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Susan Green

To See or Not to See

(11 November 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 31, 11 November 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

See It by All Means

Charlie Chaplin has ventured into politics apparently without knowledge of the fact that in that field time is of the essence.

He started making this picture about the little Jewish barber who resembles Hitler five years ago. Well meaning liberals, who did not and do not understand that fascism with its filth and barbarism is a natural development of the capitalist system and that Hitler is the personal embodiment of this development, at that time regarded Hitler as nothing more than a psychopathic case. Five years ago, before German imperialism went on the rampage under Hitler’s guidance, even though Chaplin’s estimate of the fuehrer was wrong, his satire of the crazy man in Berlin, who needed to be put into a straight jacket, would have been more acceptable. Today, everybody realizes that Hitler is more than a flower-smelling, piano-playing, posturing and posing violent maniac. Furthermore, the Nazi war machine has proved itself so damnably efficient that the scenes which represent everyone of Goering’s military finds as nothing but duds fail in their intended humor.

The Humor Is Still Chaplin’s

However, Chaplin is a master laugh-producer and he doesn’t fall down in The Great Dictator. Nothing tickles the funny bone so much as to see the supposedly superior guy made to look small and ridiculous. So the fuehrer’s elbow slips off the desk when he is trying too look impressive; he takes away a hand full of something after holding a baby; he absentmindedly puts English mustard on his strawberries instead of cream. But the most superb piece of deflation is a speech in which Hitler rants in a combination of German, Jewish English and gibberish. Even the microphones curl up in fright, but the fuehrer winds up with a series of coughing, puffing animal sounds signifying nothing.

However, in the process of deflating Hitler, Chaplin makes another mistake of proportion and politics. It is unconvincing and unreal to allow Mussolini the privilege of making Hitler look like a flat tire. (By the way, Hitler is known in the film as Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania, and Mussolini as Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria.) Napaloni sweeps into Tomania like a tornado and keeps Hynkel fluttering around in the breeze. But it is no argument against dictators to have dictator Mussolini clap dictator Hitler down.

The film is at its best when Chaplin plays the funny little fellow with the turned out feet and baggy pants. Some of the funniest sequences are at the beginning of the film when the little Jewish barber is a dazed German soldier who lets a hand grenade slip up his sleeve and wanders into the enemy lines.

After fifteen years in a soldiers’ hospital getting over mental shock, he returns to his barber shop and the reign of the Nazi. His uncomprehending indignation reaches a humorous high when, having been given the works by one storm trooper, he turns to another, saying: “Are you a policeman? Arrest that man. He assaulted me.”

There are clever bits in the true Chaplin manner where he rhythmically shaves a puzzled customer to music by Brahms; where he polishes off a customer’s bald pate to use it as a mirror; where he sneaks home through the emptied ghetto street, on tip-toe, nervous1y dropping bat and stick – what he is sneaking away from is Hitler’s voice thundering anti-semitic threats over the radio.

His Much Disputed Last Speech

In the end the little Jewish barber, who is the spittin’ image of Hitler because they are both played by Chaplin, is mistaken for Hitler and finds himself before the massed Nazi troops after the conquest of Austria. He must deliver a speech of conquest. Instead the little Jewish barber makes an impassioned appeal to fight for kindness, humanity, the end of greed, the end of national hatreds, for democracy. The Nazi troops applaud – probably because they applaud anything the fuehrer says. And Paulette Goddard, the poor Jewess from the ghetto, hears the beautiful words over the radio and sees the dawn of a new day.

Reviewers criticize Chaplin for departing from his art to present his political views in this speech. My criicism is that his politics are inadequate. Beautiful words have to be implemented successfully before a new day dawns – and not by the implication, however reserved, that the way out lies in the “democratic” fight of Churchill and Roosevelt, in their own way as able representatives of national greed as is “The Great Dictator”.

A word about the acting. Chaplin is great in both roles. Jack Oakie struts beautifully as Mussolmi. Paulette Goddard acts more like a Tenth Avenue kid than a Jewish daughter of the ghetto.

Hollywood Didn’t Let Them Have It, But

To use the head is the important thing to Tony Patucci. What if his Amy is with child because of an indiscrete interlude wtth his ranch foreman, Joe. If Tony uses his head he knows that he loves Amy, that he wants her to marry him and stay with him on his ranch. But Amy is not big enough to accept Tony’s forgiveness. She goes away to get over it all.

But this is not the ending in Sidney Howard’s original play, which won the Pulitzer prize in 1925. In the play Amy, the waitress who was courted by Tony via correspondence, knew she wanted Tony with his ranch and his $10,000 in the bank. When Tony forgave her, she stayed to marry bim. That gave justification for the title They Knew What They Wanted. Hollywood, however, had to make Amy collect the wages of sin.

Altough there are deviations from the original play, the film is good in its own right, and one that this reviewer recommends, Several of the scenes are among the best to be found anywhere. One such is the fiesta where Tony is showing off for his Amy. Another is where Joe, the foreman, stands up and takes his punishrnent when Tony finds out what he has done.

In spite of the fact that Carole Lombard is a bit too glamorous for the role of the practical waitress, she acts the part with true understanding and shows what a good actress she is. Charles Laughton’s acting is uneven. At times he seems to get the very essence of the expansive, big-hearted Italian, but often he falls into being just Charles Laughton. The only really bad bit is the dulcet sanctimoniousness of Frank Fay’s padre.

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