Directed By: Charlie Chaplin and Wheeler Dryden
Produced/Written By: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner
Music By: Charlie Chaplin and Meredith Wilson
Distributed By: United Artists (October 1940)
Budget: $2 million ($30.7 million after inflation)
Runtime: 124 minutes
It’s a silent film with sound. It’s one of the only “talkies” legendary actor/director/comedian Charlie Chaplin made; not that he needed to make another one. I’m no Chaplin expert, and I’m certainly not a cinephile of the silent era, but I know a classic when I see one, and I saw one. The Great Dictator was released towards the end of 1940, before the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, before World War II was truly a world war, and before the true extent of Hitler’s regime’s hatred towards the Jews had been realized publicly. With none of this knowledge in hand, Chaplin set about to criticize one of the most powerful and unstable men in the world.
–BE ADVISED THAT THIS REVIEW CONTAINS VIDEOS OF SCENES FROM THE FILM–
Chaplin plays duel parts: a Jewish barber and the new Tomanian dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (different enough to play but close enough for everyone to get the reference). The barber’s story is one of romance and misdirection as he tries to return to his life, yet cannot under the anti-Jewish regime of stormtroopers. Hynkel, meanwhile, is mad with power and his seeming incompetent ability to wield it. It’s highly satirizing, making it both risky and dangerous.
The unnamed barber’s story is the more typical of the two, filled with romance and chases and comedic shaving scenes. Hynkel, on the other hand, is pure insult in the most intelligent of ways. A film like this is what I would expect Stephen Colbert to make, obviously replacing Nazism with Americanism. It’s smart, because you know from the start what he’s doing and are both frightened at his tenacity and amazed at his genius in pulling it off. Every scene is gold. First, there’s his initial introduction: a grand speech in front of thousands reminiscent of all the video we’ve since seen of Hitler. Hynkel is a power personality, yet the made-up Tomanian language makes him immediately ridiculous. The microphone schtick further tells us that this man holds power, but he is nothing but a fool in a uniform.
Then there’s the infamous globe scene, having no words yet saying so much. Hynkel wants to rule the world, but in reality he is little more than a child playing in the sand. Hitler has not yet begun his full invasion of Europe, but Chaplin already predicts his inevitable advance, as well as his inevitable burst. And then there’s the interactions between Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni (Oakie, mocking Mussolini), including a (so mature of them) food fight! For men who command such power and influence, everything about them is just plain silly. It’s impossible to respect them or their cause, and Chaplin hopes that feeling will extend to their real-life caricatures.
The master of slapstick was notorious for continuing to make silent films in an era of sound due to both personal and professional skepticism. Despite the decision to finally make use of the power of dialogue, the struggle of mediums can be seen throughout the piece. This was, in the end, my only problem with the film; as I’m not a connoisseur of silent movies. In short form, I, like most, enjoy the slap stick of Chaplin’s Tramp, but in a longer format it starts to drag. Confidently, Chaplin remains true to himself with all the usual frantic comedy audiences expect of him. He’s great at it, but it also means there are stretches of silence within the film that show his novice-experience in this new technology. All understandable, and none demeaning to the artistic genius of the final cut.
It makes fun of the general idea of dictatorship and the silliness of these men to walk about as if they are demigods, but it aimed specifically at the rising power that is Nazi Germany. The true intentions behind the regime were still to be discovered, but that only says more to Chaplin that he would dare make the movie at the time he did. One wonders how it would have differed if made after the war. It probably wouldn’t have been made at all, as the purpose is to criticize directly. Though confirmation is sketchy, it is claimed that Hitler viewed the film twice, and oh how curious it would be to know what he thought. The political climate at the time was increasingly tense, but Chaplin, determined as ever, pushed on.
That is the most important thing to remember when screening: these men, considered by near all standards as definitions of evil, were very alive and very prominent when The Great Dictator was released. It’s one thing to make jokes of your President in a land of free speech, but quite another to lash out at utilitarian regimes. I doubt whether a film as high-risk as this one could be made today. No studio would produce it, to start with, so it would have to be independent and hence unlikely to be as widely released. Today, we’re use to shows like South Park and Family Guy bashing Bush, Qaddafi, and Kim Jong-il, but such a thing was unprecedented for the time. Chaplin saw his opportunity as a respected comedian to not only make people laugh, but make them think.
The Great Dictator proved to be his most commercially successful film of all time. Chaplin is a legend with plenty of films to prove it – The Immigrant, The Kid – but it is The Great Dictator that cements his status as a filmmaker. It is this film that says he knows how to not only use the screen to entertain and inspire a rush of emotions, but also how to inspire change. Many of his films highlight social constructs like poverty, the treatment of immigrants, orphans, and more, but it is this that makes blatant his intentions towards a single cause, all while just across the pond from the growing force he snickered at. The Great Dictator proves the power of film as an art form, and the power of Chaplin as its master.