at the turn of the century. The Snavelys have a son named Chester (George Chandler), who left his modest home to go find his way in the big city, only to be arrested and jailed after stealing some bonds. We find this out in a song that Snavely torturously sings to a visiting Mountie (played by Rychard Cramer, frequent villain of Laurel & Hardy comedies), as well as hammily acted flashbacks that accompany the song.

Besides the inevitable, bathetic reunion of Chester with his parents, much of the movie’s comedy comes from what we could kindly call its lack of mise-en-scene. At one point, Snavely goes “over the rim” with his team of sled dogs, one of whom is so spindly that his paws don’t even touch the ground. As Snavely repeatedly commands the dogs to “Mush!”, he swallows some of the fake snow that has been lobbed at him and observes, “Tastes more like cornflakes!”

Whereas in most W.C. Fields comedies whose cheapness and lack of coherency are to be taken at face value, The Fatal Glass of Beer presents those debits as comic relief to what we’d have had to endure if the melodrama had been played straight. The movie is a real hoot.

W.C. Fields in THE PHARMACIST (1933) – Wanna buy a stamp?

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The Pharmacist is easily the slightest of the three shorts that W.C. Fields made for producer Mack Sennett. With its utter defiance of film sense and continuity, it almost seems a short-subject companion to Fields’ equally surreal feature film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

Fields plays Mr. Dilweg, the owner of a pharmacy that does not seem to be thriving. And small wonder — Dilweg seems to regard himself as most successful when selling entries from his postage-stamp inventory, and he gives away huge, arty vases to all of his customers (even the non-paying ones) as “souvenirs.”

Even stranger than the movie’s miniscule plot is Babe Kane — the worldly fiancee from Fields’ Sennett short The Dentist — as Dilweg’s Baby Snooks-like toddler daughter, whom Fields disciplines in a way that is just short of child abuse. As with Sucker, this movie’s finale seems to have come about mostly because Fields couldn’t think of anything better with which to end the movie.

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941) – W.C. Fields, Sucker

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As W.C. Fields’ final starring movie, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break has its moments, but with its extreme non-plot and non sequitors, it is probably not the movie with which to introduce an unsuspecting viewer to Fields. An online friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he described the movie as “The Bank Dick after a few drinks.”

The main crux of the movie is Fields (who plays himself, more or less) trying to sell his movie script to the flummoxy boss (Franklin Pangborn) of a studio named Esoteric Pictures. As the boss reads Fields’ script aloud, it is presented to us in the form of a, er, non-movie-within-a-non-movie. The “real” movie’s bookends are no more than a series of vignettes. The best of them are probably Fields trying to consume a peach shake at an ice cream parlor (He prefaces the bit by telling us, directly to the camera, “This scene was supposed to be set in a saloon, but the censor cut it out”), and a wild climax of a chase scene that comes out of nowhere but is quite elaborate and pretty funny on its own.

Despite the movie’s rambling motif, its biggest debit is Gloria Jean, an ingenue whom Universal Studios was grooming to be their new Deanna Durbin (another ingenue who had outgrown her child-like roles). Fields reportedly had major battles with Universal over this movie, and one wonders if Gloria Jean’s role as Fields’ starry-eyed niece was forced upon him by the studio. In any case, with her many operetta numbers and her character’s pious loyalty to her uncle, the movie stops dead in its tracks whenever she appears.

But if you put your sense of cinematic continuity on hold, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the movie. Among other treats, Marx Brothers buffs will enjoy seeing Margaret Dumont (heavily eyebrowed) as Mrs. Hemoglobin, a widowed hermit who has her sights set on Fields. (Also, look for Fields’ real-life on-and-off mistress, Carlotta Monti, in a brief bit as a sharp-tongued receptionist.) At only 70 minutes long, the movie is quite a brief yet heady brew.

(TRIVIA: In one of his many feuds with Universal over the movie, Fields wanted to name it The Great Man, but instead, Universal knicked one of Fields’ quotes from his movie Never Cheat an Honest Man [1939] for its final title. Fields is said to have grumbled, “What difference does it make? They can’t get that on a marquee. It’ll probably boil down to Fields – Sucker.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAUREL & HARDY’S LAUGHING 20’s (1965) – Nice compilation of L&H silent comedies

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Although Laurel & Hardy’s “talkie” short subjects finally got their due on a lavish American DVD set in 2011, their silent shorts aren’t as readily available in the U.S. (because they are owned by different hands). So if you have trouble obtaining L&H’s terrific silent shorts as a set, your best bet is to check out Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, one of the many silent-comedy compilations lovingly put together by film historian Robert Youngson in the 1950’s and ’60s.

Youngson’s efforts, well-chronicled in the L&H biography Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward, were instrumental in rekindling interest in silent-film comedy in general and L&H in particular. Though Youngson’s narration tends to be a bit verbose, his affection for Laurel & Hardy’s peerless comedy is obvious and infectious. And this compilation, especially, presents most of its subjects virtually complete (except for subtitles) and, with modest but effective musical scoring, nearly as lovingly as the originals.

Among the L&H gems presented here are: Liberty (1929), one of my personal L&H faves, with Stan and Ollie doing a “Harold Lloyd” stunt number atop an unfinished skyscraper; From Soup to Nuts (1928), with Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc as waiters at a dinner party; and The Finishing Touch (1928), with the duo building (or, more exactly, not building) a house. The film’s closer features climaxes (and only the climaxes, unfortunately) from L&H gems such as The Battle of the Century (with its famous pie-throwing melee) and Two Tars (a hilarious traffic jam that inspired much in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend).

(Also included are very funny excerpts from short subjects of L&H’s contemporaries  at the Hal Roach Studios, Charlie Chase and Max Davidson.)

To a film generation acquainted only with color, sound, and fury, the methodical pace of Laurel & Hardy’s silent work is almost like a foreign language to be learned. But the beauty inherent in a second language is on ample display here, especially as an anecdote to latter-day bodily-function comedies.