The Great Dictator (1940)
“The Comedy Masterpiece!”
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
Synopsis: Dictator Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel’s regime.
The Great Dictator began filming in September 1939, the same month that Britain declared war on Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and more than two years before the United States became involved. So it’s not possible that Charlie Chaplin could have been aware of the full, horrific, scale of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews – had he known it is inconceivable that he would have built a comedy movie around such an emotive subject. Motivated, no doubt, by a prescient understanding of the deadly consequences of Hitler’s political manouevring, he fashioned a satirical farce that mercilessly ridiculed the Fuehrer and his allies. It was a bold decision, and one that Chaplin considered an artistic statement, but knowing now as we do the atrocities visited upon the Jews it’s difficult to appreciate much of the humour because it appears to gloss over reality when, in fact, it was written in ignorance of the facts.
Chaplin has dual roles, playing both Adenoid Hynkel (based on Hitler), dictator of the fictional country of Tomania, who plans to invade the neighbouring country of Osterlich, and a Jewish barber suffering from long-term amnesia since WWI after saving the life of a pilot named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) who has now risen to the rank of Commander under the reign of Hynkel. Unaware of Hynkel’s unjust treatment of the Jews, the barber returns to his shop in the ghetto and begins a relationship with Hannah (Paulette Goddard) a high-spirited washerwoman. Meanwhile, in a scheme to raise finance to fund the invasion of Osterlich, Hynkel temporarily lifts the abuse of the Jews and negotiates with his ally Napoloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria.
Chaplin’s decision to delay fully embracing sound in his movies for more than a decade after the advent of talking pictures seems to have been a wise one, because The Great Dictator is at its weakest when he’s making verbal jokes. For example, early on in the movie, the Barber and Schultz are flying upside down in an attempt to escape their enemies. ‘How is the gas?‘ Schultz asks the Barber, to which the little man replies: ’Terrible, it kept me awake all night.’ This is a lame joke by anyone’s standards, but coming from one of the greatest silent comedians (still recognisable as the little tramp, even though he is playing a different character) makes it sound even worse than it really is. When Chaplin reverts to silent humour, such as when he performs a delicate ballet with an inflated globe, or futilely attempts to tear strands of spaghetti to demonstrate how he will tear Napoloni’s forces apart, he not only demonstrates that he’s lost none of his comic genius but also exposes the weakness of the other material. Ironically, he does make effective use of sound, for example when he expressively shaves a hapless customer to the strains of classical music.
The Great Dictator is to be applauded for its attempt to awaken a sleeping world to the dangers that awaited it, and as such it is perhaps one of the most important movies ever made. Unfortunately, it works only fitfully as a comedy, and is fatally wounded by Chaplin’s lengthy, ill-advised speech to camera. There’s no doubting Chaplin’s sincerity – it’s obvious in every impassioned word he utters – but it sounds more like a sermon than a speech, and provides an inappropriate conclusion.
(Reviewed 25th August 2012)