|While it is not the greatest of his feature films, Charlie Chaplin’s tragicomic The Great Dictator is certainly his bravest, if not one of the bravest films ever made. A blatant satire of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, it was a lone cinematic cry for humanity to stand together against the ominous dark clouds of fascism that were rapidly spreading across Europe. With the exception of Jack Warner, whose Warner Bros. studio had produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, and a Three Stooges short (1939’s You Nazty Spy), Hollywood was notably silent about current events in Europe, keeping in line with the government’s official neutrality and staunchly avoiding any movies that might be seen as critical or making fun of Hitler, who most of the world was then trying to appease. Chaplin, ever the independent, socially minded artist, saw things differently.|
The Great Dictator went into production in September of 1939, just days after Germany had invaded Poland, and it had its initial wide release in the United States in October of 1940, around the same time that Hitler, then at the height of his power, was personally visiting occupied Paris. Chaplin produced the film at his own studio in extreme secrecy, and the intense curiosity that swirled around it caused New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to note that “No event in the history of the screen has ever been anticipated with more hopeful excitement than the premiere of this film.” The gambit paid off, as The Great Dictator went on to become Chaplin’s most financially successful film, even though its release was limited to the U.S. and Great Britain, where it was received as a welcome morale booster during the worst of the blitzkrieg. The film’s success was hardly guaranteed, however, especially with its explicit emphasis on the persecution of Jews at a time of deep-seated anti-Semitism not just in Europe, but in the U.S., as well. Chaplin’s use of comedy to expose the corrupt mechanics of fascism and racism at a time when many were turning a blind eye was a particularly powerful moral endeavor, with Chaplin using his unrivaled international stardom to say out loud what so many others were afraid to even whisper.
The Great Dictator was by far the most direct cinematic manifestation of Chaplin’s politics, which he had been exploring for decades in his silent comedies, but had been sharpened by his experiences touring the world in the early 1930s. His previous feature, Modern Times (1936), was his most “political” film to date, and in that masterpiece he demonstrated how fluidly he could merge the political and the comical, turning out a “message movie” that went down smoothly. The same is true for much of The Great Dictator, which is a frequently hilarious film that boldly uses caricature and satire to ridicule the leading despots of the early 20th century.
Virtually everything in the film has a rough parallel with then-current events in Europe. Chaplin cast himself in the dual role of the Hitler figure Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of the fictional country of Tomania, and an unnamed, Little Tramp-like Jewish barber who we first meet fighting in the trenches in World War I. After a plane crash, the barber loses his memory and spends the next 20 years in a hospital. When he returns to his neighborhood, he is unaware that the country he fought for is now being run by Hynkel and that Jews are being openly persecuted. When a stormtrooper paints “JEW” on the front of his barbershop, he thinks nothing of wiping it off, an act that is misinterpreted as bravery by a plucky young Jewish woman named Hanna (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s then-wife with whom he had co-starred in Modern Times). By playing both Hynkel and the Jewish barber, Chaplin is able to show fascism from dual points of view, bringing us into the absurdly cavernous halls (based directed on the Albert Speer-designed New Reich Chancellery in Berlin) in which Hynkel and his cronies conduct their business and into the Jewish ghetto (conveniently notated with a sign) where the Jews are beaten and cowed into submission (at the time, Chaplin was unaware that Jews were being rounded up for extermination, and in his 1964 autobiography he wrote that he would not have made the film had he known).
Playing Hynkel, Chaplin puts his mimicry skills to work, impersonating Hitler’s venomous rhetorical style by unleashing torrents of nonsensical, German-sounding gibberish with such anger and intensity that the microphones literally recoil from his spittle. Although he was 50 years old, Chaplin’s physical dexterity is still impressive, whether he be prat-falling down stairs or, in the film’s most infamous scene, enacting a delicate ballet with a globe balloon to the lulling strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin prelude. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, is amusingly parodied by Henry Daniell as Garbitsch (pronounced “garbage”), although the film’s most consistently hilarious character is the Benito Mussolini caricature by comedian Jack Oakie, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Named Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, Oakie’s gleefully obnoxious character undercuts all of Hynkel’s neurotic, carefully calculated attempts to convey superiority with a constant stream of flamboyant, inappropriate familiarity (lots of back-slapping and nicknames like “Hynkey” and “my dictator brother”). Napaloni is often the funniest thing on screen, particularly when he and Hynkel become openly competitive in a pair of constantly rising barber chairs.
The narrative structure that oscillates between Hynkel’s antics and the plight of the Jewish barber is a bit clumsy, necessitating that one or the other disappear from the screen for lengthy periods of time, but it is fundamentally necessary because Chaplin is building toward a climax in which the barber will be mistaken for Hynkel and will thus be allowed to speak his mind at a rally, imploring for peace and humanity, rather than violence and intolerance. The speech that Chaplin delivers at the end, not so much in the character of the barber but rather as himself, was criticized when the film was first released as a clumsy storytelling device, essentially grinding the movie to a halt for six minutes of political grandstanding. And, while the speech doesn’t work particularly well in a narrative sense, it is nonetheless a compelling piece of political rhetoric, with every word still ringing powerfully true today (ironically, the speech was used against Chaplin in the 1950s as being too communist in tone).
As James Agee noted in his famed essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” Chaplin was the only silent-film comedian to fully transition to the world of synchronized sound. The great irony, of course, is that Chaplin resisted making a full “talkie” for more than a decade, finally relenting with The Great Dictator. Until 1940, Chaplin had never spoken on-screen (although he did sing in Modern Times), which is what makes his final speech that much more moving and important, especially in contrast to the nonsensical venom spewed by Hynkel earlier in the film (Chaplin was well aware that Hitler had gained power and popularity primarily via his oratory bluster). With the exception of a few notable German words and phrases, most of what Hynkel says is pure nonsense, which is a direct literalization of Chaplin’s view of fascist politics. And that, ultimately, is what The Great Dictator demonstrated to the world, undercutting hatred and totalitarianism by revealing them to be the strained devices of desperately pathetic and insecure men. The fact that Chaplin does not shy away from the realities of fascism run amok, especially in the scenes near the end when Hynkel orders direct persecution in the Jewish ghettos, reminds us that we can laugh at the enemy, but we must also take them very seriously.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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