|Oakie plays fellow dictator, Benzino Napaloni,
in The Great Dictator (1940)
The following is an excerpt from “When Your Boss Is Charlie Chaplin,” by Jack Oakie, who was born on this day in 1903:
Charlie was the most left-handed person of all the left-handed people in the world.
Sometimes he even confused the right side from the left side of the camera when looking through the lens. Karl Struss, the cameraman, had to keep reminding him that what he was looking at was on the side he meant it to be.
Right after lunch one day, with food still on his mind, we went to the set of the large banquet hall.
This was the scene where Hynkel and Napaloni were to have their private meeting.
Chaplin directed that, as we two dictators enter the banquet hall, his cabinet members hurriedly usher all the guests and waiters out of the room.
Charlie directed one of the young actresses , a dress extra, and a very attractive young lady, to pick up a plate on the run, fill it with food from the magnificent buffet table, which was laden with plates, silverware, napkins, and extra large platters of salads, meats, cheese, fruits, spaghetti, breads, cream dressings and condiments, and take it with her greedily as she quickly exited with the other departing guests. “See,” he said, and demonstrated what he wanted her to do. He picked up the plate, filled it with some cheese and meat, hurriedly reached for some slices of bread and then rushed through the doors before they were closed by the guards. We started the scene and the girl picked up the plate exactly as Charlie had done. She tried to fill it with some meat and cheese, but the slices kept sliding off the plate, and the bread tray seemed far out of reach. She was too late getting to the doors before the guards closed them. “No! No! Honey,” Charlie called to her. “Be quicker. Pick up the plate just as I showed you. Put some cheese and meat on it, reach for the bread and don’t stop for anything else, go right out of the doorway.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. The poor girl was becoming nervous.
“That’s all right,” Charlie said kindly to give her confidence. “Let’s try it again.”
This time the food slipped and slid more than ever. Nothing stayed on the plate.
Charlie stopped the rehearsal and tried to put her at ease.
“How can anybody be so stupid?” he mumbled to me.
|The lady grabs some bread, cheese, and a big sausage (ahem).
There is a lot of phallic imagery in this banquet hall scene.
Charlie joined her at the table. “Now,” he said, “do exactly as I do.” He stood beside her and had her follow him and imitate each gesture as he went through the scene. He picked up a plate, she picked up a plate, exactly as he did. But she didn’t seem to be able to hold on to it.
He reached for the cheese and put some on his plate. When she did exactly as he did the plate seemed unbalanced with the weight of the cheese. He put some meat on his plate. She put some meat on her plate, and it wouldn’t even stay on her plate with the aid of the fork. He picked up some slices of bread, but she couldn’t manage that because she was holding on to the meat and cheese.
He then led her to the doorway and let her leave the room. As I watched them I began to realize that the more the girl tried to please Charlie by doing exactly as he did, the more awkward she became.
Then suddenly it dawned on me! I knew why she couldn’t handle the plate and food business.
Charlie sat down beside me. “Muscles,* what am I going to do?” he said. “Have you ever seen anybody so stupid?”
“Charlie,” I said quietly. “That girl isn’t left-handed.”
“Oh my gosh! Oakie, you’re right!” He got right up and went off to talk to her privately. The very next take she picked up the plate with her left hand and with her right hand filled it with plenty of cheese and ham and reached for the slices of bread and got to the doorway for her exit just as Charlie wanted her to.
(Jack Oakie, “When Your Boss Is Charlie Chaplin,” Saturday Evening Post, April 1978)
*”Muscles” was Chaplin’s nickname for Oakie.