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Posts Tagged ‘Paulette Goddard’

Now of course, if we are going to talk about famous auteur comedians, then the place to start is surely with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is a curiously ambiguous figure these days: he remains possibly the single most recognisable person in history (while in his Tramp rig, anyway), and is still considered one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, but his films have – generally speaking – fallen out of favour and are little-watched these days. All this was really presaged in Chaplin’s lifetime, with his immense popularity in the early part of the last century declining to the point where he was essentially obliged to leave the country at the beginning of the 1950s.

With hindsight, the moment of Chaplin’s peak commercial and critical success was also one in which the seeds of his fall from grace were visible. I’m talking about his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was his biggest hit at the box-office, and is one of his best-regarded films these days, possibly because of the subject matter. At the same time, though, it’s one which demands you keep its historical context in mind.

 

An opening caption informs the audience that the film is set between the two world wars, a period in which ‘Insanity cut loose… and humanity was kicked around somewhat’. From here we go straight into a lengthy, quite lavish sequence depicting the final hours of the First World War, and the exploits of a hapless soldier fighting in the army of Tomainia (played by Chaplin himself, clearly as a variation on the Tramp character). After various misadventures he ends up being sent to a veterans’ hospital with amnesia.

Twenty years pass and Tomainia falls under the control of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, making the most of his passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler), who institutes a regime of vicious oppression against his Jewish citizens. When the soldier, now revealed to be an unnamed Jewish barber, is discharged from hospital, he is shocked to discover what has befallen the country.

What follows is basically a film with two main plotlines – one concerning the barber, his romance with a local woman (Chaplin’s then-soon-to-be-ex-wife Paulette Goddard), and their attempts to live some kind of life in the ghetto, which mainly consists of sentimental melodrama and slapstick comedy, and one focusing on happenings within Hynkel’s palace. This is mostly farcical satire, with lots more slapstick in the mix. In the end the two storylines come together, with the fact that Hynkel and the barber are identical crucial to the denouement, but there’s never a moment where someone says ‘You know what, you look just like him!’ – the similarity is never commented upon prior to the moment it becomes central to the narrative.

I think that before you decide about your opinion of The Great Dictator, you really do have to remember that this is a film made at a particular moment in time: in 1940, to be precise. Why is this significant? Well, for one thing it is important to remember that this was a full year before the USA entered the Second World War, and the two countries were still technically at peace; for Chaplin to make a film which so openly ridicules both Hitler, Mussolini, and various other senior Nazi figures was a bold choice (after Hitler saw the movie he put Chaplin on a death list, or so the story goes).

But there’s more than this. These days you sit down to watch The Great Dictator in expectations of a timeless masterpiece in the modern sense. In the opening minutes what you get is a sequence in which Chaplin is in charge of firing a piece of artillery: he pulls the ignition cord, the gun goes off with a big bang, Chaplin falls over and waggles his legs in the air. Enemy planes attack the area and so Chaplin mans an anti-aircraft gun; frantically spinning the wheel that controls its direction and angle of fire, he ends up whirling around uselessly like a man on a fairground ride. Assigned to help a group of infantry, he is given a hand grenade; having pulled the pin, the grenade drops down his sleeve and ends up in his trousers. And so on.

In short, this is very broad slapstick, and not especially distinguished as such (later sequences in the film make it quite clear what an astonishingly accomplished and capable physical performer Chaplin was, even in his fifties). To a modern viewer there is something inescapably out-of-kilter about this sort of thing appearing in a film about Hitler and the Nazis. But it persists as the film continues: Goering and Goebbels are lampooned as Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as a homophone of ‘garbage’), Mussolini is played as a cartoon Italian gangster (it is somewhat eye-opening that the performer, Jack Oakie, was Oscar-nominated for the role); and yet in the same film there are scenes of Jews being beaten and robbed by Hynkel’s stormtroopers, having their homes burnt to the ground, eventually shot… this is not the stuff of comedy, by any sane metric. It is an uneasy juxtaposition.

But, as I say, you have to remember this is a film from 1940 and the full scale of Nazi atrocities had yet to become clear. Over twenty years later Chaplin himself wrote that …had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose. But the film is still uncomfortable to watch in parts.

Apparently, Hitler was under the impression that Chaplin himself was Jewish, and if this had been the case it would have explained the film-maker’s decision to lampoon the dictator with quite such asperity. But he wasn’t, and – beyond simple moral outrage – there doesn’t seem to have been a particular reason for him to make this film, although he himself observed that ‘one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi, just a decent normal human being.’ Then again, apparently Hitler held a strange fascination for Chaplin, the two men having so much in common – they were born within days of each other, both rose from backgrounds of extreme poverty to immense fame and power, and so on. ‘[Hitler]’s copying your act,’ observes Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin; perhaps Chaplin felt the need to return the favour in some form.

Whatever the reason, The Great Dictator is clearly a heartfelt piece, and this is never more clear than in the concluding sequence, in which the barber (now pretending to be Hynkel) addresses his followers. Chaplin is speaking straight into the camera, in a monologue that goes on for nearly five minutes, calling for peace, brotherhood, freedom and democracy. Some people think it is beautiful and uplifting, others that it is overly earnest and quite simply preachy (it has been identified as the moment at which Chaplin’s personal politics began to impact upon his public image, to his eventual detriment). Personally, I can only agree with Chaplin’s sentiments, I just don’t think this is the stuff of good film-making.

But then The Great Dictator is not really traditional film-making, in the sense that this is not primarily entertainment – Chaplin’s intention seems to have been to use his popularity, especially as the Tramp character, to attract audiences to a film with an overtly political purpose. Chaplin’s physical performance is terrific, and there are some very funny scenes (such as the one with the puddings filled with coins). But that’s never quite the point. Judging The Great Dictator as entertainment kind of misses the point of it. As a piece of political satire, though, I have to find its intentions admirable even if the execution often makes me rather uneasy.

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