Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chaplin's The Great Dictator: Still Brave But Not Funny

Critic at Large’s David Churchill recently wrote on how disappointed he was upon re-visiting a film, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique on DVD, and finding that his fond memories of the movie when he first saw it on television many years earlier, had faded, replaced by a film he now didn’t much like at all. I had something of a similar experience when I re-watched Charlie Chaplin’s acclaimed 1940 comedy The Great Dictator, recently released in a spanking-new, extras-laden DVD from Criterion. But unlike David, I still like aspects of the movie; they’re just not the ones I most appreciated upon first viewing the film.

The movie is famous (or infamous in some circles) for courageously spoofing Nazi Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler, at a time when the United States was beset by isolationist/anti-Semitic forces determined to keep the United States out of the Second World War. Hollywood had almost entirely ignored the war and the beginnings of the Holocaust except in the odd movie (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Mortal Storm) which as often as not excised the anti-Semitic underpinnings of what was going on in Germany, going so far as to label Nazism’s victims in The Mortal Storm as ‘non-Aryans’ rather than Jews (even though scenes using the latter word had been filmed). In addition, Hollywood’s Jewish moguls had been read the riot act by Joseph Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, who had warned them that any movies attacking the Nazis could only make it worse for the Jews in Germany and at home in the U.S.. (Germany was also Hollywood’s best overseas market for film consumption.) The moguls complied with Kennedy’s unofficial threat and, as was so often the case when it came to their religion and identity, shamefully tamped down any overt references to what was going on with their co-religionists in Germany and Europe. Then along came Chaplin, a box-office behemoth, who wasn’t even Jewish, with a self-financed movie that not only daringly assailed Hitler but also dared to deal with the verboten cinematic subject of the persecution of the Jews. (I knew that the movie was also initially strongly supported by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who hoped that it would sway Americans to support the war but I didn't know that after near riots upon its release in Latin America, accompanied by cries from the mobs to 'kill the Jews', he backed away from the film. That's just one of the many informative tidbits on the DVD's commentary track, which is ably done by Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran.) Thus, a DVD release of The Great Dictator is laden with historical baggage that does not accrue to too many other movies. In that light, I have to look at the film in two ways: as a critic examining a potential work of ‘art’ and as a writer looking at the original, audacious realities of this milestone film. The former, thus, disappoints me, as well while the latter, if anything, impresses me more than ever.

Charlie Chaplin as dictator Adenoid Hynkel
In the film, Chaplin (who wrote, directed, and produced the movie) takes on a dual acting role, that of a simple Jewish barber, who is never named, and his doppelganger, Adenoid Hynkel, the vainglorious, vicious dictator or phooey (fuhrer) of Tomainia (read Germany). Injured during the First World War, the barber lies in a coma, an amnesiac who only recovers his senses two decades later when Hynkel is in power and his fellow Jews fear for their safety and security. That dire state of affairs hits him with a vengeance when, while attempting to wipe off anti-Semitic graffiti painted on his shop windows, he’s roughed up by some storm troopers, only to be rescued by Hannah (Paulette Goddard), a feisty Jewish resident of the ghetto. Eventually, mistaken for Hynkel, he gets his chance to address the multitudes in a maudlin, unlikely and preachy anti-fascist speech that, at the time, I perceived as the movie’s only flaw.

I generally feel that of all genres, except, perhaps for action movies, comedies suffer the most when translated to DVD or TV. The rich shared experience of a whole audience laughing at the same scene, disappears, rendering comedies, more often than not, as flat (or at least flatter) on the small screen. That might partially explain why, upon my watching the new DVD of The Great Dictator, I didn’t find the film to be funny at all.

But that’s not the whole story. I certainly found The Great Dictator to be uproarious when I first saw it, way back in high school, when CBC-TV (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation -- our equivalent to the BBC) ran a lengthy Sunday series career overview of all of Chaplin’s feature films and shorts. (I also remember my father being a huge fan of Chaplin having seen some of those films in Poland where he was born.) And the movie certainly works with audiences, as I know from having programmed it for the 2003 edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, prompted by the release of Michael Kloft's and Kevin Brownlow's superb documentary The Tramp and the Dictator (2001), which I screened just before the Chaplin film. That doc juxtaposed many startling similarities between Chaplin and Hitler, who were born to similar socio-economic circumstances in the same week in 1889 and whose lives often followed parallel courses, until they became famous, for entirely different reasons. Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Hitler likely were also the most famous mustachioed figures on the planet. (The Tramp and The Dictator is one of the welcome extras on Disc 2 of the Criterion release.)

So why didn’t The Great Dictator work for me, as comedy, when I watched it again? I think it may be because, at the end of the day, Chaplin’s directorial skills never quite matched his inventive film persona of The Little Tramp or the simple comic takes that were most effective in his short films such as the anti-war Shoulder Arms (1918) or The Pawnshop (1916). Stretched out to feature length and The Great Dictator runs just slightly over two hours, his comedic lulls and flat direction become more evident. I had an inkling of this weakness on Chaplin’s part when I looked at portions of his famous The Gold Rush (1925) again recently for a class I was teaching on comedy. The well-known scene of Chaplin, whose character is starving, not just eating a shoe but turning it into a comedic gourmet feast, didn’t tickle my funny bone as much as when I first saw it, and that’s one of his best known scenes. (I should add that Modern Times (1936), his finest movie, seems to be an exception to the rule.) So all the remembered ‘great’ scenes in The Great Dictator, such as Hynkel’s lyrical pas de deux with a balloon of the globe or his bending a microphone under the weight of  his public political rants, were now just ho-hum moments in the movie. However, what struck me anew was how powerful some of the serious portions of the movie still were, in particular those addressing the scourge of anti-Semitism.

Chaplin’s condemnation of anti-Semitism was for its time a remarkable act of courage and by bravely tackling that subject; he was also entering what was pretty much virgin territory in American cinema. In Daniel Anker’s fine 2004 documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, the late director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) exclaimed that when he first saw The Great Dictator as a teenager, he had never heard the word 'Jew' mentioned in a movie before and was shocked by its utterance on screen. He was pretty much right. Though the earlier underrated bio-pic The House of Rothschild (1934), about the famous Jewish European banking family, was very forthright about its Jewish protagonists who faced much anti-Semitism, that word indeed rarely figured in the movies, even though so many actors, producers, directors, and screenwriters were themselves Jews. Then along came Chaplin, who, against Jewish advice and self-financing a movie no studio wanted to make, created a film that dared to go against the deracinated grain and did not pretend that its Jewish characters were anything else but Jews, and depicted the hatred of them as a policy of the ‘fictional’ state of Tomainia (read Germany). Further, Chaplin's Jews, despite speaking, for the most part, as they logically would, with heavy accents, were not stereotypes, a salient point made on the DVD's commentary track. The film’s Jews were, in fact, brave and cowardly, cynical and naïve, optimists and pessimists, in short a multifaceted microcosm of humanity, just like anybody else. That sounds obvious but even this many decades later, and with so many Jewish-themed films having come down the pike in the meanwhile, that multifaceted depiction of Jews, even extending to their less obvious names like Agar and Jaeckel, was and still is startling, and one of the movie’s deserved high points. So, too, are the disturbing sequences showcasing the persecution and harassment of Tomainia’s Jews.

Chaplin and Bernard Gorcey
The Great Dictator, despite its often slack direction, is also very well acted. Check out Chaplin’s nuanced performances: there’s no connecting point whatsoever between his naïve, ingenuous barber and the nasty, frequently buffoonish Hynkel. Except for Goddard, who sounds too American and a little too gee-whiz in her part, the cast surrounding Chaplin excels, too. Billy Gilbert’s Minister of War, Herring (a blustery takeoff on German Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Goering), and Henry Daniell's chilling riff as Minster of the Interior, Garbitsch, aka Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, are stand outs, as are Yiddish actor Maurice Moscovich as Mr. Jaeckel, the ghetto’s dignified patriarch and Bernard Gorcey as the fidgety Mr. Mann, another ghetto resident. I even like Jack Oakie’s spoof of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, here renamed Benzino Napolini, dictator of Bacteria, though it must be said that he overdoes the Italian mannerisms in a way that Chaplin's German Hynkel did not. (Incidentally there were no official ghettoes in Germany when Hitler took power in 1933 though he quickly restored their existence. Chaplin also utilized the universal language of Esperanto for the ghetto storefronts, instead of Yiddish, as Hitler considered the former to be a Jewish plot.) Interestingly, historians Kamin and Mehran reveal that for the first time, Chaplin cast other big names of the era, such as Daniell and Gilbert, in one of his movies.

Quality acting aside, the film, which is handsomely mounted, does suffer from structural weaknesses and some illogical plot points; if the barber is amnesiac, for example, why is he able to remember what his profession was? Chaplin also betrays his greater interest in Hynkel than in his Jewish characters, by abandoning the latter for a time so he can set up several set pieces involving Tomainia’s leader and his not so friendly rivalry with Napolini. (One scene establishing their fractious, competitive relationship would have been sufficient.) Oddly, the film’s barber/Hynkel doppelgänger plotline, which is even jokingly referenced in the opening credits, as a shot across Hitler’s bow, only kicks in for the last fifteen minutes of the 128 minute movie, and so not much can be done with it. It also makes little sense since no one in the movie ever remarks on the obvious fact that the barber looks like you know who. And, of course, that last saccharine speech, the climax of the movie, with the Jewish barber quoting from the New Testament (!) doesn’t work at all, though Chaplin, who got much critical grief over the movie's conclusion, always stood by it.

Chaplin and Paulette Goddard
I wish that The Great Dictator, which was a big hit upon release, held up comically the way the very sharp satirical films of Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Lady Eve) or the anarchic comedies of The Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera) do, thus rewarding multiple viewings.If you’re seeing it for the first time, you are likely to disagree, but if this movie no longer resonates for me as a comedy classic – as anti-war spoofs go, Duck Soup (1933) beats The Great Dictator hands down – I still think there’s much to recommend in it, ironically just not in the realm of humour. Its virtues lie elsewhere.

*In addition to The Tramp and the Dictator documentary, the Criterion DVD also contains some other goodies, including compelling long lost colour footage of this black and white film, shot on set by the director’s half-brother Sydney, a deleted barbershop scene from Chaplin’s lesser known 1919 short Sunnyside and an excellent accompanying booklet, featuring Chaplin’s passionate 1940 New York Times defense of his film and legendary cartoonist Al Hirschfeld’s nifty illustrations which originally decorated the film’s press book.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. On Tuesday June 28, he concludes a three week lecture series on Key Filmmakers of Our Time, examining the career of French director Claire Denis. The lecture takes place from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West).

1 comment:

  1. The film is hilarious , if viewed in context, but of course having watched it dozens and dozens of times since my first viewing in the early 1960's in an "art cinema" in Greenwich village, I no longer laugh out loud, but enjoy my silent amusement , because I love satire. I love the names that Chaplin gave the Nazis and the Fascists. I love the nonsense in the train platform scene, laughing at Mussolini's Italy , where it was said that the trains now ran on time.
    I understand that this was unique. Chaplin stood above the crowd, He told the truth. It's heroic.
    The most beautiful scene is the last.Chaplin speaks from a spiritual place as a human being capable of love confronting evil.Wilhelm Reich would call the Nazis the "armoured men", incapable of experiencing love, their bodies armoured against feeling.
    It's cynical to say that what he says is maudlin or sacharine, when I have always been convinced that this was a heart felt expression of what he believed. As a Jew , I was touched that he quoted the New Testament.He was a Christian standing up for the Jews. In context, that was a first!