The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator. Charles Chaplin Productions 1940.

May is Non-Alliterative Silver Screen Classic Movie Month!

Before watching the movie:

This came close to being my first Charlie Chaplin picture ever, but it was beaten out by Modern Times. I get the sense this will be largely different, since he’s playing someone other than the Tramp and this is entirely talking.

This holds particular interest to me since it’s a satire of Nazi Germany contemporary to Nazi Germany, as opposed to The Producers or Hogan’s Heroes.

I assume a lot of prior knowledge for this film since film buffs love to gush about it, but I only really know the dance with the globe and the speech that’s recently become popular.

After watching the movie:

In the country of Tomania shortly after the (First) World War, Adenoid Hynkel comes to power as the Fooey of the great Double-Cross party, while a Jewish barber leaves the hospital and returns to work, not aware of the new regime thanks to a war injury. Hynkel wants to rule the world by way of military conquest, starting with the neighboring land of Osterlich. The Jews next door to the barber plan to move to Osterlich to escape oppression in a free country. The man the barber saved in the war turns out to be a Double-Cross official, and is lenient on his ghetto until the Aryans decide he’s turned traitor for it.  The Fooey’s oppression prepares to march across the globe, if only his rival Napaloni will get out of his way.

This is Chaplin’s first all-talking film, but it doesn’t get hung up on sound. Modern Times experimented with sound, but stayed mostly silent to focus on Chaplin’s miming. This one has several sequences that are pure mime, and moments where one or the other of Chaplin’s characters stays silent and expresses himself entirely visually, or nearly entirely. Even so, the two stand-out scenes for me are when he speaks. Early on, Hynkel gives a bombastic speech in ludicrous fake-German, his intensity causing the microphones to jump, spin, and bend over. And of course, the final speech, by the barber mistaken for Hynkel, gets directly to the heart of everything Chaplin believes and wants to express through his films. In this movie, sound breaks a barrier between Chaplin and the audience, but only on his terms.

Even if one isn’t familiar with the story, it ought to be easy to realize that at some point, the barber, a Chaplin-esque character similar to the Tramp, will be mistaken for Hynkel, the Hitler stand-in also portrayed by the other man famous for the toothbrush mustache. The thing is, it happens incredibly late in the story. For a long time, a story is developing with the barber while the film keeps cutting back to silly things happening with the Fooey. Then suddenly, when that story has come near its climax, and about the time I’m starting to think the film should be wrapping up, the focus shifts to a very long segment that’s entirely about the Hynkel jockeying for position with the Mussonlini analog. It’s only at the very end that the mistaken identity occurs, after I stopped really caring about either of them.

One point of perspective about this film: today,The Great Dictator is just another sendup of Hitler. Around that time, Warner Brothers made cartoons that occasionally got mud in his eye too. But that was after war was seriously on. This was drafted through the 20s and 30s, and released in 1940. Many in America still sided with the fascists, many elsewhere were afraid to stand up to Hitler. Occasionally there was probably a political cartoon or an offhand jab here and there, but the bravery to make an entire film devoted satirizing a man who was poised to seriously take over the entire world and crush any resistance is easily lost on us today.

As far as the globe-ballet scene goes, I’m not sure if it’s because the meaning of it is partially lost on me, because I’ve seen at least pieces of it a few times, or a combination of that, but I don’t find it nearly as funny as most people tend to.


Watch this movie: because nobody has topped this mockery of Hitler.

Don’t watch this movie: if you think Chaplin should be seen and not heard.

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