Listen to This: The Class of 2021

It’s here at last! Typically the National Recording Registry announces its annual roster of inductees in mid-to-late March, and although the NRR Class of 2021 didn’t arrive until today, it was worth the wait. Below are the latest 25 recordings to make the registry, with embedded links where available.

  1. Harlem Strut” — James P. Johnson (1921) 
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Complete Presidential Speeches (1933-1945)
  3. Walking the Floor Over You” — Ernest Tubb (1941) (single)
  4. On a Note of Triumph” – Norman Corwin, Martin Gabel (May 8, 1945)
  5. Jesus Gave Me Water” — The Soul Stirrers (1950) (single)
  6. Ellington at Newport” — Duke Ellington (1956) (album)
  7. We Insist!  Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” — Max Roach (1960) (album)
  8. The Christmas Song” — Nat King Cole (1961) (single)
  9. Tonight’s the Night” — The Shirelles (1961) (album)
  10.  “Moon River” — Andy Williams (1962) (single)
  11.  “In C” — Terry Riley (1968) (album)
  12.  “It’s a Small World” — The Disneyland Boys Choir (1964) (single)
  13.  “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” — The Four Tops (1966) (single)
  14.  Hank Aaron’s 715th Career Home Run – Milo Hamilton (April 8, 1974)
  15.  “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Queen (1975) (single)
  16.  “Don’t Stop Believin’” — Journey (1981) (single)
  17.  “Canciones de Mi Padre” — Linda Ronstadt (1987) (album)
  18.  “Nick of Time” — Bonnie Raitt (1989) (album)
  19.  “The Low End Theory” — A Tribe Called Quest (1991) (album)
  20.  “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” — Wu-Tang Clan (1993) (album)
  21.  “Buena Vista Social Club” (1997) (album)
  22.  “Livin’ La Vida Loca” — Ricky Martin (1999) (single)
  23.  “Songs in A Minor” — Alicia Keys (2001) (album)
  24.  WNYC broadcasts for the day of 9/11 (Sept. 11, 2001) 
  25.  “WTF with Marc Maron” (Guest: Robin Williams) (April 26, 2010)

As always, it’s an eclectic list with a lot of worthy inclusions. This year definitely has a few “Wasn’t that already on this list?” entires (“Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” come to mind), but my reaction to most of these recordings was an immediate head nod of approval. And although my attempt to get Robin Williams on one of these registries probably had nothing to do with this, I’m happy to see him represented from an unexpected source.

As always, you can submit your own nominees for consideration, as well as listen to this year’s inductees on the NRR’s official playlist. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to spend the next several days trying to get “Livin’ La Vida Loca” out of my head (a sentence I haven’t said in over 20 years).

#608) Five Easy Pieces (1970)

#608) Five Easy Pieces (1970)

OR “This Prodigy Is Condemned”

Directed by Bob Rafelson

Written by Adrian Joyce (aka Carole Eastman). Story by Rafelson and Joyce (aka Eastman).

Class of 2000

The Plot: Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a former piano prodigy, having abandoned that life years earlier and now living an aimless existence as an oil rigger in Bakersfield, California. When he learns that his father (William Challee) is dying, Bobby reluctantly returns to his family home in Puget Sound, Washington, with his bubbly girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) in tow. While there are sparks between Bobby and Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspagh) – a pianist engaged to his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) – Bobby must ultimately come to terms with his impetuous behavior and become a responsible adult. Or not.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a]n intense character study” that “exudes the themes of alienation and self-destruction that often appeared in films of the 1970s.”

But Does It Really?: This is definitely in the “minor classic” / “You had to be there” category of NFR films. “Five Easy Pieces” is by no means a bad movie, with its top-notch performances and incisive screenplay, but it is definitely a movie of its time. Historically, “Five Easy Pieces” is part of the wave of New Hollywood films that bucked the traditions of the classic studio system, opting for complex characters, aimless plots, and ambiguous endings. “Five Easy Pieces” was an early example of this, but there have been so many other films in the last 50 years that have emulated this style that it’s hard for the original to stand out on its own. And while an important moment in Jack Nicholson’s career, the film has been largely overshadowed by his later, more iconic filmography. A yes for “Five Easy Pieces” on the NFR, but a little context is needed to fully appreciate it.

Everybody Gets One: Bob Rafelson started his show business career in television, founding Raybert Productions (later BBS Productions) with producer Bert Schneider, and scoring a hit with the TV show “The Monkees”. A film starring The Monkees, 1968’s “Head”, was Rafelson’s directorial debut and, while not successful in its day, was his first collaboration with the film’s co-writer, Jack Nicholson. The success of “Easy Rider” (produced by BBS) gave Rafelson the freedom to make “Five Easy Pieces”, based on a semi-autobiographical script he penned with friend and screenwriter Carole Eastman.

Title Track: “Five Easy Pieces” was the name of a beginner’s piano book and was meant to be the film’s working title. According to the opening credits, the five “easy” pieces are: “Fantasy in F minor” by Chopin, “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” by Bach, “Piano Concerto no. 9” by Mozart, “Prelude Op. 28, No. 4” by Chopin, and “Fantasy in D minor” by Mozart.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit with critics and audiences alike in its initial run, “Five Easy Pieces” received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Jack Nicholson’s first Best Actor nod. Unfortunately, it was the only one of 1970’s five Best Picture nominees to go home empty-handed, losing Picture, Actor, and Original Screenplay to “Patton“, with Karen Black losing Best Supporting Actress to Helen Hayes in “Airport”.

Other notes

  • Nicholson is, of course, dynamic as Bobby, effectively oscillating between the character’s implosive and explosive behavior. Bobby lacks a lot of redeeming qualities, but because it’s Jack, you can’t help but keep watching him. Also, with Bobby’s penchant for turtlenecks, this whole thing looks like a prequel to “The Shining”.
  • Ah yes, the misogyny that permeates most of ’70s cinema. Bobby and Rayette’s relationship is severely unhealthy, but that’s the point. Kudos to Karen Black for making Rayette the only genuinely redeeming character in this movie. She’s unapologetically herself (re: white trash) without becoming arrogant or annoying. And Black has a lovely singing voice when she’s crooning along with her country music. Are you watching this, Altman?
  • Like many New Hollywood films, there are plenty of “Before-they-were-famous” performances on display in “Five Easy Pieces”. We get Ralph Waite right before he became the patriarch of “The Waltons”, Sally Struthers in a bit part before her eight-season run as Gloria on “All in the Family”, and when I learned that future “Fried Green Tomatoes” author Fannie Flagg was in this movie, I _________. 
  • The traffic jam sequence was filmed on an unopened section of I5 in Bakersfield. With all the vacations and road trips I’ve taken in my lifetime, the odds are very good that I have been stuck in traffic on that very site.
  • “Five Easy Pieces” earns my trademark “What is happening?” note. There’s a whole lot of meandering in the first chunk of this film (please Lord, not again. I just sat through “Licorice Pizza”), but thanks to Rafelson and Eastman, I always knew that the film was heading towards something. It’s a hard balancing act to pull off and, like many a ’70s character study, patience is a virtue.
  • That’s veteran stage actor Lois Smith giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as Bobby’s sister Tita. As of this writing, Ms. Smith is still with us, and won her first Tony award last year at the age of 91!
  • Tammy Wynette is to “Five Easy Pieces” as Cat Stevens is to “Harold and Maude“. Every piece of music in this movie is either classical piano or ironic usage of “Stand by Your Man” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E“.
  • And then this movie stops being an aimless character piece and becomes an aimless road picture. A good chunk of Bobby and Rayette’s trip to Washington involves them picking up two female hitchhikers, one of who launches into an extended monologue about consumerism (I’ve never heard the words “crap” and “filth” so many times in my life). The monologist is played by actor Helena Kallianiotes, and her friend is Toni Basil, choreographer and future “Hey Mickey” singer.
  • Easily the film’s most iconic scene: While making a pit stop at a diner, Bobby berates a waitress who refuses to let him substitute the roll that comes with his omelet with wheat toast. He then orders a chicken sandwich, and tells her to hold the chicken “between your knees”. I’m sure it was a monumental moment in 1970, a verbal middle finger to “The Establishment”, but without its original context it plays as yet another of Bobby’s “Christ, what an asshole” moments. That being said, I’ve never had a problem making substitutions at a diner in my life, and that may be in part to this movie.
  • We arrive in Washington, and the movie shifts gears yet again. Now back in his upper-class origins, Bobby is a different kind of uncomfortable, equally out of place here as he was on the oil rigs. We get some lovely subtleties from Jack (especially the scene with his father), plus some nice work from Susan Anspach, as well as the aforementioned Waite and Smith. Anspach in particular does a good job of balancing Nicholson’s energy in their scenes.
  • [Spoilers] Well that’s a downer ending. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that Bobby would just abandon his current life and try something new. Even from a distance, watching Rayette walking around an empty gas station looking for Bobby is heartbreaking.

Legacy

  • Following the success of “Five Easy Pieces”, Rafelson’s follow-up film was “The King of Marvin Gardens”, once again starring Jack Nicholson. While the film was not as well-received as “Pieces”, it is not without its own following of devoted film buffs today. Among the other Rafelson/Nicholson collaborations is 1981’s steamy remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with Jessica Lange.
  • BBS Productions had a string of counterculture successes in the early ’70s, including “The Last Picture Show” and “Hearts and Minds“. The company eventually dissolved, selling its shares to distributor Columbia Pictures.
  • The “hold the chicken” scene has been referenced and parodied many times over the years, but the best one was the parody we didn’t see. A scene from 2002’s “About Schmidt” was to feature Jack Nicholson’s character at a diner, calmly accepting that he couldn’t substitute anything on his order. Although intended as commentary on how much times have changed, and despite a positive reaction from test audiences, director Alexander Payne felt the reference took people out of the movie and cut the scene.

Listen To This: Bach, Chopin, and Mozart are all well represented on the National Recording Registry, but all I really care about is that a) Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” was inducted in 2010 and b) Cary O’Dell wrote an essay about it.

#607) The Docks of New York (1928)

#607) The Docks of New York (1928)

OR “Stoker’s Wild”

Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Written by Jules Furthman. Titles by Julian Johnson. Based on the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders.

Class of 1999

The Plot: A steamer ship arrives in turn-of-the-century New York, with all of the ship’s coal stokers getting a night of shore leave. The ship’s engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) heads to the seedy saloon The Sandbar, where he discovers his estranged wife Lou (Olga Baclanova) in the company of another man. Meanwhile, stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is on his way to the Sandbar when he rescues Mae (Betty Compson), a prostitute attempting to drown herself. After commiserating over their shared unhappiness in life, Bill impulsively proposes to Lou, who accepts. The two quickly marry in the saloon, but will this newfound commitment last when the morning comes and Bill ships out?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for being “[m]asterfully directed” by von Sternberg and “expertly photographed” by cinematographer Harold Rosson. The write-up also, however, cribs from the Daily Variety review, which called the film “a good entertaining picture that misses greatness by a whisker.” Seems a little backhanded to me.

But Does It Really?: This is the third and god-willing final installment of my “Maybe I Just Don’t Get von Sternberg” trilogy. Like “The Last Command” and “Morocco“, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “Docks of New York”, but it never fully gelled for me. Sure I don’t mind melodrama, but I didn’t care about any of these people or their predicaments. And while the film’s visuals (like many of its contemporaries) are a notch above your standard silent film, the story relies too much on the dialogue and intertitles. “Docks” is not without its supporters, but no one has made a compelling argument for its NFR inclusion, other than being another film lumped in with von Sternberg’s other classics. Until then, I’m content to sit here on the fence about “Docks of New York” and move on with my life.

Everybody Gets One: Eleanor “Betty” Compson started acting in silent films in 1915, quickly becoming one of Paramount’s first big stars. She left Paramount after a salary dispute, and worked with Hitchcock on a few of his early British films before returning to Paramount, where she made “Docks of New York”. Compson made the transition to talkies, but she started getting smaller roles and diminishing box office returns before quietly retiring in 1948.

Wow, That’s Dated: One little piece of historical context: “Docks” was released at the height of the prohibition era, so it would have been exciting for an audience in 1928 to watch a movie set primarily in a rowdy bar at the turn of the century.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Docks of New York” received zero Oscar nominations, both of its stars were nominated that year for different movies: Bancroft as a jealous criminal in “Thunderbolt” (also directed by von Sternberg) and Compson as a seductive carnival girl in “The Barker”. Side note: There were no official nominees at the 2nd Oscars, but Bancroft and Compson are considered de facto nominees based on Academy records of which films were under serious consideration by the judges.

Other notes

  • One of the things keeping “Docks” watchable is Josef von Sternberg working with his trusted group of collaborators, including screenwriter Jules Furthman, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and leading actor George Bancroft. The film comes across as confident, with each of these artists comfortable enough to stretch themselves and create the best possible product. Even if you didn’t know that going into the film, there’s a slickness that suggests quality and professionalism.
  • We don’t get a lot of the artistic, cinematic compositions I have come to associate with von Sternberg’s films, but the few that do make it really stand out. The establishing shot of the Sandbar is a tracking shot moving its way through an assortment of lowlifes and characters, not unlike the café shot in William Wellman’s “Wings” the previous year. A+, everyone.
  • I don’t know why, but it tickles me that Russian actor Olga Baclanova is credited here as simply “Baclanova”. Clearly an attempt to exoticize her in the same vein as fellow Russia-to-Hollywood film actor Alla Nazimova. If Baclanova looks familiar, she’s a few years away from playing Cleopatra the trapeze artist in the cult classic “Freaks“.
  • Part of my problem with this movie is that the two male leads look very similar, as do the two female leads. Both George Bancroft and Mitchell Lewis are bulky, broad-shouldered men costumed in dark longshoremen outfits, while both Betty Compson and Olga Baclanova are pale, petite women with short bleach-blonde haircuts. It makes for a confusing viewing experience trying to remember who is who.
  • I couldn’t place where I knew Mitchell Lewis from, but it turns out I just needed to imagine him with green skin: he’s the Captain of the Guard for the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz“.
  • Everyone at this bar looks like Willem Dafoe.
  • With its romance via suicide rescue, “Docks” is kind of a blue-collar “Vertigo“. Thankfully, there’s far less creepy obsession here, though still an uncomfortable amount of leering. Similarly, the film’s impromptu love story between two lowlifes (one of whom is a prostitute) gives this movie some “7th Heaven” comparisons as well.
  • As previously mentioned, “Docks” has a lot of dialogue intertitles, which leads me to believe that it might have fared better as one of those newfangled “talking” pictures that was starting to catch on in 1928.
  • German character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz shows up a handful of times in the Registry, but he is put to his best use here as the parson “Hymn Book” Harry, his stern facial features casting a judging shadow over the bar patrons and this impromptu marriage. By the way, did they ever end up paying him?
  • Well this movie took a turn. Everything was going along pretty even-keeled with its character development and romantic entanglements, and then there’s a hard right into melodrama. I was not expecting someone to get shot during this.
  • While I ultimately didn’t care about whether or not Bill and Mae would get together, it helps that thanks to the film’s pre-Code sensibilities, that was still a genuine mystery. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending in pre-Code Hollywood. Side note: Mae’s prostitution was allowed by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now the MPAA) because it was not forced prostitution, and no element of her profession is explicitly shown on screen.
  • The other great composition from this movie: in a last minute attempt to keep Bill from leaving, Mae tries to mend his shirt. We cut to a POV shot of the needle and thread, with the camera quickly going in and out of focus to simulate the tears welling up in Mae’s eyes. Nicely done, Rosson.
  • What a…happy ending? I really don’t know what to think about it. And I recall going to night court was a lot funnier than it’s depicted here. Where’s the sex-craved prosecutor and the dim-witted bailiff? Where’s Mel Torme?

Legacy 

  • “The Docks of New York” opened in September 1928, the same week as “The Singing Fool”, Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” follow-up which overshadowed every other movie at the box office. Despite good reviews, “Docks” was virtually ignored by moviegoers, although it did find an audience in Europe a few years later. In the ensuing years, “Docks” has been rediscovered by multiple generations of movie lovers and film historians, almost always in conjunction with von Sternberg’s contemporaneous filmography.

#606) Powers of Ten (1977)

#606) Powers of Ten (1977)

OR “Eames For the Stars”

Directed by Charles and Ray Eames

Class of 1998

Watch more of the Eames’ filmography on their official YouTube channel.

The Plot: What starts as a couple having a picnic near Chicago’s Soldier Field becomes perhaps the biggest (and smallest) movie ever made. We zoom above the couple, expanding our field of vision by powers of ten – past Chicago, past Earth, past our solar system – until we are 100 million light years (1024) from our starting point. After observing the vastness of space for a few moments, we propel back to Earth and the picnic, shrinking down to the surface of the man’s hand, down to his cellular structure at 0.000001 ångstroms (10-16). From the husband and wife team that also brought you the quintessential midcentury lounge chair and ottoman.

Why It Matters: The NFR describes the film as being “as much a math exercise as an avant-garde film”, praising it for its “excellent use of the film medium”. An essay by Eames expert Eric Schuldenfrei delves into the Eames’ ecological implications within the film, and enough scientific jargon to make my eyes glaze over.

But Does It Really?: This movie is, in a word, trippy. In less than 10 minutes, Charles and Ray Eames took me from the farthest reaches of space to the inside of an atom in an astonishing, engaging undertaking. We have got plenty of filmmakers on the list known for their work in other fields, but the Eames may be the definite part-time filmmakers, crafting this film as exquisitely as they would any of their trademark structures. A yes for “Powers of Ten” on the NFR, one of the few modern shorts to make the cut in the Registry’s first decade.

Everybody Gets One: While teaching industrial design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the late 1930s, Charles Eames met Ray-Bernice Kaiser, an artist and graphic design student assisting Charles for a home furnishing competition sponsored by New York’s MoMA. After getting married in 1941, Charles and Ray spent the next 37 years excelling in a variety of fields, most notably modern architecture and furniture (you’ve probably sat in one of their chairs). Although Charles typically received sole credit in the press, he always stressed that his wife was an equal partner in their projects. In the 1950s, the Eames’ love of photography and theater evolved into filmmaking, with the couple making 125 short films. “Powers of Ten” was inspired by the book “Cosmic View” by Kees Boeke (who gets a special thanks in the credits), and is the Eames’ second attempt at adapting the book to film, the first being a a black-and white prototype (or “rough sketch” in their words) in 1968.

Seriously, Oscars?: I don’t believe “Powers of Ten” ever played an Oscar eligible run, usually reserved for museums and private screenings. For the record, 1977’s Documentary Short winner was “Gravity Is My Enemy” about abstract painter Mark Hicks.

Other notes

  • The film’s narrator is Phillip Morrison, a physics professor at MIT. He sounds a bit like Eli Wallach.
  • “Powers of Ten” touches upon practically every branch of science: mathematics, astronomy, quantum physics. And how about the chemistry between the couple at the beginning, am I right?
  • Recreating this film’s opening on Google Earth was significantly less exciting for me.
  • Shoutout, as always, to Pluto, which was demoted to a dwarf planet the same semester I was studying astronomy in college. Very big topic of discussion as I recall.
  • Looking out at the vastness of the universe makes me feel so small and insignificant. Ah well, back to my film blog, I guess…
  • The film’s adventure through inner space (if you will) is a fascinating journey even for someone as scientifically illiterate as myself. If we got any smaller we would probably run into the Incredible Shrinking Man.
  • Elmer Bernstein scored this? Between this movie, “The Magnificent Seven” and “Airplane!” Bernstein’s filmography was all over the place.

Legacy

  • “Powers of Ten” marked the end of the Eames’ collaborations, as Charles died in 1978 at age 71. Ray survived her late husband for a decade, dying in 1988 at age 75. The Eames have been honored and recognized through countless exhibitions and lifetime achievement awards, and their home in Los Angeles (which they designed themselves, of course) is a National Historic Landmark.
  • No film is too obscure for “The Simpsons” to reference, with “Powers of Ten” serving as influence for one of the show’s better known (and longer) couch gags.
  • In the 45 years since “Powers of Ten”, scientists have continued to explore the edges of the known universe. This 2021 video by the BBC pays tribute to the Eames as the soothing voice of Professor Brian Cox takes us 100 billion light years (1027) away from Earth.

#605) The Great Dictator (1940)

#605) The Great Dictator (1940)

OR “Sound and Führer” 

Directed and Written by Charlie Chaplin

Class of 1997

The Plot: During the Great War, an unnamed Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin) fighting for the country Tomainia suffers memory loss while saving a pilot named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). 20 years later, the Barber is finally released from the hospital and returns to his barbershop in a Jewish ghetto. The Barber soon learns that Tomainia has been overtaken by fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin), with Schultz as one of his commanding officers. When Hynkel orders a purge of the Jewish ghetto, the Barber leads the fight against persecution and tyranny. But underneath all this slapstick and satire is a heartfelt, urgent message for unity and compassion amongst all human beings.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites this as the film that allowed Chaplin “to mix politics with comedy”, culminating in his “impassioned plea for peace and tolerance”. As always, Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance is on hand with an all-encompassing essay on the film.

But Does It Really?: For someone best remembered for silent pictures, Chaplin sure has a lot to say in this movie. With “The Great Dictator”, Chaplin doubles down on his fame as a comedy legend for a no holds barred political satire, and the results speak for themselves. Powerful, profound, and oh yes, it’s funny too. “The Great Dictator” endures thanks to the longevity of both its filmmaker and its subject matter, and while it can never fully match Chaplin’s pinnacle in the silent era, it stands next to those films as a classic, and proof that Chaplin could evolve with the times.

Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the obvious jabs at Hitler, “The Great Dictator” takes time to razz Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (Dictator Napaloni), Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Minster Garbitsch), and Nazi leader Hermann Goring (Field Marshal Herring).

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release (though not without its share of controversy), “The Great Dictator” received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture – the only Chaplin film ever to do so. Perhaps it was the film’s touchy subject matter, or Chaplin’s status as a Hollywood outsider, or maybe just the plethora of strong contenders that year (“The Grapes of Wrath”, “Rebecca“, “The Philadelphia Story“, etc.), but “The Great Dictator” failed to win in any category.

Other notes

  • No one knows definitively how Chaplin got the initial idea for “The Great Dictator”; some sources have producer Alexander Korda giving him the idea, others have Chaplin being inspired by a screening of “Triumph of the Will” at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Regardless, at some point during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, Chaplin became aware of his physical and personal similarities to the dictator. In addition to their small physiques and toothbrush mustaches, both men were born in April 1889, rose from poverty to worldwide fame, and had an affinity for classical composer Richard Wagner. Chaplin wanted to make a film that would poke fun at these similarities, as well as raise awareness to the growing anti-Semitism he had witnessed and experienced (although Chaplin grew up with no religious affiliation and was a self-described agnostic, “The Gold Rush” had been banned in Nazi Germany on the assumption he was Jewish). “The Great Dictator” began filming in September 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II.
  • Although “Modern Times” was the first Chaplin film to have a soundtrack, “Great Dictator” was his first true sound film, complete with dialogue. That being said, most of the WWI prologue is presented visually, with sparse, utilitarian dialogue serving primarily as set-up for the sight gags. As the film progresses, the dialogue becomes more natural and character-driven.
  • Even with the prior knowledge that this movie is Chaplin making fun of Hitler, my reaction to Hynkel’s first appearance was “Well this is risky”. Chaplin was able to take this risk by financing the film himself ($1.5 million); removed from any studio interference, though still receiving a number of threats from Nazi sympathizers. 
  • Hannah is played by Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s romantic partner at the time. In the years since “Modern Times”, Chaplin and Goddard had started to grow apart, both focusing on their careers, and “Dictator” was their final collaboration before their amicable separation in 1942.
  • It’s interesting to watch Goddard’s energetic, feisty performance with the knowledge that she had recently been passed over for Scarlett O’Hara. Maybe I’m just so used to Vivien Leigh’s portrayal, but I can’t imagine Goddard in the role. “Gone with the Wind” would have been a completely different movie.
  • I know it’s the point, but every one of Hynkel’s stormtroopers looks and sounds like Curly Howard. I didn’t know Germany had a Brooklyn.
  • There is debate over whether or not Chaplin’s Jewish Barber is his iconic Tramp character. Officially, the Tramp had been retired in “Modern Times”, but the Barber is seen wearing the Tramp’s trademark outfit (complete with hat and cane) in a few scenes. I like to think it’s The Tramp, if just to make him canonically Jewish.
  • The score was composed by Meredith Willson, a young songwriter still 17 years away from his best-known work: Broadway’s “The Music Man“. Although receiving sole credit for this film’s score, Willson would later recall “the best parts of it were all Chaplin’s ideas.”
  • Shoutout to Maurice Moskovich, a Yiddish theater veteran appearing as the kindly Mr. Jaeckel. I recall enjoying his performance as a similar character in “Make Way for Tomorrow“. Moskovich died shortly after production wrapped, and “The Great Dictator” was his final film.
  • Henry Daniell is giving me some strong Basil Rathbone vibes as Hynkel’s right-hand man Garbitsch. If Daniell looks familiar, he’s the editor in “The Philadelphia Story” (the only character in the movie who actually says “the Philadelphia story”).
  • Easily the film’s most memorable scene is Hynkel, giddy with the prospect of world domination, joyfully playing with an inflatable globe, twirling and bouncing it with Wagner’s “Lohengrin” prelude playing in the background. It’s the perfect metaphor for how fragile the world is in the wrong hands, and it should surprise no one that the best moment in this Chaplin film is the one with zero dialogue.
  • This is easily Chaplin’s darkest film. With the stormtrooper raids and cold-blooded killings, “Dictator” definitely trades in its director’s signature pathos for a bleaker examination of the Nazis and their persecution of Jewish people. We’ll see a similar mix of satire and tragedy in another wartime comedy: “To Be or Not To Be“.
  • Of all the German gibberish Hynkel spouts in this movie, “pin-headden!” is my favorite.
  • Spicing things up during the film’s last third is longtime comedy veteran Jack Oakie as Benzino Napolini. Rare is the comedian who can go toe-to-toe with Chaplin, but Oakie succeeds with his bombastic energy and cartoonish Italian. While I’m surprised Oakie got an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, I support the Academy’s decision to honor a purely comedic performance.
  • Funny how we go a whole movie with Chaplin playing dual roles and we don’t get the mistaken identity plotline until the very end. We don’t even get a “Parent Trap” style split-screen. This movie crawled so “Dave” could walk.
  • Maybe watching this movie a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a bad idea.
  • Oh boy, what an ending. Having been mistaken for Hynkel, the Jewish Barber is asked to address Hynkel’s supporters with a radio speech. Here Chaplin drops character, looks directly into the camera, and pleads with his movie-going audience to fight for their freedom and their right to democracy. While considered preachy in its day, it hits a lot closer to home now, when it feels like our democratic system will collapse at any moment. “The Great Dictator” – as well as Chaplin’s entire filmography – endures because the themes are evergreen. There will always (unfortunately) be brutal oppression somewhere in the world, and there will always be the need for a little guy like the Tramp to stand up for what’s right.

Legacy

  • “The Great Dictator” was released in October 1940, and was an immediate hit in the U.S. and England, becoming Chaplin’s most financially successful movie. The film did, however, have its share of detractors, with several Latin American countries banning the film, and a lawsuit from author Konrad Bercovici, who claimed he came up with the film’s concept years earlier.
  • According to the aforementioned Vance essay, while the movie was banned in Nazi-occupied countries for obvious reasons, Adolf Hitler still procured a print of the film and held two private screenings. Hitler’s reaction to the film has never been reported, with Chaplin once saying: “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.”
  • In his later years, Chaplin admitted that had he known the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities at the time, he never would have made “The Great Dictator”.
  • Chaplin was invited by Franklin Roosevelt to recite the film’s final speech at FDR’s inauguration ceremony in 1941. The speech has also resurfaced in recent years, a close second to the globe scene in regards to iconography. And I can’t put my finger on it, but Chaplin’s speech about banding together and standing up to an easily mocked tyrant saw an uptick in views starting around 2017. Hmmm….
  • “The Great Dictator” marked the beginning of the end for Chaplin’s reign as a beloved movie star. The film’s strong political message (an unheard of concept in 1940) polarized some critics and viewers, leading to accusations of Chaplin’s Communist sympathy. This, mixed with an ongoing paternity suit, shattered Chaplin’s public image, culminating in his American re-entry permit being revoked in 1952. Although Chaplin made a handful of movies following “The Great Dictator”, none of them were as successful as his earlier films, and it wouldn’t be until the 1970s when Chaplin’s career would be reappraised and celebrated in America.
  • After the war, parodies of Hitler more or less disappeared, but were revived in the ’60s thanks to Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and the end of the Production Code. Hitler has served as comic fodder/cautionary commentary for years, most recently in Taika Watiti’s “Jojo Rabbit”.

Further Viewing: “You Natzy Spy”, a 1939 Three Stooges short and the first major Hollywood production to openly mock Hitler, released nine months before “The Great Dictator”.