Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Great Dictator

This is a story of how far Hollywood has fallen. How far it has strayed from the true spirit of cinematic artistry. How much it has become the purview of the bureaucrat and the bean counter, given to making the safe choices and decisions that don’t make any waves.

As the story goes, Charlie Chaplin and French writer/director Rene Clair sat next to each other at the New York Museum of Modern Art screening of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi Classic “Triumph of the Will”.

When the film ended Clair was in tears. Chaplin was beside himself with laughter and immediately set to work writing “The Great Dictator”, his satirical take on Adolf Hitler and his Fascist minions.

His film would see Chaplin producing, writing and directing as well as playing the dual roles of his Hitler character, Adenoid Hynkel, and a Jewish barber who lives in Hynkel’s fictional dictatorship of Tomainia.

Chaplin, though beloved worldwide, was no fan of Fascists. And they didn’t have much use for him either. After seeing the comedian mobbed by fans during a 1931 visit to Berlin, Nazi supporters dubbed him “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” even though Chaplin wasn’t Jewish.

Most of Hollywood was aware he was out to skewer the Fuhrer and German diplomats and distributors made it clear to several studio heads that the vast German market might become unavailable to Hollywood should Chaplin’s film be released.

But Chaplin had his own studio and wasn’t swayed by entreaties from other moguls. Despite being English, he also didn’t give a moment’s thought to the British government’s decree that his film would not be shown in the UK so as not to upset international relations.

He simply ploughed ahead. Filming began in September of 1939, one week after War had been declared and was completed six months later. It was Chaplin’s first all-talking film and editing and post production took up the entire Summer of 1940.

During this time, Chaplin worried that audiences would not be interested in an anti-war comedy during wartime. But stories of Nazi atrocities against European Jews continued to bubble in the public consciousness, so he persevered.

The film was released in October of 1940 and became not only an instant hit but the largest grossing film of Chaplin’s career. Even in the midst of the Blitz, more than 9 million tickets were sold in England alone.

According to a recent BBC documentary “The Tramp and The Dictator”, Chaplin also personally dispatched a print to Hitler and the real life dictator was confirmed to have screened it –- twice.

Today, the film retains a 92% “Fresh” rating and a 95% Audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1997 as being "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant".

Consider this next to today’s decision by Sony to shelve the Seth Rogan take on another great dictator “The Interview”. It’s a telling indictment of how the entertainment industry now operates.

Chaplin would not be laughing. And sadly, neither are we.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim. I just had the opportunity to raise this with a 20-something co-worker. She was of the opinion that Sony got what it deserved because you just don't mess with dictators.

I raised this very film...then stopped when I realized I didn't have the strength to explain who Charlie Chaplin was, and, barely a month after Remembrance Day, how my uncles dealt with dictators.