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Monday, December 04, 2017

Chaplin Finally Talks and Talks


So Does The Great Dictator (1940) Still Please?

Watched this after a ten or so year break. Parts of it can stand by the best of Chaplin, specifically those where he interacts with other players and doesn’t hog the frame to himself. Weakest for me was opener revamp of Shoulder Arms, CC slowed from tempo he applied to old First National, let alone, Mutual, shorts. Charlie’s tramp needed speed. That may be why he stopped doing the character. The Great Dictator is very long and that makes it seem slower. I was impatient for Chaplin to get out of trenches and move up to present day. His impersonation of Hitler/Hynkel is what I’d assume folks were there to see in 1940. That's certainly been case for modern viewing. Charlie’s a panic here because for a first time he plays an utterly different sort of character. Would his proposed Napoleon have been anything like this? Laughs get a spike from Chaplin letting others be funny too. Was he beginning to feel burden of whole shows tougher to lift? Billy Gilbert and Henry Daniell are as good here as anywhere, but Jack Oakie scores humor for the ages. Might Charlie have trimmed some of Oakie’s foolery to shine more light on his own? If so, he stopped short of enough, as “Napalini” Oakie steals every scene he’s in with CC or anyone else.




The Great Dictator was launched like Queen Mary. Chaplin as usual supervised key bookings, and had Al Hirschfield draw ad art. Everyone called The Great Dictator a risk starting out, but by the time Chaplin finally had it finished, the country, and what of the world could see it, was more than ready to travesty Hitler. Credit Chaplin for seeing ahead with this one. I was reserved about laugh content, but as is so often case, that was penalty for watching alone. I once played The Great Dictator to a University crowd (seating for 75, all taken) and the place lit up. My campaign had drummed Chaplin's “daring” and “courage” for taking on the Reich, with promo emphasis on the Hirschfeld stuff (still a nice, modern look). All of comedy got approval: the shaving bit, trying out of parachutes and the bulletproof vest, potent as I imagine they were in 1940. Biggest response was for Chaplin’s speech at the end, as in they cried, and I mean wept. Applause at the finish peeled varnish off the roof. So much for notion that Chaplin is passé. My experience was that, for a college audience, he worked better than Keaton. Turns out they liked sentiment and pathos current writers debunk. 

22 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

David Robinson, in his foreword to THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR (1894--2002) tells of a friend, Peter Scarlet, showing Chaplin's Keystones to packed audiences of school children in Kabul, Afghanistan where entertainment movies were unknown to a generation of children. People came up to him after with tears in their eyes, to thank him--because they had never heard their children laughing before. In that same foreword Robinson tells us that from the years 1914--1927 over 65% of the population went to the movies. Today that figure is less than 10%. Chaplin is eternal. So is Buster. So are Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges and Harold Lloyd. Gotta love the completely politically incorrect picture of Jackie Coogan. Once upon a time the movies were fun, lots of fun. Woody Allen does not care for THE GREAT DICTATOR. He has made good films. He has made a couple of great films. He has made nothing that comes close to Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy or The Three Stooges in terms of generating pure, insane, intense prolonged laughter. The BBC aired live on the radio to all of Britain the twenty minutes of solid laughter that is the climax of THE GOLD RUSH. Chaplin has no equals. He is still the king.When we consider the dire straits of Chaplin's early life and weigh it in the scales to all that he achieved I know he is right to believe there can be a better world.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Stinky likes and admires Chaplin, but he's afraid he must agree with Orson Welles - he does not find Chaplin funny.

12:06 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Include me in with Welles -- Chaplin is a genius, but I think the only film where I had huge belly laughs was The Great Dictator. (Which is so funny, it's almost impossible to get through.) I'll take Keaton, or, better still, Laurel and Hardy.

Question -- are the kids laughing at Chaplin contemporary kids, or was this 'back in the day?" If you read what's going on in campuses, I think we're doing kids a great disservice by making them immune to joy, innocence and fun.

12:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My Chaplin audience, very receptive, was university-located between 2003 and 2006, with various features and short titles, all of which were draws and much liked. As indicated, they really went for the heart-tugs and laughed hearty at the comedy.

Lloyd was a click on occasions I played him, Keaton somewhat less so. I had a feeling of their finding him a bit chilly and remote, whereas the others seemed easier to relate to. At least, that's what a few told me going out.

I'll mention one who always went over big, and that was Bob Hope, unlikely as that may seem. It would be different today, I suppose, as what young person now has any idea who Hope was?

12:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Jack Oakie is laugh-out-loud funny in Dictator, as is Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux -- and I've never liked her in anything else. Remarkable how generous Chaplin was to those two actors.

My daughter found Chaplin's climactic speech on YouTube, and loves it. It resonates in a way that seems ahead of its time.

1:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Critics can blast that speech as they please, but boy, does it work with a crowd.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

I've never seen Keaton bomb with an audience, although I can see where he might feel chilly to an audience that's experienced Chaplin and Lloyd with their relatable humanity. I do remember the comment from an older lady who was in a Keaton class at UCSC. She mentioned some moments where Keaton would make an oddly adroit move that wasn't specifically a gag. She laughed not because it was funny, but because it made her happy somehow.

Bob Hope in his prime was almost Bugs Bunny. The movies were fast and slick, and usually just "real" enough that Hope breaking the fourth wall felt like he was getting away with something. As a boomer kid I loved his movies on TV, even when I didn't get all the references. Some years ago I saw "Cat and the Canary" with an audience; the biggest laughs tended to be the seeming throwaways ("Aren't you afraid of big empty houses?" "Oh no. I played in vaudeville").

4:24 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Excellent article, as usual. "Chaplin Finally Talks and Talks" might be better applied to LIMELIGHT, in terms of constant speechifying. THE GREAT DICTATOR ranks as Chaplin's last great comedy hit. The major difference to me is it has really serious moments, versus Chaplin's oft-noted pathos. I saw this around 1972 at the Lincoln Art theater, near Central Park. My dad saw it at the Capitol during its original run. His two memories: the globe/balloon ballet (a highlight for me, too), and a button distributed to the audience, stating "DID YOU GET THE MESSAGE?".

4:42 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I always thought it one of those movies in which a four-star idea achieves three-star results. Though I watched it with my kids when they were maybe 12 and 9, albeit well steeped in silent comedy, and they ate it up. None of my feelings that it's a bit prolonged mattered to them at all. Pretty much riveted by the combination of Chaplin and mocking the Nazis.

Then 9-year-old is now 16, and a hard sell for old movies though he'll occasionally indulge them (I have to remember that when he loves things like The Blues Brothers or The Untouchables, the equivalents for me at his age would have been The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). But one night I said I wanted to see an old comedy with him, and he dug out The Gold Rush (which to me, if you want to believe Chaplin is still funny, it's the proof). Dad was proud.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Where did Stinky get the idea that Orson Welles didn't find Chaplin funny? In 1941, when Commonwealth Pictures reissued six of the Mutual comedies as THE CHARLIE CHAPLIN FESTIVAL and ran it at Manhattan's 5th Avenue Playhouse, Welles saw them and was quoted as follows: "Magnificent fun! I haven't laughed as much in years. Chaplin's art is ageless."

Michael

6:24 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

The much vilified Joseph Breen loved THE GREAT DICTATOR and passed it with only one reservation, the line "Lousy".

8:27 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I ran LIMELIGHT in a theater to a near empty house. Lost money like blood from an artery. Hated the movie. Time passed. A fellow called and asked if I could handle projection for him. I asked, "What's the movie?" He said, "LIMELIGHT with Charlie Chaplin." I shuddered and brought a book. As I was reading it the soundtrack was in the background. All at once I realized the film was brilliant. I put down the book and watched the movie. David Hockney said Chaplin's LIMELIGHT was his father's favorite film.

9:07 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

I'm with W.C. Fields who said of Chaplin, "He's not a comedian, he's a ballet dancer." Then Fields (who was notoriously jealous of other comics) supposedly added "He's the best g--d--- ballet dancer who ever lived and if I meet him I'll break his neck." Which may have been a little harsh.

12:20 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The thing with THE GREAT DICTATOR is that during its original run the movie was only exhibited in the United States because in most of the rest of the world its exhibition was suppressed after protests from Germany. And Chaplin really needed those international markets.

Here is the introduction from two month ago by Roger Koza and Fernando Martín Peña, in on free broadcast television, expanding on what I was writing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvyCIyo7Vrw

1:38 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The real thing is that American films,because of the contracts, had to be shipped to Europe though they remained unseen in theaters. The upshot of this is that Hitler had his own personal copy of THE GREAT DICTATOR.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I've seen THE GREAT DICTATOR twice with big houses, and it played great until the speech. Each audience listened respectfully until Chaplin ramped it up with "In the gospel of St. Luke it is written" -- and that was it. The people broke into nervous laughter and low grumbling, as if to say, "Oh, this is too much." Whatever hold or belief or enchantment Chaplin had built up was shattered.

10:41 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Interesting reaction, Scott. I can imagine how the speech would vary from one audience to another. Guess it has a lot to do with crowd mood of the moment ...

12:03 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I've seen THE GREAT DICTATOR once with an audience. I remember that it played like gangbusters, but I don't remember any specific reaction to the speech...other than my own reaction. I thought then and still think now that, while it's obviously impassioned and heartfelt, it's just too too much. What ought to be stirring just becomes embarrassing. And much too long.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Scott's audience probably wondered how a simple Jewish barber could even be familiar with, much less quote from, the Gospel of St. Luke.

The answer, of course, is that it's Chaplin talking, not his character.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Yes, Rick and Michael nailed it -- when the barber's speech suddenly became a filibuster by Chaplin Himself, each audience was uncomfortable and embarrassed by the shift.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The reaction to the speech depends on the person hearing it. Chaplin stood up to Hitler at a moment when far too many refused to. Think of the millions who would not have died (on both sides) if more had stood up like Charlie. Watched THE DARKEST HOUR last night. We were lucky to have Churchill.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Michael- it's in the Welles-Bogdanovich interviews. Quoting from memory, Welles said Chaplin wasn't funny, then he corrected himself, saying something like, "I can't say he's not funny, but I don't find him funny." Or, "He doesn't make me laugh." The interviews, over three hours, used to be on youtube.

9:48 PM  

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