Monday, October 19, 2020

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" at 80: Dreamers and Doers

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Politics in Film Blogathon. For more examples of how this red hot topic is handled on the silver screen, click here.

Spoiler alert: this is going to get political. Typically, I try (sometimes not always successfully) to keep politics off this site, but since politics is the topic, I'm going all in.

Did Hitler steal Chaplin's mustache?

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" is 80 years old this month. All these years later, after all of our history that came after, it still stands as a work of passion, of vision, of courage and humanity. And as a lesson that, in so many ways, we have learned so very little while hoping for so much.

For Chaplin's first true and total sound film he made the courageous choice of skewering Hitler, the Nazis, Mussolini and fascism with his 2 greatest tools, humor and humanity. When filming began in September 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and Great Britain had declared war. Upon the film's release in October 1940, the United States was still at peace with Nazi Germany. Then, as now, the public was sharply divided over America's position on the world stage. Chaplin came firmly down on the side of global humanity, leaving an audience whose country was on the brink of war to view the choice through a moral lens.

Trouble in the ghetto of Tomania

Have you seen this great film? You should. Really. Briefly, Chaplin plays 2 parts: that of a WWI veteran Jewish barber who, as a result of a war explosion, lost his memory, and his exact double, dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the dear Phooey of Tomania, who looks so very much like Adolph Hitler, the dear Fuhrer of Germany. (Chaplin's hilarity with Hitler would be repeated - brilliantly - decades later by Mel Brooks in "The Producers." )

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel. The infamous swastika
is now the sign of the double cross in Tomania.

Chaplin has a lot of fun mangling and ridiculing Hynkel's henchmen. The Goebbels character, the Secretary of Propaganda, is called Garbitsch. Goring becomes Herring, and most memorable of all, Mussolini becomes Benzino Napoloni, Dictator of Bacteria, brilliantly played by Jack Oakie.

Jack Oakie as Napolini. Remind you of anyone?

The power-mad Hynkel has only one dream: to rule the world.


Conversely, the little Barber is a kind and gentle soul. Despite the persecution he and his fellow Jews suffer in the ghetto, he does get to enjoy a love affair with Hannah, his beautiful and spirited comrade in arms played by Chaplin's then-wife, Paulette Goddard.

Hannah and the Barber on the run from persecution

As the Barber, Chaplin even gets to update an old barber shop joke (deleted from the final version of his 1919 short film, "Sunnyside") with one-time Keystone co-star, Chester Conklin. Chaplin, like so many great comedians, was always ready to recycle a good joke.


The Barber is not exactly The Little Tramp, but he retains so much of him that the character becomes a gentle farewell to an iconic character. The Tramp could not really live in a world of sound, nor should he have had to live in a world of fear and hatred.

While there are many moments of humor, the actual story is quite terrifying and sadly prescient. The barber is saved from hanging and death in a concentration camp by the disgraced Commander Schultz, who, in gratitude to the Barber for saving his life so many years ago, refuses to kill him and defies Hynkel's orders. A series of events lead to the Barber having to stand in for Hynkel, who was mistaken for the Jewish Barber and hauled off to a concentration camp by the authorities (karma!). The Barber must speak to the people of Tomania, and, through he has never spoken to so many in such a public way, he finds his voice:


Chaplin added this speech* after Hitler had invaded France.

Today, we are hearing this speech more and more. It has been part of a Lavazza Coffee commercial called "Good Morning Humanity," and it has been popping up all over the internet. 


For those who always insist on getting in the pointless Keaton vs. Chaplin debate, or give the knee-jerk reaction to Chaplin of "he liked young girls," I say this to you: Chaplin was a human being, a man of flaws and foibles. But he had a gift, and, at a terrible time in human history, he chose to go all in on a message of hope and humanity and to firmly and bravely come down on the side of right. Like most artists, he was a dreamer. But, by using his voice in such a powerful way, he was also a doer.

Be a dreamer. Be a doer. Vote.

* Here is the full text of Chaplin's speech at the end of "The Great Dictator."

We all want to help one another, human beings are like that.

We want to live by each other's happiness.

Not by each other's misery.

We don't want to hate and despise one another.

 

And this world has room for everyone,

and the good Earth is rich can provide for everyone.

You have the love of humanity in your hearts.

You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful,

to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work -

that will give youth a future and old age a security.

Let us fight to free the world - to do away with national barriers -

to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.

Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.

 

Let us all unite!





Thursday, October 8, 2020

Then and Now: If Walls Could Talk

Have you ever walked into an old house and wondered about the stories the walls could tell if they could talk? Or imagine the tales the trees in a forest could spin we spoke their language? Or, better yet, the locations in Hollywood that were silent witnesses to genius?

In my previous post I challenged myself to keep my eye out for Chaplin sightings and...voila! John Bengston of silentlocations.com has created this amazing video of this very unassuming little Hollywood alley. Take a look: 



Not just Chaplin's "The Kid," not just Keaton's "Cops," but Lloyd's "Safety Last"! Oh, if only that little alley could talk.

And just for some added fun, imagine if the ground could tell you about this wild car chase!



Well, here's a then-and-now of almost every shot of his amazing ride:



Thank you, John, for this fascinating look at Hollywood history that is still there if you know where to look.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Charlie Chaplin Sightings....Will You Join Me?

 So, here's the thing. I am endlessly fascinated with and amazed by Charlie Chaplin.

For all you Buster folks, this is not a comparison. I really love Buster, too. What amazes me about Charlie (we are on a first name basis, just so you know), is how he remains relevant even 100 years after his first film.

I have been casually amazed at 1) how enduring his image is, and 2) how his face or his words or some subtle reference to him sneaks into our every day life if we pay attention. This growing awareness has been rattling around my brain for a while now (okay, for years now), but this latest commercial by, of all things, Lavazza Coffee, made me think that I had better start paying attention.


His remarkable words from 1940's "The Great Dictator" are as relevant and true as they were then, and his remarkable life and work has never faded from our collective consciousness. Ask a young person to look at his image and see if they can identify them. Chances are, they can, even if they have never seen a snipet of his films. I tried this little experiment the other day on a younger friend of mine and she answered without hesitation that it was Charlie, admitting that she had never seem a complete Chaplin film. 

So, I was thinking of embarking on a little experiment - looking for clues of Chaplin in my daily life in ways great and small. It could be a quote, an image, a subtle reference... all to remind me of the endless well of brilliance and deep feeling he had for humanity and how mysteriously prevalent he remains after so many decades. I'm starting (and hoping to maintain) a weekly journal. If you have any Charlie sightings in every day real life, please feel free to share them with my Facebook group (FlickChick's Movie Playground) and I will include them on my Sunday roundup of Chaplin sightings right here. I have a tendency to poop out on these things, so any extra nudges are always appreciated! 

Street art spied in France
And now, I'm keeping my eyes and ears open for signs from the Master!


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book Review: Martin Turnbull's "The Heart of the Lion": The Room Where it (Really) Happened

Hey movie lover - haven't you often heard behind the scenes conversations in your head? You know, the ones between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Or Garbo and Gilbert? Or maybe, just maybe, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer? Or better  yet, all those mop up men at the Harlow home discussing how to handle Paul Bern's death while he lay there cold as a cucumber? Well, imagine no more, because author Martin Turnbull takes you to all of those rooms where it all really happened (the rooms we really care about) in "The Heart of the Lion," his new novel about the MGM Boy Wonder, Irving Thalberg.


Anyone who is anyone makes an appearance in Turnbull's fictional telling of Thalberg's final years. Lillian Gish nurses a sidecar* at a Hollywood party, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. complains about Mary Pickford, foreshadowing the end of a fairy tale union, and Garbo is a sly minx who never has her head in the clouds. But the central stars of this tale are Louis B. Mayer, the crude but knowing head of the great studio, John Gilbert, the fading silent star who was one half of an unlikely friendship, and Norma Shearer, the determined star whose gentle love and patience brought great happiness to her boss, who also happened to be her husband.

The wedding. Irving's mom wasn't too happy, but Norma got her man
"The Heart of the Lion," covers the years 1925 though 1936, the year of Thalberg's death at age 37. A frail and sickly child, raised in fear by an over-protective and over-bearing mother, Thalberg's health was always precarious. The fact that he was not expected to live past the age of 30 was drummed into him as a child. Turnbull presents a young man who, believing himself to be living on borrowed time, feels compelled to achieve, achieve, and achieve. And achieve he did. You can almost hear the tick tick tick of time running out in Turnbull's prose, as Thalberg tries valiantly to grab the most life has to offer while all the while knowing that the shadow of death lurked nearby.

Turnbull paints a vivid picture of Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, the time when silent stars were gods, sound and the Great Depression shattered their west coast Mount Olympus and the subsequent rebuilding of MGM into a new kingdom that boasted more stars than there were in heaven. The sad demise of John Gilbert, Thalberg's great friend, is handled as a fate inevitable as it is heartbreaking. On the other hand, Joan Crawford is a brassy hoot and Harlow is a sassy charmer. It's great to spend time with them. However, the most important moments are reserved for those between Thalberg and Mayer, his feckless father figure who threw him over for son-in-law David O. Selznick, and Norma Shearer. The imagined scenes between Thalberg and Norma are beautifully done, with their intimate conversation at Carole Lombard's Mayfair Ball bringing a tear to my eye.

Oh yes she did! Norma (pictured here with David Niven, Merle Oberon
and Thalberg) did a Jezebel and wore red to
Carole Lombard's white-gown-only-please Mayfair Ball
For the record, this is a fictional biography, a novel, but the research is impeccable. Trust me: I consider myself a great repository of useless Hollywood history and detail and a few times I thought - aha! I spy a mistake! - only to find out I was wrong and Martin Turnbull was right. 

Irving and Norma: Happy
Thalberg's name never once appeared on screen as a film's producer, but as MGM's Head of Production from 1925 until his death, his was the unseen hand that built a dreamland that endures in the heart of every classic movie lover to this day. Leo the Lion might have been the face and the roar of the great studio, but Thalberg was its beating heart, a heart that was filled with love for the movies and one that was taken from the world much too soon.

You can purchase "The Heart of the Lion," as well as Turbull's Garden of Allah novels Here

*Since Lillian Gish is downing a sidecar at a prohibition era Hollywood party, she might just have been sipping it primly from a teacup, don't you think?

Sidecar Cocktail recipe
1.5 oz Dudognon Cognac
1 oz Cointreau
.5 oz Lemon juice
Lemon twist

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass, garnishing with the twist.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gatsby and Me and Hollywood and the Heartbreak of the American Dream


Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.


From the get-go, I was the perfect food for the Hollywood hunger machine. And from my first reading of that slim miracle, I knew the meaning of that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. I didn’t need an explanation because I felt it in my bones, the same way I instinctively felt the meaning of a Hurrell portrait of Jean Harlow or Doris Day’s twinkle.



Simply put: like so many adolescents, I did not want to be me. The wonderful thing about that green light is that we can all attach our private meaning to it, but it all boils down to the same thing: The hope and the lie of the American Dream. If you will it, it will come. If you work hard and commit yourself and believe, it will come. You are not bound by social class, ethnicity, name or the sins of the past. What a perfect message for 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication. Everything seemed possible.

At the same time there was Hollywood, standing astride the world’s film industry that saw European markets devastated by World War I like a king. And what royalty they created! They had been working at it for years, but during the 1920s, they perfected the machine that produced glamour and dreams and fed off the dreams and desires it created in the hearts of the world.

Gloria Swanson, once a ribbon clerk, was now a real-life marhioness, or whatever you call someone married to a marquis. Did she ever scrape Chicago off of her shoes?  Did Clara Bow ever escape the Brooklyn girl who was uneducated and raped by her father just because she lived in a dream world and was adored by millions?



And, if your name didn’t fit the dream, you could change it, just as you could change your appearance or your back story. Name changing in the entertainment world wasn’t new. Mary Pickford ditched Gladys Smith before she ever stepped in front of a camera. In the early days of film, Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati became Theda Bara, the daughter of an Arab Sheik and a French woman, raised in the shadow of the Pyramids.  That kind of malarkey was purely for fun and probably no one really bought it, but it made for a good vamping story that bought folks to the theater. However, somewhere in the 1920s, it all got very serious. After all, millions were at stake and more and more people started really believing make believe.  Did Greta Garbo ever miss Greta Gustafsson?   Was Mary Astor able to shed Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke? Did Rodolfo Pietro Filberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella ever really feel like Rudolph Valentino?



It’s a beautiful dream, but it is a dream, a fantasy. And when you come to realize that, it is the ultimate heartbreak. That is why there is always a tender spot in my heart for Gatsby, for Clara and, later, for poor Norma Jean Baker. They believed and their hearts were pierced. As was mine, when I realized I could not become anyone other than myself. Yet the allure persists. It is powerful, this desire to alter the reality.

Daisy and Nick and Tom, those philistines, never had to long. They could graze in another pasture, sample the “other,” but they were secure in their beings. They did not long to be anyone other than themselves. Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.

The eternal truth of Gatsby smashes the lie of the American Dream, so well perpetuated by Hollywood – or what passes for a universal “Hollywood” these days. Jay Gatz could give himself a new name and fancy clothes and new wealth, but the truth was cloaked in the lie. Believing the lie is the mistake that leads to the heartbreak. Somehow, the truth always wins.



As a little girl I spent endless hours pouring through movie magazine and classic Hollywood photo books. My dreams were built on those images. Oh what magical lives Hayley Mills and Sally Field and Audrey Hepburn must have had!  I’m a big girl now and I have learned that who you are, at your core, is the only truth and your true identity. It’s fun to take flights of fancy and indulge in a little make believe, but the trick is to never believe it is real. Cary Grant famously said “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.” Based on what we know, even the great Cary Grant spent endless hours trying to figure out the intersection where Archie Leach met Cary Grant.



And still, like so many, who continue to watch and watch and maybe hope and hope, I am spellbound by the magic of film, especially Hollywood films of old.
The green light at the end of the dock is no different than the thrill of the simultaneous darkening of the theater and the light of the projector and the hope, the excitement that we can enter a new world, if only for a short while. Unlike Gatsby, we don’t have to really believe it, unlike Marilyn we don’t have to run head first to the green light. A person could get burned if they linger there too long.







Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Classics For Comfort: Getting Out of the Comfort Zone

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Classics For Comfort Spring Blogathon. Click here for more no-calorie comfort film food.


Movies have always served as a comfort for me, even in the best of times. The current  pandemic and resulting sense of isolation makes one want to pull those familiar films around us like a warm and cozy blanket. But, I confess, after 2 months, I'm beginning to need a little more. So, sorry "Singin' in the Rain", you'll just have to sit in your DVD case; and Norma Desmond? We shall rendezvous again - soon, my darling - I'm sure (we always do). But for now, I feel like dipping my toe in more challenging waters, so I offer the 5 films that took me out of my comfort zone (largely with positive results).

On The Waterfront

If I have an aversion to a particular star, I tend to avoid them, even if the movie is considered a classic. So it was with "On the Waterfront," because Marlon Brando and I are not exactly simpatico. Not only did I avoid this film, but I ran from it. It was a rather gaping hole in my film experience, I admit, and finally one Facebook friend (who has since passed) convinced me to give it a try. 


What can I say? I was 100% wrong. It is powerful, unforgettable, beautifully and achingly acted. I loved it and I love Renee for guiding me there. Still not loving Marlon, but I'm all in for him in this one.

Key Largo

Another star who I can't warm to is Bogart. I don't know why, because he is clearly an excellent actor and a magnetic personality. When he was at the phase in his career when he was battling James Cagney, I always rooted for Jimmy. Maybe it's the snarl..... Anyway, my love for Edward G. Robinson made me hold my nose and jump in and boy, am I glad I did. 



And just so you know, I have since managed to sit through "The Big Sleep" (what the hell is going on? I don't care), "The Maltese Falcon" all the way through (loved it) and "Casablanca" with new appreciation. He still gives me pause and always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, but maybe that's the essence of Bogey.

The Searchers

Never a western gal, for sure, but I figured I'd give it a sincere try with a great one. And yes, it is great. I'm still not 100% in for the genre (too many horses falling in battle), and I have real issues with John Ford sometimes, but I left the film with a great admiration for Ford's love of the American landscape, respect for his characters and an even greater respect for John Wayne as a genuine larger-than-life-size movie star. 



Count me a fan of Duke.

Breathless

My knowledge of foreign films is pretty slim, so I chose to move out of my Hollywood-based comfort zone with "Breathless." I loved every single minute of it and have since managed to branch out with French and Spanish films. 



Merci Jean Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut (whose films I was tempted to enjoy). Super cool after all these years.

Lawrence of Arabia

I'm not a big fan of the historical spectacle. I'm more of an intimate character film type of gal. Maybe I really resisted this one because I saw this in the movies on a re-release with a date who was so obviously gay and we didn't have such a great time, the kiss was awkward.....well, that's another story for another time...maybe.



Anyway, my love for Mr. O'Toole lead me back to this and "Lawrence of Arabia" now counts as one of my favorite films. It is beautiful - overwhelmingly so. And the music remains just about my favorite film score. It requires a commitment of time, but it holds me always under its spell.



What can I say? I love my comfort films during all times, but right now I'm feeling like some kick-ass films to jolt me off the couch and away from the kitchen. My inner Lucy is yelling at me.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

National Classic Movie Day: 6 from the 60s

This is my entry in the National Classic Movie Day 6 From the 60's Blogathon hosted by the great and powerful Rick at The Classic Film and TV Cafe. Please click here for more great films and memories from a great decade for film and a great decade to be young.


Amazingly (to me, at least), I have reached the age where I can write about classic films from the first hand experience of actually having seen them in the theater when they were released. My earliest memories of movies in a theater came from the decade of the 1960's. Seeing films with either my Mom or friends or  - most memorably - alone was like watering a hungry little seed that blossomed into a life long love. Accordingly, I have chosen to write about films from that decade that had an impact on me as a young person in the dark. Not all are classics, but they all hold a special place in my heart. Clearly, first loves leave a lasting imprint there.

Here we go, paisley mini skirt, go-go boots, poor boy sweater and all!

The Parent Trap (1961)
One Hayley is wonderful; 2 Hayleys is heaven
This is the film that made me love Hayley Mills. Forget the fact that a Boston sister and a western sister both spoke with British accents, I was mad for all things Hayley after that. There was not a movie magazine that printed a mention of her that I did not covet or collect (want to see the "Summer Magic" paper dolls I still have?). My favorite scene: the summer camp dress sabotage. Oh, and Maureen O'Hara, to me, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She reminded me of my Mom, who took me to see this.

And my love for Hayley endures. Last year I saw her in a play in New York...front row seats...she was beautiful...I swooned.

The Thrill of it All (1963)
Doris as Beverly Boyer: The Happy Soap Girl
My Mom took me to see this one, too. I remember laughing a lot, but especially at the scene where James Garner drives his car into a soap filled swimming pool (hey, I was 10). Since that day, Doris Day has always seemed like a warm hug for me. Plus, I thought she was Beautiful, loved her hair and clothes and just the naturalness of her. I saw this film recently on TV and it still charmed me. Her chemistry with Jame Garner was equal to the sparks she shared with Rock Hudson. They were great together. This film was a narrow choice over their other film, "Move Over, Darling." What sent this over the top was Zasu Pitts as the family maid who I recognized from morning reruns of "The Gale Storm Show."

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

I'm pretty sure my older brother took me to see this one, probably because he wanted to see it and he was stuck with me for the afternoon. I'm so glad he did, because this was my introduction to Inspector Clouseau and the wonderful Peter Sellers, who became a favorite of mine. And you know, girls always notice other girls, and to me Elke Sommer was gorgeous. The scene at the nudist camp had the entire theater in hysterics (a wonderful memory; will we ever experience it again?), but the billiard scene was my favorite... even more now because at the time, I had no idea how divine George Sanders was.

Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) 

A most memorable day at the movies for me, the first movie I saw alone. I was feeling a little self-conscious, thinking that I might be the only solitary person there. However, when I paid for my ticket and entered the lobby, I noticed quite a commotion. People were filling out cards with questions, but I was so focused on getting a seat and looking like I did this ALL the time, I ignored all the hub-bub. 

First: the film. Gripping stuff, right? And for an 11 or 12  year old, pretty darn scary. Truthfully, it took me decades to be able to look at - much less appreciate - Joseph Cotten. I did scream and jump out of my seat when he (allegedly) crawled up those stair from a muddy grave.

Next: It turns out all of those cards and questions were for the appearance after the film of the 2 stars: Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. Yes, that was in the day when stars actually did these those things. Truly, after that film, all I wanted to do was leave, but I recall being forced to sit in my seat. I remember nothing of what the 2 greats had to say. My only memory is that Olivia looked beautiful and glamorous in a sky blue dress and that Bette was quite dowdy looking, but her answers to the questions elicited laughs and applause.  Oh how I wish that I had been able to appreciate them at that time. All I could think of was Joseph Cotten.

Lastly: That was the day I learned that going to the movies alone was okay - maybe even preferable. And I wish I had been able to appreciate Mary Astor, who made a brief, kind of sad, appearance in the film.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Simply a dream come true for this Beatles fan. Since my bedroom wall was covered with pictures of the Fab Four (I was a John girl, thank you), the day this film came to town was the day my friends and I just had to see it. Loved the music and loved those guys.

This is one film that got even better for me as time went by. Not only is it fast, fun, inventive, great looking and a wonderful showcase for John, Paul, George and Ringo, it makes my eyes mist over with the happy memory of a youthful passion.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Oh that "R" rating caused quite a controversy, didn't it? Everyone, and I mean everyone, had read the book and eagerly anticipated the movie. But, that damned "R" rating meant I needed an adult to get in with. So yet another thanks to Mom for taking me, probably against her better judgement, to see this devilishly great film which is so true to the book.

Mia and New York in 1968 were enchanting, but it was Ruth Gordon who stole the show for me. As Minnie Castevet she was equal parts charming and frightening. Oh Rosemary, don't drink that concoction she brings over for you every morning! And wouldn't L'Air du Temps be better than tannis root? Of course, the big reveal was "the baby" and just the memory of those beady red eyes sends shivers down my spine. 

* Extra second feature: The Art of Love (1965)

* this is for the memory of the time when we got 2 for the price of 1. 

"The Art of Love" would not make anyone's list of classics and I think you might be hard pressed to find someone who actually saw it, but it's a silly film that I remember loving so much. And what's not to love? It had Elke Sommer (the girl who caught my eye in "A Shot in the Dark"), James Garner (who was so wonderful with Doris Day in "The Thrill of it All"), Dick Van Dyke (the star of one of my favorite TV shows) and Ethel Merman, who memorably had green hair in this. It was just great 1960's innocent fun. However, in doing a look back here, this little forgotten film had more great pedigree: a Ross Hunter production, written by Carl Reiner and directed by Norman Jewison. And the opening credits (remember them?) were pretty darn great, too.

What I love about all of these films is that I still love them - each and every one. While not all are classics, they are all solid fun in their own way and made even more precious because of the happy, enduring memories. 

Thanks again, Rick, for hosting another great National Classic Movie Day Blogathon!