Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Great Dictator (1940)

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie

In 1940, as Adolf Hitler was sucking the world into a devastating war, Charlie Chaplin brought out his iconic mustache (one that resembled that of the F├╝hrer’s) to produce a daring piece of satire.  When many in the world chose to appease Hitler, Chaplin fully realized the evil that the Nazi regime represented and attacked it with what a filmmaker's greatest weapon, a major motion picture.  In fact, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first “talkie.”  And when the most iconic comedic figure of the silent era finally embraces sound, people will take notice no matter the topic.  When that first foray is sharply satirizing the world’s most dangerous man, during the height of his power, it is all the more inspiring.

The three Chaplin films I have seen (City Lights, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times) confirmed all the claims of Chaplin’s genius that I always heard about.  His famous Tramp character, with his black moustache, bowler hat, cane, and the odd hitch in his strut, is legendary.  I couldn’t wait to see how his silent era genius translated into the era of sound, especially when that transition marks the most controversial and daring film of his career.

Being a “talkie,” a part of The Great Dictator I looked forward to, before the sharp satire and hilarious set pieces, was the sheer curiosity about finally hearing Chaplin’s voice (aside from the silly Italian-gibberish song and dance that found its way into Modern Times).  With such an expressive face full of awkward smiles and antics that always found him in crazy predicaments, it is exciting to see his character open the movie in the trenches of World War I.  The Great Dictator begins with a silent movie feel, marked by giant malfunctioning cannons and a misplaced live grenade, but soon we get to hear his voice.  Surprisingly, he is a soft-spoken and polite man, which adds an interesting dynamic to the performance in this new era of Chaplin films (that quiet speaking voice does disappear when he must embody a Hitler figure rousing a nation).  While Chaplin does speak throughout the film and dialogue is used to push the plot forward, you can still see his love for the silent era.  With exaggerated and expressive performances from everyone in the cast, I think that The Great Dictator would be on par with some of his silent era classics if watched on mute.  However, this would diminish the power behind Chaplin’s hilarious aping of Hitler’s fanatical speeches.

In The Great Dictator, Chaplin takes on dual roles.  The timid and naive soldier we see in the early scenes is this film’s version of Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, the Jewish Barber.  A comically unrealistic plane crash leads to a case of amnesia that makes the Barber unaware that he is returning home to a Jewish ghetto created by the tyrannical rule of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of the fictitious Tomania (Chaplin's other role).  This sets up the parallels between Hynkel’s regime and Hitler’s, as well as the plights of the Barber and his neighbors and that of the Jewish people in Europe, which continue throughout the rest of the film.

The plot of The Great Dictator loosely follows the rise of Germany up until 1940.  Chaplin’s Hynkel vehemently promotes his anti-Semitic agenda, oppressing the Jews in ghettos (there are whispers of sending people to concentration camps, but I don’t know if Chaplin, or the rest of the world, were aware of the horrors that went on there yet).  Behind his false bravado, Hynkel is something a lightweight who follows the his influential advisor, Herr Garbitsch. Many times it is Garbitsch shaping Hynkel’s policies, urging further war in Europe, a tightened grip on the Jews and a strategic alliance with Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria (Jack Oakie).  Napolani is obviously Chaplin’s satirical dig at Mussolini. 

In the ghetto, the Jewish Barber begins to find some sense of normalcy and starts a promising relationship with his spunky neighbor, Hanna (Paulette Goddard).  Eventually, Hynkel’s war machine revs up and life in the ghetto becomes much harsher for the poor Barber leading to Chaplin’s two characters finally crossing paths in the third act.

While I have used numerous lines to summarize the plot, it is really of little significance in the film.  The Great Dictator is better characterized as a series of great moments.  From beginning to end, it is the individual scenes that stuck with me and showed off Chaplin’s comedic genius.  None are more memorable than when Hynkel contemplates world domination by gracefully bouncing the globe in the air like a beach ball.  There are fantastic elements such as Chaplin’s aforementioned World War I bumblings, a paint-filled scuffle with local stormtroopers, and the constant one-upmanship between Hynkel and Napaloni (among so many others).  These four scenes work well with sound or silently, but being a “talkie,” it is important to mention The Great Dictator’s great moments that rely on Chaplin’s experimentation with sound.

When thinking about the use of sound in this film, my mind goes straight to the two great speeches.  The first belongs to Adenoid Hynkel angrily rousing his crowd with his attacks on democracy, liberty, and the Jewish people.  The brilliance of this speech stems from the way Chaplin presents it.  It was with exaggeration and vehemence that Hitler was able to mesmerize his crowd into following his evil lead; if one actually listened to the content seriously, they would realize that they were following a mad man (I would hope).  To convey this, Chaplin gives his Hynkel speeches in German-gibberish that sounds utterly ridiculous yet is perfectly understandable without ever using real words.  This speech is in sharp contrast to the one given by the Jewish Barber at the end of the film.  Here Chaplin’s politics come through, as do his motivations for exposing the evil behind the Nazi regime.  There is no nuance in this closing scene, just raw emotion, and a call for the free world to put an end to tyranny and oppression.  Chaplin hammers his point home bluntly, but it didn’t bother me when the cause he was campaigning for is so righteous.


What Charlie Chaplin accomplished in The Great Dictator was both daring and admirable.  I look forward to learning more about its reaction around the world at that time.  A big part of me wants to know if Hitler actually watched the film, but the bigger question is probably how the German people reacted to it.  Though I’m not naive enough to think that the film actually found its way into the cinemas under the Nazi regime, but the thought still intrigues me. 

Beyond its fascinating backstory, The Great Dictator is also a great film, filled with so many scenes that plastered a big smile to my face (the same smile that comes with every Chaplin movie).  However, holding my rating back a bit is that the story that threads these great scenes together isn’t quite as strong.  Great thought was put into exposing the atrocities of the Nazi regime (by finding comedy in them), but the thought that it takes to also create a compelling story was lacking.  But lacking only slightly.


Mark it 8.

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