Thursday 4 March 2010

The Great Dictator (1940)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Star: Charles Chaplin

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

What leapt out at me first about The Great Dictator was the incredible way that Charlie Chaplin used music. One scene in particular contains a truly amazing matching of sound to visuals that is the equal of any routine put on by an Olympic gymnast, especially given that it was shot in a single take. Perhaps, given that this was 1940, coincidentally the year that Walt Disney released Fantasia, I should compare this talent to that of a world class animator, but Chaplin was constrained by the laws of physics. He takes a venerable piece of classical music, one of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms, and turns it into an impeccably choreographed soundtrack for a shave in a barbershop. 'Make your work a pleasure,' the radio announcer suggests. 'Move with the rhythm of music.' And so he does, without a hitch, though his customer is obviously thankful the radio isn't playing Flight of the Bumblebee instead.

What's most incredible about this is that Chaplin made his not inconsiderable reputation making silent films that, by definition, had nothing to do with sound in the slightest. In fact The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first talkie, released no less than thirteen years after The Jazz Singer had tolled the death knell to the silent era. It stuns me to realise that someone could master their art so completely yet then go on to master an entirely new art when the old one ceases to be. Of course he resisted that for a while, his masterful City Lights in 1931 being generally recognised as the last of the true silent American movies, and his only film between that and this, 1936's Modern Times, occupying strange ground in that it's certainly a sound film but not a talkie.

As a curious instance of synchronicity, this talent for adaptation through need was possibly most memorably displayed by the controversial German film director Leni Riefenstahl, whose groundbreaking work on Nazi propaganda films such as Triumph of the Will is so ably parodied here by Chaplin. As the title of her book The Four Lives of Leni Riefenstahl shows, she reinvented herself more than once: as an actress, a director, a photographer and a diver. Chaplin wore many hats too: actor, writer, composer, producer, director, even studio owner as he was one of the original founders of United Artists, along with D W Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Following the early spirit of Hollywood he did whatever needed to be done at the time and consequently for The Great Dictator he was writer, producer and director, along with playing a double lead role.

His two characters look very similar, so much so that they're eventually mistaken for each other, but are otherwise utterly different, given that this was designed as a comedy of errors. The idea was hatched when fellow director Alexander Korda, himself an emigre from Europe during the thirties, pointed out to Chaplin that his popular screen persona of the Little Tramp, the most recognisable character in the world, had a striking similarity to the rising German dictator Adolf Hitler. Chaplin then discovered that beyond being of similar height and build and with an obviously similar moustache, they were also born only four days apart from each other.

Of course these overt similarities were obvious but they were rarely highlighted in public as the Americans didn't care and the official policy in England at the time was appeasement, a policy lifted only when the Nazis invaded Poland and the Second World War began. It took only three days for entertainer Tommy Handley to appear on the radio singing Who is That Man (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin), with lyrics like 'If it wasn't for the boots and cane and trousers, you couldn’t tell the two of them apart,' and I'm sure there were many jokes doing the rounds at the time. Chaplin had been preparing The Great Dictator for a couple of years already but filming, perhaps symbolically, began in the very first week of the war, fashioned as a means of assault by parody.

Adenoid Hynkel is an obvious spoof version of Hitler who leads a country called Tomainia, named after a type of food poisoning. Naturally he's trying to take over the world but his every action invites ridicule. One memorable scene has him dance a romantic ballet with an inflatable globe ('My world,' he says) only for it to unexpectedly burst on him. You don't need to be a psychologist to figure that one out. Hynkel fails in almost every little task he attempts and he shrieks in the same sort of German-sounding gibberish that the cartoon studios also used to lampoon the Nazis. In fact many of the gags here work at the same level as cartoons like Bugs Bunny's Herr Meets Hare: cheap and universal but still funny.

Unknown to him, Hynkel has a double: a German, sorry Tomainian, corporal from the previous war who has only recently been released from hospital after a couple of decades suffering from amnesia. He might appear to be a hero, having lost his memory trying to save an officer who apparently had dispatches that could have won that war for Tomainia, especially as this officer, Schultz by name, has since progressed to a position of high power. However this corporal is a Jewish barber who soon finds that Tomainia has changed, as evidenced by stormtroopers painting 'Jew' on his shop windows. He's saved by the lovely Hannah, in the form of Paulette Goddard, and Schultz, who recognises him. Of course Hynkel and his Jewish barber double are fated to be confused for each other and Chaplin was precisely the right person to set up such a story.

Taking something as serious as the global threat of Nazism and turning it into slapstick and overt parody could easily be seen as a dubious concept. In fact, Chaplin later said that had he known the true extent of the atrocities that the Nazis were committing he would not have made the film. 'How's the gas?' Schultz asks the Jewish barber. 'Terrible, it kept me awake all night,' comes the reply. In his defence, it should be noted that the first Nazi extermination camps weren't built until 1942, two years after the release of this film, so any references that seem rather disconcerting are merely coincidental. Perhaps because of later discoveries, this stands up to posterity as the only film of the era to deliberately and overtly satirise Hitler and his Nazis.

What The Great Dictator gave Chaplin was a voice. Even without the passionate 'Look up, Hannah!' speech that ends the film, a speech that breaks the fourth wall so that this little Jewish barber can address not just his beloved Hannah in exile in Austria but us too, it's obvious that it was a very personal project for Chaplin and it's easy to understand why. Chaplin was born in England but was touring the US by 1910 and he decided to stay in 1912, finding his way to Hollywood and Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company by 1914 where the Little Tramp was born and Chaplin acquired considerable fame and fortune.

As an ex-pat Englishman he was well aware of the threat that Nazi Germany faced to his homeland and he knew many Europeans, being a world figure who had travelled to countries like Germany in the early thirties, friends who wrote to him about what was happening in Europe during that decade. He was popular in Germany, where the Nazis attempted to discredit him by describing him in a book called The Jews are Looking at You as 'a disgusting Jewish acrobat.' It must have been hugely frustrating for him to watch the great nation in which he had lived for twenty years refusing to help out in the slightest, not joining in the fight until Pearl Harbor two years after he began work on this film. The Great Dictator can as easily be seen as his plea for the US to lend a hand as much as a more general hope for global peace and tolerance.

In fact, after knocking the idea around for a few years, he had started preparing the film in 1938, when most people were unaware of what Hitler was planning and Winston Churchill was still just a prophetic voice crying out from the wilderness. The British government would have banned it outright had it been released before the war, though as they were at war when the film was completed they welcomed it for propaganda purposes. Halfway through filming, United Artists raised serious concerns but no less a name than Franklin D Roosevelt sent an advisor to meet Chaplin and encourage him to continue. He did so, not least because he had poured $1.5m of his own money into the film and would have acutely felt the impact of not releasing it. It turned out to be the biggest financial success of his career.

Of course the Nazis banned it outright and it remained banned in Germany up until 1998 when it was finally released to great success. Spain released it in 1975 after the death of General Franco but Italy didn't see a complete version until 2002, having previously been missing every scene featuring the wife of Benzino Napoloni, a portmanteau character based on both Mussolini and Napoleon, out of respect for Mussolini's widow Rachele. Legend says that while Hitler had banned it in Nazi territory, he himself watched the film twice. Unfortunately we have no clue what his reactions were and even Chaplin said, 'I'd give anything to know what he thought of it.'

There are other people in the film but sometimes it's hard to realise that, so utterly is this Chaplin's show from start to finish. Jack Oakie has fun strutting and blustering around as Napolini and a good part of the film is centered around his arguments with Hynkel about the fate of Austria, here called Osterlich. In a scene reminiscent of Joseph Chamberlain's famous piece of paper, Hynkel signs a deal with Napoloni only to immediately break it. Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's wife at the time, is an appropriate heroine while Henry Daniell is suitably slimy as Herr Garbitsch, the film's cartoon version of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and Billy Gilbert is appropriately inept as Field Marshal Herring, a take on Hermann Göring, of course.

Really though every one of these characters is as much a prop for Chaplin to play off as that inflatable globe and he does so with panache. I have as much respect as laughter for the slapstick stunts that Chaplin performed here as he was getting old by this time. When he made The Kid, probably the greatest silent comedy ever made, he was only 32 years old but by this film he was on the wrong side of fifty. Some of the humour is deliberately lowest common denominator stuff, such as the character names and the fact that 'Führer' becomes 'Phooey', but some is a little more sophisticated, such as replacing the swastika with a double cross. Even with so much schoolboy humour I still laughed at most of what I should have laughed at and given that I didn't see it until it over sixty years after its original release and in an entirely different world situation to the one that it was aimed at, that does suggest a great achievement indeed.

Most of all though, I have a huge amount of admiration for the film in general, because it's one of those movies whose mere existence is enough. The Great Dictator is a classic because Chaplin was daring enough to make it when he did and daring enough to release it when he did and to be brutally honest, that's enough. It's enjoyable to watch but it has lasted far better as a statement than as a piece of entertainment. Certainly it doesn't stand up as a film to any sort of detailed scrutiny, being little more than a set of skits wrapped up together to keep some vague sort of storyline going. Some work well, some not so well and often they don't fit well with each other in the slightest. There's a slow start and a powerful but disjointed ending, leaving a horrendously unbalanced pace. It simply is, but for this one film, that's enough.

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