Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Taking dictation from Charlie Chaplin

Seeing as it was younger daughter's birthday last week, elder daughter didn't want to get her a "family movie", but something more befitting a sixteen-year-old. Younger daughter was introduced to the films of Charlie Chaplin a couple of years ago by the head teacher of her independent school. She adores the physical comedy -- and the captions!

 Elder daughter decided on The Great Dictator (no captions, alas!)  and this past weekend, we all settled down to watch it.  I have never seen the entire film through, and only recognised the famous "world-balloon ballet":
It's an odd film. There is dialogue, and a sort of plot that holds together the Chaplinesque black-outs which follow the story of a little Jewish barber who miraculously survives the battlefields of the first World War, ending up in a clinic with amnesia.  While he's "out", his homeland of Tomania is taken over by a dictator named Adenoid Hinckley.  Predictably, the little barber is eventually mistaken for Hinckley and finds himself addressing a vast rally of soldiers who have invaded neighbouring Osterlitz where the barber's girlfriend (Paulette Goddard looking remarkably like Vivian Leigh) and her family have fled to escape the violence and injustice of the Jewish ghetto.
In what has to be one of the strangest moments in cinema, the speech is given, not by the little barber, but by Chaplin himself who steps out of character to speak to the camera and in doing so, suddenly seems to age several years.  My understanding is that he had rather a different ending planned, when word came of the invasion and capitulation of France.

Meanwhile Goddard's character, prostrate in despair in the newly conquered  Osterlitz, rises to her feet as she hears the broadcast voice of the barber, speaking directly to her.  She, too,  looks much older, for all the hope in her eyes.

This film was released in 1940 and was Chaplin's most successful film.  Watching it from the distance of more than seventy years and knowing that, at that moment, the great slaughter of Jews, Romani, and other "undesirables" had not yet hit its stride, the speech has a poignance, desperation and grief that was far beyond what Chaplin intended.  He did say that, had he known the full extent of Nazi atrocity that was to come, he never would have proceeded.  I think it's safe to feel glad that he did.

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