Chaplin in Review – PART VII – The Great Dictator

5 07 2011

Copryight 1940 Chaplin Studios

★ ★ ★ ★

Following Modern Times, Chaplin married actress Paulette Goddard.  There marriage was generally a happy one and Charlie’s two adolescent sons, Charles Jr. and Sydney, very much looked up to Paulette and accepted her as a maternal figure.  As for professional endeavors, Chaplin became aware of the tyranny rising in the Hitler regime and decided to make a politically fused film to elaborate on his ideals and feelings towards what was happening in Europe.  This was in 1938, well before either England or America became involved in the war.

Hitler, apparently an admirer of Chaplin, wore his mustache in the same manner as Chaplin’s Little Tramp as an homage.  Chaplin, however, was very much against the dictatorial rule and awful happenings the Third Reich were performing.  When rumor circulated that Chaplin was going to do a film based around his likeness to Hitler, many of his closest friends tried to talk him out of it.  However, he pushed forward with the script and produced what would become The Great Dictator.

The film begins in World War I, where a young private (Chaplin) in the Tomanian army valiantly rescues an officer pilot, Schultz.  Though Schultz is rescued, the plane they are in crashes into a tree and the anonymous private suffers memory loss.  He is taken to a hospital where he remains for nearly 20 years.  Upon return, the young private doesn’t realize that things have changed in his beloved Tomania.  The dictator, Hynkel (also played by Chaplin), is now the ruler of the country.  When the private arrives back in the Ghetto at his barber shop, he finds many storefronts smashed and other forms of discrimination being carried out by Hynkel’s stormtroopers.  Yet, the young private tries to go about his work and life as usual and, eventually, finds  a friend in a girl of the ghetto, Hannah (Paulette Goddard).  Schultz, the young private’s friend and officer, makes his way back into the story around this time as a member of the regime.  Immediately recognizing the young private, he orders the stormtroopers to leave his friend alone.  As the tyranny of Hynkel grows, he decides to take over neighboring country Osterlich.  Schultz questions his motives and is condemned to a concentration camp, though he manages to flee the ghetto before being caught.  He tries to start a revolution, but before it gets off the ground, both Schultz and the barber are sent to a prison camp.  In the meantime, Hannah has fled to Osterlich, only to find it eventually taken over and under Hynkel’s rule as well.  While celebrating his victory, Hynkel vacations to the countryside.  Meanwhile, Schulz and the barber escape the concentration camp.  Because of his likeness to Hynkel, the real Hynkel is arrested and put in a prison camp and the barber is thought to be Hynkel and put in his place of power.  Finding himself in this unique position, the barber decides to state his opinions on tyranny and democracy and gives a speech in front of all his people renouncing the ways of tyranny and promoting democratic notions.

This film marks the first time that Chaplin did a complete sound picture.  It was regarded as a success in the end and nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Score, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (for Jack Oakie who plays a fellow dictator modeled loosely on Mussolini), though no awards were won.  Several scenes from the film have gone into the annals of cinema history as iconic.  Namely, a scene where Chaplin, as Hynkel, does a darkly comedic dance with a blow-up version of the World.  That scene can be seen here:

The speech at the end of the film is the most heartfelt and politically direct excerpt from any of Chaplin’s films.  It runs for nearly 10 minutes and elucidates Chaplin’s concerns over the tyranny of Hitler’s regime and cries out for justice and peace with the help of greater nations.  During filming, England joined the war, but at the release of this film in 1940, America still had another year before they fully committed after Pearl Harbor.  The speech, which is likely well ahead of its time considering the relative unknown to much of the world at this time regarding the Third Reich, can be seen here:

Following this film, Chaplin and Goddard decided to go their separate ways, though they stayed good friends for the remainder of their lives.  It would be seven years before the release of another Chaplin picture, largely because of a paternity suit brought on by a young New York girl that went by the name of Joan Barry.  The suit, which garnered national attention, was a very difficult time for Chaplin and an interesting mystery that still brings questions up to this day.  In 2009, I wrote a long form article on the entire Joan Barry situation that, as far as I have seen, is one of the most extensive recounts available.  I spent months writing this piece and scoured newspapers, magazines, books, FBI records and the Internet, in addition to several personal interviews, including one from Joan Barry’s son from a later marriage and Richard Lamparski of Whatever Happened to.. fame.  That article is available in its entirety on the blog main page here.


Chaplin in Review – PART V – City Lights

27 06 2011

Copyright 1931 Chaplin Studios

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

And now we come to my favorite Chaplin feature, City Lights.  To me, this film is the perfect blend of comedy and drama and a definitive example of the genius of Chaplin’s work.  Everything comes together in this film so beautifully, both comic and dramatic devices, that I can not only call this my favorite Chaplin film, but rank this in my top 10 favorite films of all-time.

Like many of Chaplin’s films, the actual plot outline is relatively simple; it is the execution that makes this film a masterpiece.  The story revolves around Chaplin’s character of the Little Tramp, who falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill).  Through a hap circumstance, she believes that he is a millionaire and can help her and her mother in their desperate time of need.  Determined to help, he befriends a raucous, party-driven millionaire and does everything he can to help the flower girl and her mother.  In the end, he helps them and she is able to get an eye operation that restores her sight.  But, will she be able to accept the Tramp for his true self?

By the time this film was in production, and definitely by the time it was released in 1931, sound in motion pictures was in full stride.  Silents were, essentially, becoming a thing of the past.  However, though the option for sound was fully open to Chaplin before filming began, he decided against making a sound film because he felt that the Little Tramp character speaking would ruin his entire appeal.  Turns out that Chaplin made a wise decision, as City Lights was an immense success both commercially and critically.

As for production, this film took the longest of any other Chaplin film to complete at nearly 180 days of filming from late 1927 to early 1931.  Several story points, including how to show the blind flower girl mistaking the Little Tramp for being wealthy, plagued Chaplin; the integral scene of this story point was re-shot 342 times for perfection.  Another issue for Chaplin was his dissatisfaction with Virginia Cherrill in the lead role as the flower girl.  At one point, he even went so far as to replace her with Georgia Hale; however, once realizing that too much footage was in the can and it would cost a fortune to reshoot all her scenes, he asked Cherrill to come back on board and finish the film.  Ironically, before coming back on board, Cherrill made Chaplin renegotiate her contract for more money than she was originally to be paid, something that surely didn’t help her and Chaplin’s professional relationship.

In the end, Chaplin did decide to utilize something out of the sound on film devices available, as he recorded a score and several sound effects for the film that accompanied the picture.  However, no audible dialog made the final cut, only garbled talking at the beginning of the film performed by Chaplin himself.

In the 80 years since this film was released it has received a number of commendations and places on top film lists, including being ranked #11 on the AFI’s Top 100 Best Movies of All-Time List and #1 on their list of Top Romantic Comedies.  In addition, Orson Welles was quoted as saying that this was his favorite film.  Needless to say, City Lights has definitely stood the test of time and continues to dazzle, cheer and touch audiences of all ages and from around the world.

Chaplin in Review – Part IV – The Circus

24 06 2011

Copyright 1928 Chaplin Studios

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Circus is one of the lesser-known comedies by Chaplin during his golden age of feature making in the 1920s and 1930s.  Though more obscure to most audiences than The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights or Modern Times, this is still an incredible comedy drama.

Chaplin returns as the Little Tramp in this film and, at the beginning, is mistakingly suspected as a pickpocket.  A chase with the police ensues that leads the tramp to a traveling circus tent.  In the midst of the chase, the tramp stumbles onto the middle of the circus stage and, unknowingly, becomes the hit of the show.  After averting the police, the tramp is asked by the flailing circus’s proprietor (Allan Garcia) if he would like to become part of the group; the tramp agrees.  However, the tramp can only be funny when he doesn’t intend to be.  So, though he becomes the star of the show, he can’t give his talents on beck and call.  In the process of his tenure with the circus, the tramp develops an infatuation with circus rider and step-daughter to the proprietor (Merna Kennedy).  The tramp seems to have won her interest until a new tightrope walker comes to the circus named Rex (Harry Crocker).  Will the tramp be able to win the heart of his love or will he be beat out by the new man on campus?

The Circus began filming in 1926, but was marred by a slew of production related and non-production related problems.  In September 1926, a large fire broke out in Chaplin Studios that burned much of one of the main sound stages.  This delayed production for well over a month.  Furthermore, it was during the post-production phase of this film that the bitter divorce between Lita Grey occurred and the federal government was coming down hard on Chaplin concerning tax problems.  Also, during this time, Chaplin’s beloved, though mentally unstable mother, Hannah, passed away.  These circumstances combined resulted in a delay of nearly one year for the film’s release theatrically.

Upon release, the film was well-received and ended up being one of the top ten highest grossing silent films of all-time.  With Chaplin’s masterful acrobatics and physical comedy in full form, it is a wonder why this film doesn’t retain the same level of grandeur in audience’s minds today as several of his previous and forthcoming titles.  For his performance, direction, production and writing, Chaplin was nominated for Academy Awards (at the first Academy Award presentation no less).  However, the Academy eventually retracted all four nominations and gave him a Special Award for “writing, directing, producing and starring in The Circus.”  To this day, the Academy does not acknowledge the nominations for this film originally given, only the Special Award.

Any Chaplin lover, or lover of silent comedy for that matter, should not pass this film up if they get the opportunity to see it.  Though you may not have heard of it or heard of it less than other Chaplin titles, it’s thrills, comedic precision and touching slice-of-life presentation will not fail to impress.

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