This week I will be analyzing The Great Dictator (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1940) and Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933) and how both films undermine the mise-en-scène associated with fascism in order to deconstruct the self-importance of the fascist myth.
The Great Dictator does an excellent job of outlining the ridiculous pomp and circumstance that surrounds Fascism. The Great Dictator gives audiences a limited glance into the life and routine of Adenoid Hinkle, the fascist leader that rules the fictional country of Tomania. Through the mise-en-scène, Chaplin levels a striking critique into the heart of the image that fascism cultivates for itself. Consider the ridged ceremony that accompanies all of Hinkle’s actions: the first time he appears on screen he occupies most of the frame, he wears a sharp uniform obviously inspired by military dress while all of the men seated behind him are dressed almost identically. There is a highly codified ritual associated with his speech, the audience cheers and is silent on command. Fascism in this film is extremely orderly, despite the chaotic violence leveled against the Jewish people in the film, the Fascist forces are depicted as highly organized with incredibly rigid schedules. Hinkle himself compartmentalizes his day into many discrete parts. He has a set time to do everything from playing the piano to sexually accosting one of his secretaries. Hinkle's and the film’s fascism in general cannot even spare an extra minute to examine the supposed innovations being developed by his own government. This extreme fastidiousness manifests itself in the set decoration for Hinkle’s palace. The sets are clean, organized and comprised mostly of sharp and regular lines. Neoclassical busts and statues fastidiously punctuate the sets at regular intervals, adding both an air of historical legitimacy to the palace and a stifling uniformity even in decoration.
Hinkle’s personal interpreter, who serves as a narrator for some of the film. Gives the viewers a view into what Hinkle must think about himself: he is extremely self-important. Hinkle can be seen as an extension of the mise-en-scène used to characterize his administration. Chaplin then proceeds to undermine the very functionality of fascist fastidiousness in order to show the absurdity of Hinkle’s created image. Hinkle’s efficiency is absurd and manages to accomplish far less than it appears. The “innovations” that his government works on are abject failures, he cannot secure finances for his bloated military and even initially fails to launch an invasion against his neighbors. Nevertheless, Hinkle is both aware of the cosmetic nature of his rule while still buying wholeheartedly into his own myth. His personal filing cabinet is actually a hidden mirror; it holds no files other than Hinkle’s image itself emphasizing the importance of appearances in the film. The fascists are constantly failing to live up to their own myth; Hinkle awards and revokes obscure military honors at will, making a mockery of the entire process of commendation. The ceremony surrounding Napaloni’s visit illustrates this perfectly; first his elaborate arrival is bungled, making him look like a fool. Later Hinkle’s obsession with psychologically manipulating Napaloni displays the fascist obsession with displaying power and the fundamentally silly way in which that power is expressed.
Similarly, Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933) is another film that manipulates the mise-en-scène of fascism to undermine its attractiveness and authority. Duck Soup was released in 1933, a time in which fascism itself was acceptable enough in America that prominent businessmen planned a fascist coup of the US government. Groucho Marx’s Rufus T. Firefly gives a striking portrait of a fascist leader: he is a populist who manipulates the dissatisfaction of the general population with establishment politics to enact a series of oppressive legal reforms –another situation that feels all too real in today’s America. The musical number "Laws of the Administration” in particular is so eerily accurate to our own political situation that on some level it ceases to be funny. “The last guy nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it/if you think this country’s bad off now then wait till I get through with it” sings Firefly. Like The Great Dictator, the Silvanian setting are full of elaborate gilded decorations and are restricted by the elaborate nature of their rituals. Footmen wear either elaborate military uniforms or powdered wigs and many actions Firefly takes are accompanied by literal fanfare.
Every character in the film is obsessed with getting Firefly to conform to the visual and ritual rigidity of fascism except Firefly and Chico and Harpo’s Chicolini and Pinky. In fact, the brothers seem dead set on undermining the importance of ritual at every given moment. In two of the musical numbers, “Laws of the Administration” and “This Country's Going to War,” the Marx Brothers even violate the elaborate choreography of the numbers themselves. Firefly ends up impersonating a footman, to everyone’s embarrassment, in the former, while in the latter the Brothers end up desecrating the uniforms of their own men by cutting the plumes off their helmets. Later, Firefly wears a different military uniform across every single cut in a battle sequence, co-opting and subverting the attractiveness of military aesthetics ranging from Imperial French to American Confederate. Simply put: Firefly’s actions reveal the silliness inherent to fascist pomp and circumstance. By reducing the fascist image to its barest and most absurd form the Marx Brothers reveal the almost hilarious sense of self-importance that permeates fascist thought.
Both films do excellent work stripping the terror from fascism in order to expose its silliness-–although Chaplain’s film I must admit does an equally excellent job of describing precisely what that terror is and how it manifest itself for oppressed people. The dictators here are devoid of their public images, the audience sees them not as gods or geniuses, but as fools who cannot see their own shortcomings. By not allowing the fascists to create their own iconography and iconology surrounding their ideology, these films expose that ultimately all fascists are people and that their power comes not from their righteousness or their rituals, but from their monopoly on violence. Extending this logic to the Trump administration, it is plain that the very seriousness with which it takes itself exposes its ridiculous shortcomings. Every bombastic catchphrase or plan is accompanied by a bungled press conference, every so called serious achievement is coupled with a patent display of ridiculousness. Now it seems apparent that Trump is rattling the saber of the American war regime in an attempt to cement a more serious image for himself. Whether he is successful or not, these two films suggest that it is better to challenge fascists than let them create their own narratives on their own terms.