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Saturday, 25 February 2017

THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)

In his early work, Chaplin didn’t often attempt to blend comedy with the unpleasant realities of life - unless you count childhood separation trauma in The Kid (1921), the ghoulish hallucinations and the staving off of cannibalism in The Gold Rush or those fierce Grand Guignol eyebrows of supporting actor Eric Campbell across his films. At the end of World War One he found trench humour in Shoulder Arms (1918) which ended with him dreaming of capturing the German Kaiser. He would take aim at a far bigger target in his future.

Chaplin knew he must free himself from his Little Tramp shadow and of the easy, affecting sentimentality that accompanied that former alter-ego. It was time to ask questions that were more difficult, about subjects more controversial. It was the maturer, more reflective artist of later life that was about to create his masterpiece The Great Dictator.

I would argue a place for The Great Dictator in this retrospective based on fitting the definition of horror as well as satire. If we accept horror as the dwelling on nightmarish possibilities, the truly awful and terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror) then what could be worse than the Holocaust? And in its catalyst, the tyrant who ordered millions of humans to be exterminated as if ordering the shipping of produce, who could possibly be a greater monster or serial killer than Hitler? Moreover, the vileness of the method and chief instigator are all the more appalling for being real, rather than hiding behind the safe wall of the writers’ imagination.

Trying to find a humorous angle about the very worst inhumanity of WWII is surely the hardest proposition in comedy. In thinking about the unthinkable, honouring the living and the dead and aiming offence only at those deserving it, understandably few have dared to try. I can only think of one film since Chaplin’s that successfully mined pointed humour from the subject - Roberto Benigni’s stunningly brave Life is Beautiful (1997) - in which a father heartbreakingly maintains till his death the illusion for his son’s sake that their concentration camp internment is all a game. Jerry Lewis struggled so much with the tone of his Auschwitz-set 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried (as a clown recruited to divert the attention of the camp children till he finds himself locked in the gas chamber with them) that as of writing this, he has still never allowed the film’s release out of enduring shame.

For Charlie Chaplin, world events would conspire to push him into feeling he had no choice but to reflect them in his work. The course of his life and that of the emerging threat of Chancellor Adolf Hitler raise interesting parallels as well as contrasts. Both men were born in the very same week of April 1889, just four days apart. They would go on to occupy two sides of the same fame coin: the celebrated and the infamous. One short, moustached man would be loved the world over, the other feared. Chaplin was born in London into extreme poverty and his own childhood trauma, with an absent father and a mother who suffered precarious mental health that forced her into institutional care. Raised in Austria-Hungary, Hitler suffered violence at the hands of an abusive father, though he cared deeply for his mother.

Neither boy benefitted from schooling. While Chaplin educated himself on the streets and as a boy performer in the Music Halls before emigrating to America, Hitler sought his artistic future as a prospective art student. He set his sights on the lofty Vienna Academy. Their rejection of his unremarkable talent scarred him for life, the resulting dejection sent him spiralling into slum living as a real-life tramp much like Charlie’s youth. Inevitably young Hitler’s situation crossed his path with undesirables, one of whom was Guido von List, a Gandalf-bearded occultist of letters whose anti-Semitic teachings fuelled his fateful road to hate-propelled power. 

The aftermath of WWII left Germany in grinding poverty, fertile ground for the whole nation to be persuaded by opportunistic factions recruiting for their belief systems. Hitler sided with his old General in the revolutionary Munich Putsch of 1923 and subsequently landed in jail where he wrote Mein Kampf. Like many, he was further inspired by the success of Mussolini’s fascist regime, particularly after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 when even Americans looked favourably on the Italian dictator’s efficiency drives for national revitalisation.

Cinema was a vital link between the actor and the politician in promoting their image. Both understood its potential influence, but whereas Chaplin’s talent translated beautifully onto the silent movie screen, Hitler’s gesticulations and ferocity looked inappropriately comical. Ironically, he benefitted from the huge communication leap provided by his nemeses in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first major studio sound film, produced by and starring jews. With the aid of acting lessons, now the compelling sound of Hitler’s speeches represented him to his people with devastating potency, taking him to supreme power as the German Chancellor. In this period Chaplin spent long hours at the cinema with his son Sydney, studying endless newsreels and declaring Hitler the greatest actor he had ever seen.

The admiration was not mutual. Though Hitler was himself a film buff enjoying American movies and a special fondness for Greta Garbo, he was no fan of Chaplin. Kevin Brownlow’s compelling documentary The Tramp and the Dictator cites examples of ugly Nazi propaganda aimed at him. The poisonous book Juden Sehen Dich An (‘The Jews are Watching You’) published in 1933 and the 1940 documentary Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew’) indulged in hate-mongering, reductionist racism singling him out as a perceived Jew. Though there was no evidence in his genealogy, to his credit Chaplin never denied the claim. Brownlow said: "He was sent a copy of this book and it is widely believed that this led him to make the film The Great Dictator as an act of defiance."

While Hitler harnessed the impact of cinema sound in his growing bid to conquer the world, Chaplin held out as long as he could against the innovation. In his mind, he had conquered the world as an entertainer without it. Even his anti-capitalist gem Modern Times (1936) made almost a decade into the new medium’s use was still a silent film with added sound effects to get around having to fully embrace the change. The film was still daringly topical even so. The factory conveyor belt sight-gags were inspired by automotive tycoon Henry Ford who had installed the first car worker assembly line, boasting immense efficiency at the cost of dehumanising labour. Allan Garcia was cast as the tyrannical Company President with his hair dyed whiter to directly resemble Mr Ford. The industrialist not only exploited his workers in pursuit of profit, he was anti-union and overtly anti-semitic, having already published the four-volume series The International Jew - reputedly a great influence on the founder of Germany’s Hitler Youth.

Such open racism was much more common in America than modern readers might realise. The pro-Nazi German-American Bund’s popularity culminated in 20,000 attendees at its rally in Madison Square Garden, New York in February 1939. There were even Congressional hearings investigating the Jewish influence upon the Hollywood film business from an attitude of unmistakeable suspicion. In the post-Depression years before the Third Reich’s monstrous plans and methods were revealed, the USA actually looked to Hitler’s German government with admiration. After all, what they saw was a nation eschewing self-pity and instead rolling up its sleeves to build new infrastructure, absorbing men and women into a collective vision of productivity. Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will (1935) paraded 700,000 proud soldiers at Nuremberg in a display still astounding in today’s era of CGI-created crowd effects.

Behind the scenes though, the Nazis were expressing their darker purpose, one that would warp an appearance of healthy creation into unimaginable greed and destruction. Their masterplan annexed Austria in March 1938, affording Hitler the chance to drive through Vienna with all the vengeful pride he felt he had lost when that city crushed his teenage artist dreams.  By the time of the hideous Kristallnacht attack against the Jews within Germany, it would surely be impossible for other countries to doubt the deplorable monstrosity of Nazism’s real intent.

Chaplin refused to impotently sit by. His response was to channel his pent-up rage against Hitler into creativity and announced in October 1938 that his next film would bear the pointed title The Great Dictator. Many studio executives were horrified and tried to temper him, reasoning that they could not risk reprisals in Germany and fascist Italy, still very lucrative markets for American movies. His assistant Dan Jones recalled their advice: “You’re going to make it terribly hard for our people over there. You’re going to make Hitler furious”. He however could not conceive of any worse repercussions than what was being hinted at for the whole world. He was not alone. His admirable stance had a powerful ally in President Roosevelt who backed him fully.

Nine days after war officially broke out on September 9th 1939, Chaplin began shooting as the writer and director of The Great Dictator on secret closed sets. Much was at stake for him since the entire production was self-financed. He was putting his money where his mouth would be – and for the first time would be heard speaking through it on screen. Although the settings were given fictional Ruritanian names, there was no denying the parallels with the real world. The understated prologue card reads that between the wars ‘Liberty took a nose dive and Humanity was kicked around somewhat’.

The opening sees Chaplin as a drafted version of his plucky Little Man persona struggling to cope on the front line in 1918 as part of the Tomanian army (essentially picking up where Shoulder Arms ended). Cagily, he conceals his voice other than brief subordinate replies and presents a farcical set-up attempting to operate their Big Bertha gun which only rewards their preparation by a shell plopping out with an exaggerated cork pop effect. The sight-gag invention continues amusingly when he is ordered to retrieve the shell that swivels at him with a mind of its own wherever he turns. There is a disturbing edge to the humour when he primes a grenade and then loses it down his sleeve, only retrieving and throwing it just in time to avoid being blown up. In the fog of trench war, he even finds himself advancing alongside the enemy’s troops.

We then discover that in the ensuing Great Depression, the party of dictator Adenoid Hynkel has filled the vacuum with his overweening ego – the flip-side of Chaplin’s two dual roles. This signals the naughty schoolboy humour of Chaplin firstly in his ridiculing of names. Aside from the Hitlerian leader, there are other notorious associates spoofed from his real life cabinet: Herr Garbitch (the coolly disdainful Henry Daniell) mocking propaganda supremo Josef Goebbels, Admiral Herring (a welcome reappearance by Billy Gilbert, Laurel and Hardy’s volcano-tempered foe in 1932’s The Music Box) – and even an off-screen General named Schmell-Offel.

In spite of his reluctance to use spoken dialogue, Chaplin’s opening scenes as Hynkel relish the new comic dimension. He comes out of hiding as it were with all guns blazing in a torrent of fake German gibberish. He had the facility like later TV comedian Sid Caesar to reel off reams of semi-credible gobbledigook in foreign languages, maximising the laughs by mixing in anglicisms: exhortations of sacrifice to ‘tighten de belten’ and accusations of ‘cheesen-cracken’. Hynkel’s strident speechifying blasts with such force that his microphones bend back and spin. Notice the wide shots of the rally crowd. Was it just cost-saving or deliberate parody that the background rows are made up of dummies with mechanically-raised arms? The symbol of the party’s regime doesn’t escape the film-maker’s satirical digs. The German swastika becomes the literal double-cross insignia.

Meanwhile, in the temporary sanity of the Tomania ghetto Chaplin undertakes his other part, that of a recovering amnesiac barber, a dead-ringer for Hynkel,  who is never named – possibly to reinforce his Everyman status. He dresses like Chaplin’s Little Tramp with bowler hat and cane and will need all the dexterity and courage of his alter-ego as events unfold. He develops a relationship with the lovely and tomboyish Cinderella-like Hannah, played by his real-life wife (and Modern Times co-star) Paulette Goddard. His innate dignity and her rough diamond quality are a charming match.

In these scenes as writer-director, Chaplin is careful never to sugar-coat the awful conditions looming. The brutal Hynkel Stormtroopers are shrewdly cast using burly New York actors with a convincing threat level, and whilst he shows us his still-admirable athleticism in scuffles with them, Chaplin doesn’t shy away from showing an attempted street-lamp lynching of him and their racist ‘Jew’ daubings on shop fronts.

The barber is reunited with Commander Schultz, the pilot he flew with in WWI who was promoted to governing the ghetto, played by the dapper Reginald Gardiner Their banter makes another potential dig at the Fuhrer ( ‘Fooey’ in the film):

‘I always thought of you as an Aryan.’
‘I’m a vegetarian’.

Back in Hynkel’s office, he is in expansive supremacist mood himself, rhapsodising about the possibilities of “A blonde world”. Coquettishly, he poses half-way up a curtain, insisting Garbo-like “I want to be alone” (Did the actor know then of Hitler’s own fondness for the enigmatic Swede?) This leads playfully into the most famous scene in the film, one that often features in those celebratory montages of the best moments in cinema. The genesis for it was Chaplin’s plan to emulate the splendour of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery office. Budgetary strictures curtailed him somewhat, yet what he did include was something he spotted in a photo of the interior: a globe on a stand. This may well have reminded him of a little skit he performed for the camera at home in 1928 in a skirt, boots and leafy head-dress larking about with a small globe and a German helmet perched on top. The two combined to form an idea that would beautifully and wordlessly say everything about Hynkel/Hitler’s relationship to the world.

For a brief heart-stopping sequence, we are transported like Chaplin in a gorgeous private ballet partnering him with the giant balloon of the globe accompanied by his and Meredith Wilson’s lovely string scoring. The dictator keeps his prize aloft with his hands, feet, even his bottom whilst still suspending time with thrilling grace.  It is utterly wonderful and his beatific smile makes his secret desire all the more moving to watch. Never has the awfulness of monstrous ambition been rendered more poetic on screen.

The brilliance of this sequence is followed almost immediately by another bravura one in the barber-shop, showing the maestro’s own quiet prowess shaving a customer to the tune of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance.  Gradually though, the light humour gives way to the darkening skies of emerging genocidal tyranny. For his treachery, Schultz is paid back by Hynkel despatching him with the tasteless: “You need a vacation. Fresh air. A little outdoor exercise. I shall send you to a concentration camp”. Chaplin must be forgiven for the seeming poor taste of this line. Jack Benny referenced the same flippancy in 1942’s war comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942): “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!” Most people were saved from knowing the nightmarish horror of camp treatment till the emaciated, barely-alive soldiers were pulled out of Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

Schultz escapes back to the ghetto and here Chaplin adds another layer of serious politicking to his observations by making Schultz a determined advocate of someone else bravely sacrificing themselves as a freedom-fighter instead of him. Another high-point of silent humour is on display as the barber and his neighbours each try to conceal the coin in his pudding earmarking him for the task. Regardless, both the barber and Schultz are apprehended.

The second half of The Great Dictator is enlivened though by the coarse whirlwind of Jack Oakie blowing in as the Mussolini-esque Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. His crude blowhard impersonation is a master-stroke of casting, sparking rudely off Chaplin with a loud, backslapping “How are ya, Hinky?” and a stereotype accent hilariously reminiscent of Chico Marx’s ‘Noo Yooark’-a Italian-a. His raised chin and preposterous conceit sets up an endless competitiveness between him and “my brother dictate”. They try to propel their barber chairs higher than each other and take their border troop negotiations into a stubborn brinkmanship stalemate over who will invade Osterlich. Hynkel lives up to his insignia by invading it anyway.

The plot builds itself toward a climax fed by mistaken identity, a device many comedians would hinge an entire film on. An off-duty Hynkel is arrested while duck-hunting, while Schultz and the barber (dressed identically to Hynkel) escape from their incarceration into a waiting parade at the Osterlich border. The barber has no choice but to follow his impersonation into making a public victory speech.


An abandoned sequence, preserved in his brother Sydney’s remarkable colour home-movie footage has soldiers at this rally climax throw down their weapons and break up into a madcap dance. Chaplin realised the scene didn’t work and that instead he must focus on his speech to the people, the Barber being asked to rally the troops as Hynkel.

Here, Chaplin stages his other famed scene in the movie – a sudden about-face where the farcical comedy comes to a dramatic halt. Chaplin pauses at the mention of hope and at last speaks not as Hynkel or the barber but starkly as himself. He addresses us directly as the audience in close-up, fixing us with his eyes and the unvarnished middle-age of his face as he hesitantly begins an appeal for peace that will be delivered in a single unbroken take of mounting emotion. Chaplin may not have been aware that on this day of shooting Hitler was driving through Paris surveying his latest conquest, and yet it is clear the actor knows the prophetic significance of his words as he utters them: “Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – men, women and little children”. His idealistic assurance that “the hate of man will pass and dictators die” gradually turns to an energising anger, a call to arms that ironically matches the fervour of his arch enemy but for a benevolent cause. He beseeches the world’s soldiers “don’t give yourselves to brutes – unnatural men…self-serving dictators free themselves but they enslave others”. He is speaking of his time, for his time, and for all time.

Maybe in his undeniably sincere passion Chaplin should have stopped there. Where critics take issue with the scene is really over the end-piece in which he calls out to Hannah and her family, stranded in Osterlich, urging her to look up to where he imagines “The soul of man has been given wings”. The flight of reborn humanity into the rainbow is a somewhat overwrought image to follow - however he comes by it honestly, arguably driven by the enormous scale of the brutality to be overcome. Perhaps unimaginable suffering demands epic hope.


Finally, after 559 days of filming, re-shooting and re-editing, Chaplin’s production was done. It was then that the Nazis instigated their Blitzkrieg campaign that took the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Chaplin was so appalled by Hitler that he had almost had second thoughts about releasing his film: “He is a horrible menace to civilisation rather than someone to laugh at”. But the artist in him recognised that his greatest satire would have value in diminishing the German leader. 

On its release, The Great Dictator certainly rewarded audiences. The film was a huge success despite being banned in parts of Europe and even in Ireland. There is evidence that its inciting villain even ordered it to be shown - twice - though Hitler's reaction was never recorded. It showed the full flowering of Charlie Chaplin’s talents as a film-maker, a comedian who could adapt brilliantly to changing times and a mature, committed artist of conscience willing to reflect them.

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