TCM looks at Chaplin's take on Hitler

Program compares actor, dictator

TVPreview

October 01, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were born in the same week of April 1889. Both proved to be great communicators (although Chaplin worked better without sound, while Hitler's famously demagogic speeches sort of depended on it), and both achieved worldwide fame.

In actuality, those aren't a lot of points of comparison. And it is unlikely the two would be mentioned in the same breath, save for Chaplin's decision in 1938 to mock the sadistic German fuehrer in his first talking film, The Great Dictator. (It took more than a year to make the film.)

Tonight on TCM, The Dictator and the Tramp, the latest documentary from nonpareil film historian Kevin Brownlow, chronicles the making of that landmark film - praised as daringly brilliant by some critics, panned as simplistically pedantic by others - by tracing what it sees as the many parallels between the men. The result trods over too much familiar ground - most of us already know how shockingly evil Hitler was, and what an obsessive filmmaker Chaplin could be - and isn't nearly as fascinating as it should be.

Which is not to say the program, premiering at 8 p.m. on TCM (with a repeat at 11:30 p.m.), is without merit - nothing from the mind of Brownlow would suffer that tag. There is some remarkable home-movie footage shot by Chaplin's brother, Sydney, that shows the director at work on the film. Even better, the footage, recently discovered at Chaplin's home in Switzerland, is in color. The Great Dictator was filmed in black and white.

It's also interesting to hear how the ending for Chaplin's film evolved. Originally, he had planned to end it with a scene of dancing soldiers, but after Hitler invaded France and the extent of his hunger for world domination became known, Chaplin changed it to a speech that's a plea for world peace.

But The Dictator and the Tramp spends way too much time - better than half the hourlong film - chronicling both men's humble beginnings (Chaplin's, which involved growing up in the legendarily harsh British orphanages of the 19th century, was far worse than Hitler's lower-middle-class beginnings) and burgeoning careers.

The Great Dictator (which follows on TCM tonight at 9) tells the parallel stories of Adenoid Hynkel, a race-baiting, megalomaniacal autocrat and ruler of Tomania, and a nameless Jewish barber who has both the misfortune and good luck to be his near-identical twin. The film mercilessly parodies Hitler's speech-making, his delusions of grandeur and his petty authoritarianism, while at the same time pointing out his indefensible persecution of the Jews.

It was one of the first films to do so, and at a time when appeasing Germany was the norm for Hollywood (studio heads didn't want to risk returns from the German box office), and when anti-Semitism was a rising force in the United States as well.

There's no disputing Chaplin's bravery in making the film, especially since it was funded entirely out of his own pocket. Although Brownlow's film claims Franklin Roosevelt himself promised the film would be distributed, it still left open the possibility that Chaplin would take a considerable financial bath (it ended up being his biggest moneymaker).

And while some may criticize the film for making fun of so dangerous a figure as Hitler (Chaplin later said he would never have made it, had he known the extent of Hitler's atrocities), it is on balance a remarkable achievement.

While the blend of pathos and humor doesn't work as well as in some of Chaplin's other movies (The Kid, for instance), there are enough comic bits to make it a classic - including a surrealistic ballet duet with Hinkel and a world globe, and about every scene in which Jack Oakie, looking like Benito Mussolini, plays Napaloni, the sputtering leader of Bacteria.

As for the ending - sure, it's preachy and, perhaps, naive. But it was something the world at the time needed to hear.

As director Sidney Lumet puts it in Brownlow's film, "If it was inartistic, it was inartistic. I don't care."

That's the sort of issue The Dictator and the Tramp should have spent more time on, rather than repeating history most of us already know.

Premiere

What: The Dictator and the Tramp

When: 8 p.m. (with a repeat at 11:30 p.m.)

Where: TCM

In brief: Too much history, too little art

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