Behind the Screen

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 17, 2015

This film features one of the cinema’s great pieces of dialogue: “You woke us up. We’re going on strike.” Maybe that’s why The Great Dictator falls so short, politically speaking; this guy is an anarchist, not an ideologue. When he gets too specific the joins really show. But when he plays to his strengths, addressing the patterns in which power has been exercised, enacting to the point of inhabiting archetypes that are so deep as to be practically tectonic, then you can’t match him.

Behind the Screen is full of fantastic Campbell/Chaplin, master/slave material. Especially fantastic is how this particular slave eventually and overwhelmingly manages to get the upper hand. In this Chaplin—no doubt by accident—ends up serving as something of an exemplar, and in doing so finds a pretty perfect social balance. He’s neither toady nor whiner. He’s a common man—the Common Man, as so many have felt to observe—partly put upon and even oppressed. But he abides! That being the case, and so powerfully, you can see how and why Chaplin had such an enormous influence. He’s at the centre of his stories, but there’s so much more than just him at stake, or on the table. In fact, in the best commedia manner, the Keystone/Essanay/Mutual/First National films all lay out a whole spectrum of social relationships. Further, they suggest whole spectrums of undergirding ideological infrastructures. The implications are dizzying, and intimidating. The institutional and ideological facts, even more so. All the more reason to admire this optimistic, deeply democratic oeuvre. The obscure individual, performing his part, can actually claim his rights.

Behind the Screen is a powerful social document, but it is also a delightful comedy. It’s full of funny little felicities. A lunchtime encounter between Chaplin and the invaluable Albert Austin wonderfully demonstrates the infinite comic possibilities of food. (Cf. A Dog’s Life.) Onions! I love what Chaplin is doing with that pipe. Ten chairs! The film features one of the best of Charlie’s little dances, which, again, is really saying something.

Chaplin/Campbell’s responses to the possibility of the stage hand’s homosexuality—it’s actually Edna, dressed as a young man—are unfortunate, and also of documentary value. People thought how they thought, and though our less unseemly attitudes ought not to define us, or our time either, they must still be accounted for. It’s unfortunate. It’s interesting. We can take something out of it.

The big pie fight is really nicely done. Chaplin may well be taking a whack at Mack Sennett, his former employer, and at the kinds of films that Sennett preferred to make. That’s not all though, and the flying pies really effectively localize and communicate Chaplin’s anarchistic, we’re-not-gonna-take-it ways. This guy just wrecks everything! The maddening thing is that in doing so he always improves on the thing he’s wrecking. (The cat in the hat, maybe.) And obviously, the use of the trap-door is Albert Austin’s clock (cf. The Pawnshop, q.v.) writ large. Did these guys ever know how to exploit a prop!

Get a load of the amazing thing they do at the very end of the film with Eric Campbell’s head. Take a look at Henry Bergman’s fall! And at the explosion that ends it all. Chaplin is not much for policy discussions, or political science either. But when it comes to the core issues, the lives-level facts of the case, he’s without equal. The legendary conclusions of If… and That Obscure Object of Desire are hardly more emphatic.