Category Archives: Movies

Saturday Night at the Movies: “The Great Dictator”

Completing our look at Frye’s “The Great Charlie” published in The Canadian Forum in August 1941 (previous posts here and here and here).

Frye says of Chaplin’s little tramp in Modern Times that the character takes us back to our “primitive belief” that “the lunatic is especially favoured by God,” a theme he carries on in his discussion of The Great Dictator (1940):

This, of course, is not fully intelligible without some reference to religion, and it is in this that The Great Dictator shows its chief advance on Modern Times. To the Nazi the Jew sums up everything he hates: he is of a different race, he is urban, he is intellectual, he is often undersized, he has a sense of humour and tolerance. For these reasons he is also the perfect Chaplin hero: besides, a contempt for this big-happy-family racialism is the first principle of American anarchism. Imagine Huckleberry Finn without Jim or Moby-Dick without Queequog, and you can soon see why Chaplin had to be a Jew. But the picture itself is not Jewish, but Christian to a startling degree. The parallel between the dictator who gains the world but loses his soul and the Jewish barber on one hand, and Caesar and a Jewish carpenter on the other, is very unobtrusive but it is there. Chaplin knows well enough what the Jew Freud and the Christian Pope Pius agree on, that anti-Semitism is a preparation for, and a disguised form of, anti-Christianity. But his conception of Christianity is one conditioned by his American anarchism. What attracts him about Christianity is that something in it that seems eternally unable to get along with the world, the uneasy recurrence, through centuries of compromise and corruption, of the feeling that the world and the devil are the same thing. Hence the complement to his Jewish barber is a dictator who is also an antichrist. The picture opens with a huge cannon pointing at Notre Dame. ‘Oh, Schultz, why have you forsaken me?” [c.f. Mark 15:34] Hinkel blubbers at one point, and when his counsellor whispers ‘god’ to him he screams and climbs a curtain. At probably the same moment Hannah says that if there is no God her life would be no different, which recalls Thoreau’s remark that atheism is probably the form of religion least boring to God. The horrible isolation of the will to power makes its victim not superhuman but subhuman: ‘a brunette ruling a blond world.’ When Hinkel explains that he is shaved in a room under the ballroom with a glass ceiling, it sounds like a very corny gag, but it is quite consistent with his scurrying up the curtains, mangling nuts and bananas, and dashing about in the futile restlessness of a monkey. Hinkel may not be the historical Hitler, but he is, perhaps, the great modern Satan Hugo and Gide and Baudelaire longed to see, though he would have disappointed them, as Satan always does. Opposite Hinkel is the inarticulate, anonymous, spluttering Jewish barber, who hardly speaks until a voice speaks through him, and with that voice the picture ends. How anyone can imagine that it could have any other end is beyond me. (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 101-2)

Unfortunately, YouTube has no complete version of the movie posted.  However, there are a number of clips of famous sequences, such as the one above (Adenoid Hinkel giving a speech in mock-German as an imperturbable translator offers a coolly inadequate translation), and those after the jump.

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Saturday Night at the Movies: “Modern Times”

Continuing with Frye’s “The Great Charlie” (original post here).

Frye’s reading of Modern Times is compelling enough to cite it in its entirety:

Since Mark Twain, no anarchist of the full nineteenth-century size has emerged since Charlie Chaplin… For all its plethora of revolutionary symbols, Modern Times is not a socialist picture but an anarchist one: an allegory of the impartial destructiveness of humour. Put into the perfectly synchronizing machinery of a factory, a jail, a restaurant, this forlorn and willing Charlie wrecks all three, not by trying to but by trying not to. He very nearly accepts the highbrow’s compromise with society by singing a song no one understands and dares not admit ignorance of, but even this does not work. He gets, however, an insight into love, courage, and sacrifice with the foremen who bully him and the cops who beat him up no more understand the nature of than a bedbug understands the nature of a bed. We are left with a feeling that the man who is really part of his social group is only half a man, and we are taken back to the primitive belief, far older than Isaiah or Plato but accepted by both, that the lunatic is especially favored by God. (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 100-1)

The first part of the movie appears above.  The rest of it after the jump.

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“The Great Charlie”

The delightful dancing dinner rolls scene from The Gold Rush (1925).

Frye published his article on Charlie Chaplin, “The Great Charlie,” in The Canadian Forum 21 (August 1941), when he was 29. It’s no surprise that the insight is not only keen but prescient. Frye, unlike most cultural critics, does not date.

He opens with the observation: “When the culture of the industrial age really hits its stride, the mainsprings of its creative power will be in its one culture industry,” the movies (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 98).  Even so, writing more than a decade after the “Age of Tinsel” which ended with the introduction of sound, Frye notes that the movies suffer from a sort of “decadence” that puts “the emphasis on the means, on beautiful actors and showy sets.” He nevertheless sees a great future for the art form because “the movie is capable of the greatest concentration of any form in human history”:

The possibilities of combining photographic, musical, and dramatic rhythms leave all preceding arts behind . . . . Music accompanying silent business can turn it into a scene de ballet: a camera travelling around a dialogue can give a weird fourth-dimensional symbolism: the crudest slapstick can use a repeating pattern of scene or gesture as essential to it as blood and sleeplessness to Macbeth or the Siegfried motif to The Ring. When a real genius controls the the production of a movie, things should happen. (99)

The first genius of commercial movie making, says Frye, is Chaplin, who, at a time when “the average commercial film had the artistic appeal of a streetcar ad,” was  “turning out grotesque little ballets, with every movement and gesture as eloquent as the lines of a sculptor’s drawing” (99).

Chaplin, in fact, is representative of a stream of “major American art” that “seems always to have been the product of an individualism which has no constructive theory of society and regards it as essentially a product of hypocrisy, tyranny, and cowardice. Its motto is Whitman’s ‘Resist much; obey little.’ Never mind why: just buck.”  Frye then includes a thumbnail characterization of American culture which, if he doesn’t already know about it, should thrill Joe Adamson:

This idea of the original sin of the state, this reckless and instinctive anarchism, is in Jefferson’s theory of decentralized democracy, in Thoreau’s program of civil disobedience, in Emerson’s idea of self-reliance as trust in God, in Whitman’s myselfishness, in Hawthorne’s and Melville’s pagan and diabolic allegories, in Mark Twain’s intellectual nihilism. (100)

I’ve already posted a complete version of City Lights, and Frye says of it that “just before the Age of Tinsel dropped dead, Chaplin planted a terrific kick in its posterior” with this remarkable little film “in which the rags-to-riches philosophy of that period, its fawning on athletes and tycoons and its callous disregard of subtler heroes, got its definitive takeoff.”  Given how much this sounds like our own turn of the century gilded age, it’s no wonder the film remains so powerful.  In fact,  “the hero of the Chaplin film, with his quixotic gallantry and courtesy, his pity for the weak, his apologetic and ridiculous isolation from society, and the amount of damage he does against his own very good will to that society,” makes the “Yankee cussedness” he represents “an ideal worthy of respect” (100).

Over the next couple of Saturday nights I’ll post the movies that Frye spends the rest of article examining, along with his observations about them: The Great Dictator (then just released) and Modern Times, the last of Chaplin’s “little Tramp” films.

Saturday Night at the Movies: “City Lights”

I recently watched a perennial favorite, Chaplin’s City Lights, arguably one of the greatest silent films ever made, and perhaps Chaplin’s best.  Sometime very soon I’m going to blog on Frye’s essay “The Great Charlie” (and maybe his views on movies in general).  In the meantime, the equally poignant and funny opening scenes of City Lights are featured above. If you haven’t seen this movie, then you must.  The rest of it appears after the jump.

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