All the folderol concerning the Rogen/Franco/Goldberg film The Interview, the alleged North Korean hacking into Sony Pictures' cyber secrets and the latter's caving in due to the fear of God knows what . . . all this has led me to thoughts of Charlie Chaplin's 1940 classic The Great Dictator. At first blush this shouldn't seem too terribly odd; after all, both films do mock dictators.
What may well seem terribly odd at first blush is that President Obama's announcement concerning the normalization of relations with Cuba also brought Sir Charles' brilliant film to mind -- but obviously for much different reasons.
With regards to The Interview, I am by no means the only one who finds a link to Chaplin's The Great Dictator. However, where many find common cause by identifying both films as satires, I beg to differ: The Great Dictator is satire of the most scathing and courageous kind. By comparison, from what we've seen of its trailer (and the opinion of another "Hollywood Brat" who actually attended a private screening) The Interview is not satire; its low-brow, scatological schoolboy humor. (Double click image below for full screen version:)
"Satire," according to writer Phillip Roth, "is moral outrage transformed into creative art." By that measure, Chaplin's The Great Dictator is satire at its courageous best. When Chaplin made his film -- with his own money -- Hitler had already taken over a big chunk of Europe and had many, many supporters in the United States. In lampooning him as "Adenoid Hynkel, the Phooey of Tomania," Chaplin was cutting a monster down to size; making him an object of derisive laughter. Rogan/Franco/Goldberg, on the other hand, weren't taking many chances; Kim Jung-Un is more at war with himself than the world, and has few if any supporters anywhere outside of a tight ruling elite in North Korea. Hitler's bluster was backed up with real bombs and real bullets; Kim's bombast is broad, but shallow.
Chaplin's Hollywood colleague's begged him to shelve The Great Dictator for fear that they would lose market share in Europe and South America. He ignored their pleas. In his autobiography he wrote, "I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at ... I was determined to ridicule [the Nazis'] mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race . . ." He released the film, got sterling reviews received 5 Academy Awards nominations, won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture and earned the Little Tramp a cool $9 million. (That's nearly $150 million in today's dollars). It has been making money and new fans ever since, and has one of the highest ratings on the Internet Movie Data Base (8.5) and Rotten Tomatoes (92%).
By comparison, The Interview, which only a handful have actually seen, has a perfect "10" rating on the IMDB and a lowly 53% at Rotten Tomatoes. Personally, I believe that Sony Pictures and the various theater chains which refused to screen the picture made a mistake and set a dangerous and cowardly precedent. The fact that The Interview was green-lighted in the first place shows how far Hollywood has fallen since the days of the great studios. From what I can tell, it has neither the robust satire nor the biting wit of Chaplin's The Great Dictator; it is a $47 million schoolboy prank.
Which brings us to Chaplin's film and President Obama's announcement regarding Cuba. What relationship -- if any -- could the two possibly have?
In a single word: leadership
Now that President Obama is in the final two years of his presidency, he has decided to don a Superman suit and accomplish things that Congress would not -- or could not get done. Predictably, his executive order normalizing relations with Cuba has drawn tremendous heat and ridicule from those who can be counted on to lambast his every move. At a recent press conference, Florida Senator Marco Rubio termed the president's action "Absurd," "Disgraceful," a "Concession to tyranny," and "Conceding to the oppressors." Moreover, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants said, "I now know for a fundamental truth that this is going to make the day democracy comes to Cuba even further away."
One can easily ask what has Congress done in more than half a century to advance the cause of democracy coming to Cuba -- save cutting off diplomatic relations and maintaining an economic embargo? The answer, in two words, is "absolutely nothing,." They have used Cuba as a political wedge issue meant to keep a steady flow of votes and dollars coming their way. And so, into this void came President Obama who, exercising his executive prerogative made a leadership decision. And for leading -- instead of doing nothing -- he is vilified. He has also been vilified for his executive decision regarding immigration reform -- something which again, Congress has failed to enact. I have to believe that at this point in time the president expects to be vilified -- when he leads, when he compromises, when he waits to see what Congress will do.
At the end of The Great Dictator, Chaplin's Jewish barber -- his Hynkel doppelgänger -- addresses hundreds of thousands of his fellow Tomanians who are breathlessly waiting their leader's words of wisdom. In what has come to be known as the "Look up Hannah speech," the barber, dressed as Hynkel, speaks the words which are both uplifting and hopeful -- precisely what a leader is supposed to do. (I must admit that despite having watched this speech more than a hundred time (!) it never ceases to bring a tear. It is, in my estimation, the finest speech ever committed to film.)
For those who do not have the ability to watch Chaplin's speech, here is what he says:
I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. 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.
In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.
Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don't hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don't fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. 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. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. 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. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope, into the future! The glorious future that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!
Indeed, look up . . .
Copyright©2014 Kurt F. Stone