The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator

The classic image of Hynkel (Chaplin) playing with the world in his hands.

Before the release of The Great Dictator, Hitler was a fan of Chaplin’s, so much so that it is rumored he modeled his mustache from the comedian. This makes me wonder why Hitler never shaved after the movie came out. After the release, it was unsurprisingly banned in Germany even after the war ended.

After years of his immortal tramp character had become one of the world’s most recognizable images, Chaplin finally decided to make a talkie (12 years after talking pictures were born). In The Great Dictator, he is not known as the tramp, but a jewish barber (though he is still nameless). After serving in the first World War (then called the great war), the barber survives a plane crash with a soldier he saved named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). The barber is in a hospital for years suffering from memory loss before he returns to his home country of Tomania, only to discover it is ruled by a new dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). A local neighborhood girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard, one of Chaplin’s wives in real life) supports the barber as he fights the higher power, even if the new appointed Schultz fails to get his soldiers to lay off of the barber.

As in all Chaplin films, there are a plethora of scenes that are classic comedic gags. The airplane ride at the beginning, the wacky slapstick on the street as the barber tries to stand up to the storm troopers, Hynkel playing with the world in his hands, and more to discover. We also get Jack Oakie as Napaloni (basically Benito Mussolini), the dictator of Bacteria. Their scenes together are ripe with comedic energy.

Oddly, the most popular scene in the film is the last five-minute speech given by the barber. In a way, it is out-of-place, because it makes the comedy automatically stand still and makes way for what is arguably Chaplin talking to the audience, not the barber. I am not saying I agree or disagree with what he says, only that the whole speech is a little superfluous to the story.

Parents, kids would be fine with this movie (no swearing or any sexual stuff), but I would at least think they should be old enough to know who Hitler was.

This would be the last time that Chaplin had played a man with a mustache on-screen. The film is not his best (that is always City Lights, with Modern Times a close second), but it is nice to see how Chaplin managed to fight back against the real life ruthless dictator of the 20th century with all the weapons he could muster. In his biography, he did mention that he would not have made the film if he knew ahead of time the horror that was going on for those under Hitler’s thumb at the time.

Thankfully, Chaplin pursued the film’s completion, one year before the United States went to war.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

Song of the South (1946)

Song of the South

The Disney movie most people, of any age, will not be able to see…

I suppose I should start off with some form of explanation.

Those of you who have actually heard of Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South know it has never been released on VHS or DVD (let alone Blu-Ray). After a theatrical re-release in 1986, the Disney Company has basically swept the film under the rug, with no intention at all of re distributing it. The closest anyone can really get to the film is the Splash Mountain Attraction at the Disney theme parks. Some other countries have had releases on home video of the film, which I assume led to bootleg copies. This is how I managed to finally see the movie (thank you Amazon).

The story is simple enough. It tells the tale of an innocent young boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll, who would voice the title role of Disney’s animated Peter Pan before sadly succumbing to drugs). He travels to his Grandma’s house in Georgia with his parents and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDanniel). His father must leave his wife and son to work for his newspaper, leaving Johnny in tears. His only hope is to find the mythical Uncle Remus, who has been telling stories ever since Johnny’s father was a boy.

James Baskett died shortly after his role as Uncle Remus, but it is truly a magical and pure performance (he would win an Honorary Oscar for the role.) When he tells the tales of Br’er Rabbit and others, I kept getting a sense it was actually Baskett doing all of the voices (he does do the voice of Br’er Fox). As was the case for all Disney films back then (and basically in general), the movie was filled with good songs. Still, if ever there were a song that was a Disney classic, it is “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which is far more popular than the movie itself (and, as shown by Uncle Remus, is fun for anyone to sing).

So why has it not been on DVD before? Simply put, since the movie is taking place in Georgia after the Civil War, it is the depiction of African Americans as slaves. It is very sugar-coated (it is Disney, after all). The way the slaves (though they are never called that) are shown is very stereotypical.

I like to think I know a lot about movies and their history, but I know I don’t know everything. What I do know is that the history of movies took time to make drastic changes. Keep in mind a movie like Gone with the Wind (also starring Hattie McDaniel in her Oscar-winning role as Mammie, which made her the first African-American Oscar winner) was showing slaves walking and talking the same way. Unlike Song of the South, Gone with the Wind is available to the public (and rightly so).

The problem is that a movie like Song of the South is geared toward kids, while GWTW is not. I do feel that Song of the South is not a movie to be first experienced at a young age. A person must know what slavery is, and how drastic it was, before seeing Song of the South. In other words parents, a good talk with your kids before and after the movie is in order (if you manage to see this at all).

Will they release Song of the South to the public again? I do hope so. Disney is arguably the biggest name in show business, so a release would not entirely destroy them at all. When I got the film in my hand, I honestly felt quite honored, knowing I was watching something not many younger than me have seen (the last re-release was a year before I was born).

Perhaps the Disney Studio should remember the words of Uncle Remus:

“You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”

It’s the truth. It’s ‘actch’ll.

Despite all the flaws of Song of the South, at the core it gave me a feeling about childhood innocence  that was “satisfactch’ll”.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****