Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Great Little Fellow

I was recently going over The Essential Chaplin, a thoughtful collection of essays on the man who's arguably the greatest star and most iconic figure in the history of film.  There are a lot of ways to divide Charlie Chaplin's work into different periods, but the biggest break is between silence and sound.

The vast majority of his output were silents, but since he took so long to make his later films, he actually spent more years working on talkies.  I'm of the camp that feels not just his best work, but his only great work, was done before his character started to speak. In fact, it's hard for me to understand how anyone could think otherwise.  Richard Schickel, who edited the compendium, essentially agrees (even though we've disagreed over Chaplin elsewhere), as explained in his introduction.

Yet we still differ on Chaplin's first talkie, The Great Dictator.  I agree that the film was brave, made at a time when Hollywood didn't want to offend Germany. (But then, Chaplin always went his own way.  He was immensely popular but didn't try to bend to the public will--his previous film was a silent released about a decade into the sound era.) And Chaplin was rewarded with his greatest commercial success.

But while Shickel doesn't think the film works, I think he's still being too kind.  He even compares the film favorably to Modern Times, Chaplin's last silent film and last classic.  Here's his take: "...The Great Dictator, for all its felicities, ultimately fails--because Chaplin horribly botched its concluding sequence." Shickel is referring to the big speech at the end, where Chaplin essentially stops the film dead and addresses the audience directly.  I agree the speech is ridiculous, both in content--it's little but empty, incoherent pieties (though Chaplin thought so much of it he reproduced it in full in his autobiography)--and as a plot moment.

But in a film that's an overlong 124 minutes, the speech takes up about five.  If we'd been watching a great (or even good) comedy up until then, I could excuse Chaplin his indulgence.  Instead, we've been watching a mostly so-so film with almost all the Chaplin magic gone.

Chaplin plays two roles in Dictator. The first is the Jewish Barber and the second is the title role, Adenoid Hynkel, based on Hitler.  In addition to Chaplin's intellectual ambitions--his genius was in his movement, not his thinking--and a plot that stops and starts, there are two serious problems with the comedy.  First, Chaplin is in his 50s.  I'm not saying older guys can't be funny, but when so much of your comedy is based on being spry, losing a step makes a difference.  Second, you can't get around this is a sound film.  This doesn't just lead to a lot of dialogue, at which Chaplin is not a master, but also means the blanket of silence that contributes so much to the magical mood of the earlier comedies is gone.   Now, with sound effects and groans and shouts and so on, the real world has intruded.  Some of the bits are reasonably well thought out, and his work as dictator Hynkel (as opposed to his other role as the Jewish barber) has some decent payoffs, but almost none of it reaches the heights he regularly attained in his earlier work.

The Great Dictator is superior to the rest of his talkies, but that's faint praise.  The later films are oddities, bizarre and generally awful works by a genius working outside his milieu.  If they had been made by anyone else, they'd be forgotten today.  The Geat Dictator might still be remembered, but if it was the best Chaplin had to offer, he wouldn't have much of a reputation.


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