Monday, November 17, 2014

Great Dictator, The (1940)



Director: Charles Chaplin

Honors:

Through cinema’s first four decades perhaps the most recognizable name and image from the industry’s history would have been Charlie Chaplin, a filmmaker and performer that acted, wrote, directed, and would even compose for most of his works. With his distinct appearance and costume as the lovable “Tramp” character no other man would be considered more popular with the short, dark mustache directly under his nose other than Chaplin; that is until the rise of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Chaplin takes the unbelievable risk in parodying Hitler in his very thinly veiled takeoff comedy about the man and his totalitarian ways in The Great Dictator, a film that would be both greatly enjoyed and loved by audience, as well as highly controversial for its time and therefore to the filmmaker’s career.

The Great Dictator is a comedy parodying Nazi Germany and its authoritarian leader who seeks to control craves world domination, paralleled with the tale of a simple Jew whose community is terrorized by his own country purely because if their race. Charlie Chaplin takes on dual roles as he shares the two stories that correspond with each other in a thinly veiled paraody of the Nazi Party and its tyrannical leader.

Firstly we are introduced to an unnamed Jewish barber, a veteran of the First World War, but since a plane crash during the war has suffered amnesia and is not aware of the political state in which his homeland of Tomania (obviously a parody of Germany). Adenoid Hynkel is Chaplin’s representation of the dictator, the “Phooey” (parody of the German word “Führer”) of Tomania, whose drive for absolute power can be likened to that of a spoiled child wanting possession of the ultimate toy, the world.

Hynkel and Napaloni
While Hynkel grabs for more power and attempts to outsmart his dictator friend/rival Benzino Napaloni (a parody of Benito Mussolini, played by Jack Oakie) of the nation of Bacteria (Italy), the barber discovers life living in the ghetto under Hynkel’s anti-Jewish police state while befriending a beautiful neighbor in Hannah (Paulette Goddard). The Jewish ghetto is ransacked by Tmonian soldiers, Hannah escaped to nearby country of Osterlich (Austria), while the barber is arrested for treason along with Commander Schultz who sympathizes with the barber because the barber saved his life back in the First World War. On the eve of Tomaina’s invasion of Osterlich Tomanian soldiers battle a case of mistaken identity as Hynkel is arrested while the barber escapes the concentration camp dress similarly as Hynkel. This leads to a moment where the barber must make a speech in the place of the dictator in which he delivers a grand message against war with a great dream of world peace and brotherhood, at which the film concludes.

The film is a hilarious comedy filled with the clever imagination and execution that was well known of Charlie Chaplin’s work. Anew step in his filmmaking as The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first talking picture. Thirteen years after the advent of sound in motion pictures and Chaplin fight against sound pictures, because of his great skill of the visual art of the film, Chaplin makes the first talking picture about a subject worth speaking out about. The feature does however primarily contain a vast amount of visual comedy that the filmmaker was most comfortable with. Although there are the fair share of jokes utilizing dialogue or sound, an example being the letter scene where Hynkel has a message dictated and the typing is vastly different from the amount of words spoken, Chaplin primarily stays within his means of comedic genius, but blends it well into a “talkie.”

Chaplin, a man that understands the look and feel of comedy in motion pictures unlike other filmmakers, utilizes old tricks from his silent days to add to the comedic execution, such as under cranking the camera to make action appear slight faster in physically comedic scenes, but dubs in dialogue to make the trick as unnoticeable as possible.

At the time of production, release, and for years to come Chaplin insisted that his Tramp character would never speak, and although the barber is not necessarily the Tramp he does use on occasion the same costuming, small bowler hat and famous cane included, and the same distinct walk that audiences knew and loved form his famed character. Here the barber contains many of the same characteristics of the Tramp as he a man discovering a new environment due to his memory loss much like in many Tramp shorts or features. This shows just how Chaplin takes what had always worked for him and put it into a new and enjoyable form in this political comedy.

This picture was a rather large event in film history as it was Charlie Chaplin’s first true taking picture. The barber remained a rather silent and observant character, but Hynkel was a character driven by heavy dialogue gags.  His parodied version of Hitler spoke powerfully in a nonsensical German-like accent speaking primarily gibberish with a few distinct German words like “wiener schnitzel” and “sauerkraut” thrown in for quick humor. For many this feature was the first time audiences might have herd Chaplin speak outside of a possible newsreel. His natural English accent used by the barber character might have through off a few audience members, but that would be forgotten as his Hynkel character and various physical gags would make this first talking feature an unmistakable Charlie Chaplin film.

World War brought down to a food fight.
For the first time in his filmmaking career Chaplin would bring in recognizable names to perform in his feature. Veteran stage and screen actors and actresses with experience in both comedy and drama would bring a different kind of respectability to his picture as the film relies on its cast of supporting characters. The loud and boisterous role that parodied Mussolini was played by Broadway and movie performer Jack Oakie who although Scottish by decent puts on a Chico Marx-like Italian accent to make fun of his rival, Chaplin’s Hynkel.

Fellow members of party represented by the symbol of the “double cross” (a joke of the Nazi swastika and the party’s political behaviors) were played by Henry Daniell as Garbitsch (sounds like “garbage” and a parody of Joseph Goebbels) and Billy Gilbert as Herring (parody of Hermann Göring). Together they represented the two sides of Hynkel, Gilbert, a wonderful actor as a villian, was the evil, manipulative side, while Gilbert, a comedic actor, represented the bumbling foolish side of the dictator. The well-traveled English actor Reginald Gardiner appears as Tomanian Commander Schultz whose sympathizes with the barber.

Paulette Goddard, the then Mrs. Charlie Chaplin, would star alongside her husband as the barber’s love interest Hannah. Goddard does a magnificent job making herself stand out as a beauty and as a character that calls for great sympathy when she is harassed by the soldiers for being a Jew. This once struggling actress made famous with her affair with and eventual marriage to Chaplin whose first major role was in Chaplin’s picture Modern Times was making a larger name for herself apart from her famous husband.

All was not well in their relationship either. Chaplin was a workaholic who neglected many people close to him. By the time Chaplin was producing The Great Dictator and having Goddard in mind for Hannah the two were not on speaking terms. Their relationship had soured to the point where Goddard even sent her agent to meet with Chaplin about her terms for the film, which as you can imagine enraged the filmmaker. The two split soon after the film’s release and would divorce in 1942 in Mexico. By this time she had become a desirable actress throughout Hollywood.

At the time The Great Dictator was released the United States was a neutral country with many segments of the population wishing to stay away from the horrors that come with war,with memories of the pain in World War I still fresh in their minds. Despite interest in the European affair because of ancestral backgrounds and many with relatives who remained on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean the war was news that dominated headlines. In the picture Chaplin not only mocks a world leader viewed greatly as evil, he makes a political stance against the anti-Jewish nation, something even the Jewish owned and operated studios, including MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and Universal, would not even do despite their racial ties to the European struggles. Chaplin, with his speech at the end of the picture, jumps out of character to yearn for a world of peace, diverting from his silly comedy and putting himself out for the world to hear as the movies were a very powerful tool to have one be heard.

With strong views towards powerful people in the world being the subject of the film The Great Dictator was obviously up to great censorship worldwide. American audiences loved the Chaplin comedy, but tended to not talk about it in public, while critics would dance around the subject matter of the film. European nations had various reactions. Germany and Italy, of course, banned the film outright as a parody of their nations and leaders. England at first censored the picture for their audiences, but when they were drawn into the conflict The Great Dictator was used as a sort of propaganda to further knock down Nazism and fascism several pegs in the minds of their population. The mixed reactions of audiences usual leaned towards great admiration for the film’s great creative mind, but disliked the reminder of how bad things were in the world.

Despite some indifference from critics The Great Dictator was a very well received film that was nominated for five Academy Awards; including the categories of Best Picture, Best Actor (Chaplin), Best Original Writing, Best Supporting Actor (Oakie), and Best Music. Chaplin did fear the idea that wartime audiences would dislike the picture, but numbers proved different as it became the highest grossing picture of his career. The political stance Chaplin did take however did set in motivation the events that eventually had the filmmaker banished from the United States by the state department when he left the country on a pleasure trip in 1952 as some within the government thought of Chaplin as being anti-American, breaking the filmmaker’s heart.

For years Chaplin looked on this picture with great pride. He continued to use the feature to poke fun at the real life dictator as he even joked about how using some stock Nazi footage, in a way, Hitler helped to fund this parody. In the years after the end of the war Chaplin stated he would have never made the picture had he known what horrors were really happening in the Jewish concentration camps and the world in which was taking place was even uglier than what the world could have thought.

Hynkel and the world.
The legacy that The Great Dictator leaves behind is the genius of the man that brought it to the screen. He had found a way to finally cross the barrier to talking pictures creating a very entertaining and beautiful comedy. Some of the scenes would become rather iconic, such as Hynkel’s globe dance. In the scene the dictator dreams about the idea of taking over the world with a balloon shaped and painted like a globe. The scene is beautiful and funny all at the same time, sharing the sadistic nature of the titular character’s thoughts.  The movie also features what  would be the last time on film Chaplin wore the bowler hat and cane, closing the door on his Tramp persona.

With time grew audiences with a great appreciation for this production as a piece of entertainment, art, and political ideals at a time when world events were very ugly to discuss. In 1997 The Great Dictator was preserved in the National Film Registry, while in 2000 the picture was ranked as #37 on the American Film Institute’s list of top American comedies of all time manifesting its lasting impact on the country as well as cinema. The film remains one of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest works and most memorable products. His future after The Great Dictator would be sporadic and marred by trouble and controversy as filmmaker was separated from the country he loved and who loved him back. As for this film during its time it took a man with great vision and courage to produce a feature that would both make a big statement to the world and be wildly entertaining.

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