As the Saturday night showing of The Great Dictator at the Redford Theatre on Sept. 26, 2009 wound down, I thought back over the fun of sponsoring this movie under the name of this web site. Usually I’m just a visitor, enjoying one show, along with some organ music and some tasty, inexpensive snack food. But this weekend, I was much more involved, and got to see the hard work and magic of the Redford unfold over three showings.
I had been preparing for this sponsorship for several months. The first big charge of satisfaction came on Friday evening, before the doors opened for the public, when I set up a display in the outer lobby that included publicity for the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre, along with a display of information about the opening of The Great Dictator in New York, Detroit, and Ann Arbor in 1940 and 1941.
As I set up my display, all around me were the friendly voices of different Redford volunteers greeting each other, with an air of familiarity and anticipation. Another great weekend of Redford entertainment was taking shape, and this time I had the privilege of being part of it.
I had never seen The Great Dictator, and its powerful message hit me very strongly from the big screen of the Redford Theatre. Its serious subject matter made me shy away from watching it on TV. It seemed to be a movie that you had to see in a theater.
Through the years, the Detroit Movie Palaces has hosted a wide variety of Charlie Chaplin movies, including the short films from the World War I era that made him famous, through notable movies like Modern Times and City Lights, through A King in New York (1957). It seemed like only a matter of time before The Great Dictator would show up on the screen at the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, or Redford Theatre.
I was particularly moved by a scene in which Paulette Goddard spoke directly to the audience, asking in an emotion-filled voice why people couldn’t be left alone. Up to then, I had been enjoying her spunk, humor, and beauty, and now I could also admire her heart, mind, and soul.
This 1940 film about the oppression of Jews by an Adolph Hitler-like character (played by Charles—not Charlie—Chaplin) was particularly meaningful, coming one day after Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s powerful rebuke at the United Nations to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Jewish holocaust of World War II. As current history plays out, I’m sure that I will think back to the integrity and principles of many of the characters of The Great Dictator.
Seeing the movie three times in one weekend gave me the chance to explore it in detail and look forward to my favorite parts, from the amazing pantomime of Chaplin, to the burst of comic energy provided by Jack Oakie in the second half of the movie, to the poignant hope in Paulette Goddard’s face as the film faded out at the end.
Chaplin Speaks Out
And then there was Chaplin’s famous speech near the end of the movie, when he steps out of character, and speaks directly to the audience in a loud, passionate voice about the evils of the dictators that he satirizes and mocks in The Great Dictator.
In my research for this movie, I found mixed feelings about Chaplin’s speech by the movie critics of 1940 (when it opened in New York) and 1941 (when it opened in Detroit and Ann Arbor). In general, they admired it, but didn’t feel it fit in with the story line. But in 2009, with all we know about the horrors of World War II that were yet to come, his speech was perfectly appropriate. It was Chaplin’s first talking picture, and he took full advantage of this new freedom to let his voice be heard.
Also on the bill was a Three Stooges short that had a similar theme to The Great Dictator, and was released about nine months before the Chaplin film. In You Nazty Spy!, our three bumbling friends poked serious fun at Hitler and other current day tyrants. Like The Great Dictator, it skillfully used humor to make an important statement about the world situation.
Seeing the Stooges and Chaplin together in these two similar movies was another great package of Redford entertainment, which also included a lively Charlie Chaplin imitator (Bruce Race), who amused the audience throughout the auditorium and lobbies. These great packages continue in October 2009 with weekends of Halloween fun with themes of science fiction, Universal Studios monsters, silent film, and once again (on Halloween weekend), the Three Stooges.
As I wandered around the Redford Saturday night, I felt like I had traveled back 30 years to when I ran a film committee in college. And I thought about how the Redford volunteers have this same feeling of involvement, this same feeling of accomplishment, with every event. Just before I left, I looked around and saw one more demonstration of the dedication of the Redford staff, as it cleaned up the theater, taking care of the final details of another successful weekend of film and fun.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.