Wednesday, October 16, 2013

56. The Great Dictator (1940)

Code-name: Herr Garbage
(More explanation will come later, I promise :-P )

Type: Historical parody, dramedy, black & white

Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin

A Jewish Barber/Hynkle- Dictator of Tomania: Charlie Chaplin
Hannah- Paulette Goddard
Commander Schultz- Reginald Gardiner
Garbitsch- Henry Daniell
Napaloni- Dictator of Bacteria

Notable Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Lead Actor (Charlie Chaplin)
Best Writing (Charlie Chaplin)
Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie)
Best Original Score (Meredith Wilson)


Back Story (His & Mine)

Supposedly, Mr. Chaplin got the idea for this movie when a friend of his remarked about Hitler's physical similarity to him (namely the moustache he wore when he assumed the role of "The Little Tramp".) Ironically, they were born the same year, about 4 days apart.

It should also be noted that had he been aware of the extent of Hitler's terror in Europe, Chaplin never would have made this movie... which he clearly spends making fun of him.

As for me, with all of Chaplin's work, I credit Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in the Richard Attenbourgh-directed biopic with piquing my interest in the silent film legend.
However, I resolved not to see this particular film... that resolve lasted roughly 10 months.
And I thought it was maybe one of the best films Chaplin ever did.

Considering how he made a name for himself without saying a single word on camera, I wasn't sure how I'd adjust to him in a speaking role. That wasn't a problem by any means. My main concern was the controversial subject matter. I'm scratching my brain right now to recall my reaction when we got to this part in the biopic.. I'm pretty sure I thought he was nuts for doing it.

In their version, Kevin Kline (who played Douglas Fairbanks) made the comment that got Chaplin interested in doing this idea. It showed one or two scenes of him making the movie. One of which has his half-brother Cyd saying "nobody wants to see a movie about Adolph f---ing Hitler!" and he responds, "I do!"
The following scene had J. Edgar Hoover impressing his comments on the big speech in the finale: "He's not talking about Germany, you know! He's talking about America!"

Yet another attribution to my silly instance on taking movies seriously:
I DESPISE J. Edgar Hoover simply on the basis of for what he did to Chaplin in the latter portion of career, had him deemed a Communist and barred from America.


Ultimately, I believe if one is willing to keep an open mind, this movie really is quite hilarious.

Attempts at a Synopsis

First things first, not a lot of this movie makes a lot of sense. Most likely, it wasn't meant to.
Chaplin's main intent was to make Hitler look like the idiot he thought he was... while telling a good story.
Needless to say, he tells a better story when he's not vocally telling it :-P

The movie begins amidst World War I. The Jewish Barber is fighting on the German side. His clumsiness results in all kinds of shenanigans happens (as is often the case with The Tramp character anyway).
At one point, he helps one of his fellow army men, who'd been injured, into a bi-plane, which he flies to help them make their escape. The plane takes a couple of spins and spends quite a bit of time upside down. Hilariously, it takes a few extra moments for him to figure that out (the camera angle shows him right side up but his watch appears to be levitating).
By the time they return to Earth, the war is over... and the British have won.

Meanwhile, a new dictator has come to power of the fictional country of Tomania known as Hynkle. He makes a series of speeches to the people where he is praised. In his estate, he spends half his time goofing around and the other half plotting his next move to take over the world. Regarding the latter, he plans on invading another country and whether or not he'll be able to go ahead with it depends on his relationship with another dictator called Napaloni.

After spending some time at the hospital recovering from physical and mental fatigue from the war, the barber goes about his business as usual in his ghetto. This comes around the time the storm troopers are invading, painting the windows with swastikas and making life miserable for everyone. But thanks to Commander Schultz, the man he saved in the war, the soldiers stop putting pressure on the ghetto.
He also develops a friendship with a scrappy young lady named Hannah (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin wife at the time, with whom he'd co-starred in several of his projects). 

The fact these two characters look identical doesn't come into play until the last five minutes... and it's played off as a case of mistaken identity.


Caution: Possibility of Spoilers Straight Ahead

Most of my favorite bits and pieces of these movies are quotes and random sequences.

In the grand scheme of things, there's an interesting contrast in how Hynkle is presented at his estate and when he's making speeches.
When he's giving speeches, he speaks in butchered German with an English translator (often coming back with a single sentence after he'd said several).
But when he's at his home, away from the public eye, he speaks perfect English.

Aside from Napaloni (I believe to a contraction of Napoleon and Mussolini), the majority of Hynkle's interaction is with his second in commander, Garbitsch. And whenever someone referred to him, I heard it as "Herr Garbage!"
His butchered German in itself is hilarious, especially when random English words make their presence... I picked out "peanut," "cheesy ravioli," "cheese and crackers" and "macaroni"... among other things.
Sometimes words from the German like "sauerkraut' and "blitzkrieg" would appear to make it seem like he isn't too far off the mark.
Clearly, Chaplin spent a lot of time watching documentaries and films like "Triumph of the Will" to get Hitler's mannerisms down just right.

Along with restricting the ghettos, his biggest dream is a world of blue-eyed blondes... saying that because brunettes are behind all the demonstrations against him, they'll be prosecuted next after the Jews.

As for the randomness part of the hilarity:

In one scene he's prancing around the room with an inflated globe. Chaplin's remarkably light on his feet, turning this into somewhat of a ballet solo. The music is so tender in the background, principally performed with violins. It also reminds me of something James Lipton said while interviewing RDJ "inside the actor's studio"...
  • W.C. Fields apparently called Chaplin "the greatest ballet dancer that ever lived"... James Lipton then disregards it: "Fields was wildly jealous of Chaplin and always referred to him as 'that f---ing dancer'."

This scene takes place after one of Hynkle's men was buttering him up, saying how he could take over the world. To which Hynkle tells him to stop: "you're making me afraid of myself:.

Don't know why I found this particular scene so funny, but again, I chalk it up to my love of the random little things in life.

Hynkle looks for a listening device in a fruit bowl, suddenly paranoid (most likely because his attempts at procuring the country of Ostralich aren't going well), and takes out a banana. He peels it, angrily remarking one unintelligible syllable with each movement, and when he's finished, he breaks it in half and tosses it aside.

Did that have any point? Most likely not. But when I watched this movie on YouTube (where several of Chaplin's works are available), I had to watch it a couple times just to wrap my head around the insanity of it :-P

As for the barber, his highlights for me are few and far between. While Hynkle has a lot of funny scenes, the barber's most impressive moments favor quality over quantity.

There's one scene where he's on the job, cutting someone's hair, to the rhythm of "Hungarian Dance No. 5," which is playing on the radio.

While fighting off storm stoppers, Hannah accidentally conks him on the head with her frying pan (she'd done the same to the storm troopers earlier) and he dances up and down the street in delirium.
Generally speaking, the barber character is very similar to The LIttle Tramp. The differences are we see him in more than one costume, he has an actual occupation (opposed to just being a vagrant), and he talks.

But not to be missed by anyone is the big speech at the end of the movie.
I recommend you look it up on YouTube or read the transcript.
Chaplin even included it in his autobiography.

This comes to pass after the mistaken identity occurs.

Schultz and the barber are arrested, leaving the ghetto helpless at the hands of the storm troopers. They soon make their escape.
Hannah and members of her family do so as well.

Hynkle is on vacation fishing when the people looking for the barber arrest him.
Then the barber, dressed in uniforms he stole from the prison camp he was in, is whisked away to the podium to make a speech.

Just before he starts, Schultz says to him "you must speak, it's our only hope"...
something I cannot help but wonder if he's tapping on the fourth wall here.

Final Notes

As far as Chaplin's films go, I put this near the top, but I prefer his silent film work much more. Not just because they're more magical to watch, but also because the pacing is a lot better.
This movie runs for a little more than two hours and there are points where it lost my attention... if only for a couple minutes.

For the most part, he handles the sensitivity of the subject matter well, but I leave it up to the individual to determine whether or not they find it offensive.

And for the record, there will be another Chaplin film on my countdown, but not for quite some time. ;)
Coming Next Week:
"A bout of Nostalgia brought to you by...
 Steven Spielberg"

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