The Great Dictator


I have a confession.

Until this week I had not seen Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”.

Fortunately for me, there is a new release from Criterion, and it includes some wonderful extras that make the dvd or blue ray totally worth viewing. First I watched the film with the commentary track from Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, which is one of the very best commentaries I have ever heard.  Dan Kamin wrote the excellent book, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show.

The story concerns the fictitious land of Tomania, clearly representing Germany. Chaplin plays both Henkel (the dictator who looks like Hitler) and the nameless “Jewish Barber”. The challenge for Charlie was to portray the fascists as both dangerous and laughable. The slapstick was carefully measured in with realistic violence to keep things in perspective. When Henkel (Hitler) tumbles down some stairs, Chaplin plays it realistically. He wanted Henkel to look like a normal person falling, and not a gifted comic.

Disc two includes a documentary from Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft.  “The Tramp and the Dictator” tracks the parallel lives of the two men, who were born just 4 days apart in the same year. They show clips of color film shot by Chaplin’s half brother Sydney during production. The movie is black and white, but when intercut with the color footage, it has a startling effect. When Chaplin began production on the film, he met with criticism from many in the movie industry who felt we shouldn’t antagonize Hitler.  Chaplin appears to have been a fearless man, and my respect for him has only grown.

The second disc includes some visual essays, and a deleted scene. The set comes with a 28 page booklet that features Al Hirschfeld’s original press book illustrations for the movie.

Of course the Nazi government never allowed The Great Dictator to be shown to the people. But did Hitler see it? The records show that Hitler had ordered it for viewing, not once but twice.

Everyone should know this speech.  I am sorry to say it feels more necessary than ever.   Please watch.

 

Are these creatures appealing?

Above are three character designs for you to consider.  On the left is Mary, the titular character from a new ABC Television series Imaginary Mary.  (Cartoon Brew posted an article about it)  In the center is “Oh” from Dreamworks movie Home.  On the right is a character from the 2015 film Monster Hunt, I do not know it’s name.  One of them is imaginary, one is an alien, and one is a monster, so all of them are non-human.  Clearly, they are all following an identical design aesthetic.  Short rounded bodies, big, wide set eyes, and only one has a nose, which is tiny. Obviously, they want to make creatures that are strange, but also non-threatening.  They look soft and friendly.  We have to assume the target audience is young children.

I think these characters take “appeal” too far.  It gets so built into the design, that the characters have no range to act.  To me they are insipid, and  appear incapable of doing anything important.  We like babies and kittens, but only to look at and play with.  I don’t imagine they are going to take me on an exciting journey in a story.

I saw Monster Hunt once, and thought the live action parts were much more engaging than the animation.  The “cute” monsters felt like they didn’t belong in the same universe.  My following comments are mostly about Home and what I can see from the preview for Imaginary Mary.

Innocence can be a great comedic tool, but very few film makers know how to make a story with it.   What happened is the writers and directors made them too talky.  They like to write jokes, and when the put their “witty” dialog into these creatures, it simply doesn’t match with how they look.  Those designs are what some writers think is appeal.  For a good example of how an innocent character can have range, look at Spot from The Good Dinosaur.  Spot can be cute, but he can also be convincingly sad, and downright ferocious.

Spot doesn’t talk.

Yet, it is possible to have a character that has great visual appeal, and witty dialog.  You just have to go to the other end of the spectrum, and give up all innocence.

 

The Great Cartoon Directors: Friz Freleng

I have selected some passages from Jeff Lenberg’s book The Great Cartoon Directors to share here.  I chose them for their practical examples of creating funny cartoons, or if they support the idea of being inspired by live comedians.

No matter what Friz directed, he always made the most of it, especially when he supervised the  Melodies cartoons.  He gave gags his maximum precision by timing his films on musical bar sheets.  Other directors preferred to time scenes on exposure sheets, but Freleng  believed he got a much better feel of the movement by using musical bar sheets.  Timing the action this way made the problem of doing the musical score to the picture much easier for Carl Stallings, who scored most of the Warners cartoons.

ON YOSEMITE SAM

Explains Freleng, “I found Yosemite Sam to be the perfect opponent for Bugs, as there are so subtleties in Sam’s character.  The moment he appeared on the scree, there was no doubt about his character, or motives.  He was an absolute villain.  When another adversary appeared, we would have to build a motive for the unknown character.  I really thought Elmer was the wrong guy to oppose Bugs, because he was weak and stupid.  He could have been outwitted by a chicken.  But who am I to argue with success?”

ON TWEETY AND SYLVESTER

…The basic structure of the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons was much like Metro’s Tom and Jerry series.  Each character tried to outwit (or destroy) the other.  It was also similar to Chuck Jones’ later Roadrunner/Coyote series for Warners; the unending conflict between the two characters sustained the series.

As Freleng stated in an interview with the author: “When I made Sylvester cartoons, the only restriction I had was to be sure to keep him as an alley cat with vicious intent.  I think that he was really responsible for the success of the Tweety cartoons.  Tweety was used in a very minor role.  If you analyze the cartoons, he only served as a foil.

ON SPEEDY GONZALES

Speedy had all the physical elements for comedy; his innocent, impish grin and naive remarks in times of trouble provoked laughter.  The trouble was mainly caused by Sylvester the Cat, Speedys’ costar and adversary in the series.  Casting Sylvester opposite Speedy provided a firm foundation for comedy situations.  Without a strong personality like Sylvester,  Speedy’s characterization was weak, almost lifeless.  Not that Speedy wasn’t lovable on the screen; he just couldn’t carry a cartoon without having someone to antagonize.

ON THE PINK PANTHER:

Though the character didn’t talk, he provided laughs by reenacting sight gags that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton first made famous in the 1920’s.  Who said the silents were dead?  The Panther Cartoons were just that, purely visual cartoons accompanied by a lively ragtime musical soundtrack.

 

The Great Cartoon Directors: Chuck Jones

I have selected some passages from Jeff Lenberg’s book The Great Cartoon Directors to share here.  I chose them for their practical examples of creating funny cartoons, or if they support the idea of being inspired by live comedians.

Chuck first became infatuated with the movie business at the tender age of six.  It was several years after his birth on September 21, 1912 that Jones and his parents moved from Spokane Washington, to Hollywood.  They lived on Sunset Boulevard, right across from Hollywood High School.  It was here that Jones learned about movie making.  Just two blocks down from his house was the Chaplin Studios.

Jones has a snub nose, he says, from pressing it too hard against the fence in front of the Chaplin Studios to watch how comedies were made.  As he recalled, “I learned a great deal from watching Chaplin.  Father came home one day, and said he saw Chaplin film a scene he’d done 52 times to get it right for fifteen seconds on the screen.  It had a lot to do with timing.”  The bit Chaplin was trying to perfect was his famous one-legged turn.

Jones analyzes Bug’s personality as such:  “Bugs stood with one leg straight and the other leg akimbo.  Because he’s not afraid, he engages in the matter.  We always started Bugs out in a natural rabbit environment and somebody came along an tried to do him in.  And then he fought back.  So it was no more like Groucho Marx. Once the battle is joined you can’t get him loose even with a pair of crowbars.  Because it’s a joy.  As Groucho said, “You know of course this means war!”  And so it was with Bugs.  He was something more personal and special to me, more than any other character I have directed.”

See, this is why I don’t like the new Looney Tunes TV show.  Bugs lives in a house.

“We followed certain disciplines.  Bugs always made his appearance in a natural rabbit situation.  Unlike Woody Woodpecker, he was never mischievous without a particular reason. Only when he was disturbed did he then decide the time has come to war.  In a sense, in a sense, he was a counterrevolutionary.”

The world could be coming to an end, but Bugs opted to be the straight man rather than the comic.  Bugs was the straight man to a myriad of characters in his cartoons; thugs, gremlins, aliens from outer space, and giants.  By playing it straight, Bugs delivered the necessary comic punch in putting the comedy across.  Bugs in the role of the straight man was as important to the success of the comedy as Bud Abbott was to Lou Costello, or as George Burns was to Gracie Allen.

BUGS AND ELMER FUDD.

The animated duo reminded moviegoers of the same chemistry seen in comedies staring Laurel and Hardy.  Fudd was much like Laurel; he was a slow thinker and even slower to react.  He had a slow burn quality about that would have made Edgar Kennedy , the technicians originator, especially proud.  In other ways, he was also like W.C. Fields since he kept his gestures close to his body.  Bugs, in contrast, was like Hardy; he had quick reactions and was fast footed when it was time to make chase.  Like most slender comedians, Bugs gestured freely and was never afraid to go outside his own boundary; Fudd was.

While their personalities are possibly that way, I don’t see Bugs and Elmer’s relationship that way at all.  Laurel and Hardy worked together, they weren’t at odds, intentionally.  There was certainly a chemistry between Bugs and Fudd, but not like L&H.

ON THE COYOTE

“The Coyote is victimized by his own ineptitude.  I never understood how to use tools, and that’s really the Coyotes problem.  He’s not at war with the gods, but with the miniscule things of every day life.  It is out of mounting frustration that the comedy develops.”

 

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