The Great Dictator (1940)


Charlie Chaplin is so much fun to watch that he’s actually fun to write about.  I recently had a social networking request to hear a review of The Great Dictator, and since I have enjoyed writing the last three film reviews so much (all three about Chaplin movies) I must readily accept this request.  The decision is not made lightly.  After all, this movie is by far his most controversial, not just in regards to his content but also in regards to the large spectrum of approval that this movie has been subject to over the years.

Besides the obvious inclusion of synchronized sound, what The Great Dictator attempts to do more than any other Chaplin picture is that it tries to have some moral message.  Considering my recent analysis of morality in film, this is only fitting.  See, The Great Dictator is about more than making people feel good; it’s about sending a message to those people.  There is a great difference between sending a message and providing a commentary.  The latter was done by Chaplin from the outset.  His silent films were steeped in imagery of modernity, urbanity, and progress, full of unspoken comments in regards to the positives and negatives of the world all around him.  But, he never made a stand on what was good and bad.  There was no “down with the rich” tone—there was not even a “rise of the workers” tone—in those scenes in City Lights when the Tramp and the eccentric millionaire have their drunken laughs in the parlor of a mansion.  Nor was there any implied “halt the progress”, agrarian rallying call in those scenes in Modern Times when the Tramp was in unending battle with the mechanized world around him.  What these movies did was they provided an image of reality; instead of picking sides, they showed the comedic and even Romantic aspects of the two sides’ struggles to coexist.  He was trying to adjust to a changing world.  Perhaps no better instance can be used to demonstrate this than that moment when the Tramp starts to sing at the end of Modern Times.  But, in The Great Dictator, Chaplin did not try to show how nations should learn to adjust to each other, he did not try to show a world of conflict; he, instead, offered a scathing rebuke of the politics of Western Europe (in particular Germany and Italy).  This is why the Tramp truly died with Modern Times, despite the fact that the Jewish barber in The Great Dictator is strikingly like the Little Tramp.  This is because the Tramp was never derived with the intent to answer questions.  He merely existed.

For some, this is the problem with The Great Dictator.  The movie is about an unnamed Jewish barber (a sound-version of the Tramp) who is mistaken for the great Adenoid Hynkel, ruler of Tomainia, and through the course of the film is able to overturn the anti-Semitic, imperialistic policies of the nation.  The premise of the film is the perfect backdrop for absurdity and slapstick, and Chaplin delivers perfectly.  Yet, there is an almost oxymoronic nature to the script, the ending of the movie doesn’t seem to fit in the picture’s genre or scope.  The film is bookended by two speeches, both delivered by Chaplin, but by different characters.  The first speech is a sequence of comic brilliance, one of the funniest moments in cinematic history, in my book.  Here, Hynkel speaks in macaronic parody of German, raving against Jews and non-supporters of his regime while a concise English translation plays over the top.  The final speech, however, is the complete opposite: the Jewish barber preaches of the merits of democracy and decries the regime’s racism.

While this inconsistency has been some critics’ justification for disliking the film, I would argue that this is one of the reasons why it works so well.  Chaplin films operate in a polar world; he provides a cinematic view of opposites clashing, attempting to coexist.  Chaplin’s script emphasizes this polarity by means of a literary device, which is brilliant considering the fact that literary devices are, by their nature, incompatible with cinematic devices.  Remember what I have said in other posts: for those of Chaplin’s era, the cinema was a seventh art, and the written word was a completely different one.  But, the advent of sound of film led to a far more vast spectrum of artistic incorporation, a multi-media Gesamtkunstwerk emerged.  Everything started to change, and Chaplin’s success in The Great Dictator showed his ability to master art itself.  Therefore, for me, the inconsistency of The Great Dictator had many timely aspects: it established the polarity between Chaplin’s two characters, the tyrannical Hynkel and the humble barber.  Only in the sphere between polar opposites can Chaplin’s comedy truly succeed.

The essence of slapstick comedy is opposition; one character must act against another, be it animate or inanimate.  This is one of the freshest aspects of Chaplin’s comedy in that there is something unendingly dependable about people slipping on banana peels.  The sequences with Hynkel in his palace are perhaps the most comical, considering the fact that the bigger someone is, the harder they’ll fall when that banana peel gets in their way.  Hynkel, being the ruler of Tomainia, with aspirations to rule the entire world, is about as big as they get.  We like watching those sorts of people make fools of themselves: Saturday Night Live has made that a central focus since Chevy Chase first pretended to be Gerald Ford.  Whether he’s struggling with a giant, inflatable globe, or having a food fight with the ruler of Bacteria, Hynkel’s racism, bigotry, and ambition become minimized, mock-able, and petty.  Meanwhile, the simplicity of the Jewish barber, and his meteoric—albeit accidental—rise to power, contribute to a glorification of his tolerance and humility.

Chaplin’s political views, after the production of The Great Dictator, became quite controversial.  There is little need to get into the details of that, considering the fact that this a film review and not a biographical sketch.  In a few words, Chaplin had to fend off right-wing accusations that he was a Communist for the rest of his life.  Some of this was born of his support for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics after the second World War.  I have not researched Chaplin’s personal life too much, but from what I understand, this sympathy was mostly humanitarian, not political.  He was greatly perturbed by the loss of human life and resources that the Soviets experienced at the hand of Hitler’s Germany.  The outrageous success of The Great Dictator put him in a place where he could take advantage of his reputation and speak out in behalf of their suffering.

Perhaps he was motivated even more after news of the Jewish Holocaust began to emerge in greater detail.  Chaplin said that, had he known beforehand how egregious those atrocities against humanity were, he never would have made a movie satirizing the German regime.  Surely, there is no place for such parody.  Actually, there is always place for such parody, but no one will want to see it, and the person who makes it is undeniably perverse.  Perhaps, there was a little remorse for making a satire on such a terrible incident, and Chaplin was especially motivated to intervene in European affairs with his social discourse.  However, this would greatly effect his future career as a film maker.  I have stated before that once Chaplin started working in sound, he lost the critical acclaim that had accompanied him over his entire career.  It is not fair to say that such acclaim left only because he was working in the new medium, I think that it should be recognized that Chaplin lost a lot of his American support because of his politics, not his sound.

That being said, Chaplin maintained the support of cinema’s two greatest heroes: the great critic of Cahiers du Cinéma, André Bazin, and the French directing king, Jean Renoir.  Both maintained that Chaplin’s strengths were never lost, and though he did not embrace the full world that the sound cinema provided, he maintained that which made his movies great.  The movements and framing were never gone, nor were the tender blend of humor and sentiment.  Forgive this stretch, but I think the following metaphor sums up Chaplin’s sound era pretty well.

I am not a video game player by any stretch of the imagination.  I get bored by them.  There is, however, one exception to that: I play a lot of basketball games on my PlayStation.  I recently received the most recent release of the 2K series for the NBA, and my favorite thing to do in that game is play the 1998 Utah Jazz basketball team.  Growing up, my favorite player was John Stockton.  Out of a possible 99, Stockton is only an 87 in that game.  That bothered me, but then I realized something.  Players get points for their abilities to dunk, jump, rebound, block shots, exhibit strength and foot-speed, and perform complex drives to the basket.  Stockton never excelled at those things, and therefore missed out on those potential rating points.  As a matter of fact, Stockton was never that good scoring out of the triple threat or out of dribble penetration: his shot release was too low and, therefore, slow.  However, look at the categories under on-the-ball defense, offensive awareness, outside scoring, defensive awareness, durability, quickness, stealing, and passing.  In these categories, he excels better than most any other player in the game’s database.

Chaplin was much the same.  While The Great Dictator did not excel too superbly on technical sound integration or keep up with the genre demands of the era, it excelled in those areas that made Chaplin films great. Chaplin often said that he didn’t work in dialogue because his comedy operated on action, and action must wait on dialogue.  One cannot, therefore, decry his attempts to somewhat move sound to the side in his production of The Great Dictator.  These sound principles were not his priority.  His priority was what was seen, and this was born of an intimate relationship he had developed over a long career behind the camera.  He was tied to the visual, and provided this on scales comparable to The Gold Rush, Modern Times, City Lights, and other of his silent masterpieces.

Even when the dialogue is hilarious, the visual is still a key factor in the comedic provision.  Take, for example, that oft-mentioned opening scene with Adenoid Hynkel in his pseudo-German giving a rousing speech before his subjects.  Amid the hilarious concision of the English translation and the even-more-hilarious delivery of Chaplin’s macaronic German (which were aspects of sound synchronization), Chaplin included various visual gags: the microphones bend away from him as if they are cowering away from his volume, the robotic—almost spastic—hand movements that characterize Hynkel’s character (funny even without the obvious satire of Hitler’s orations), and the costume and production design are just a few of these visual cues designed to elicit laughs even if played on mute.  Chaplin would never be dependent on sound, nor would he allow it to overcome him.

In his final silent film, Modern Times, Chaplin ceded slightly to sound by including several instances of sound synchronization.  This absolutely had to happen in the life of the Little Tramp.  As I said at the beginning of this review, the Tramp was constantly adjusting.  He was not winning or losing, he was merely existing and surviving.  The incorporation of sound in Modern Times was the perfect reflection of the Tramp’s hectic attempt to survive because it represented his flexibility and ability to survive in a modernizing world.  The Great Dictator, in its own way, had to happen.  Here, Chaplin showed his ability to survive without sacrificing those fundamental aspects of Chaplin films.  The Tramp was gone, but the master filmmaker who created him lived on, and essences of the Tramp were survived by that Jewish Barber who saved Tomainia.

Roger Ebert, in his review of The Great Dictator, closed his essay with a personal memory.  I have no such memories, so forgive me for living through Ebert a little bit.  I would like to close my review of The Great Dictator the same way that he did:

“And now a memory. In 1972, the Venice Film Festival staged a retrospective of Chaplin’s complete work, with prints from his own collection. On the closing night, his masterpiece, ‘City Lights’ (1932), was shown outdoors in Piazza San Marco. The lights were off, the orchestras were silenced for the first time in more than a century, and the film played on a giant screen to standing room only.

When it was over, and the blind flower girl could see again, and she realized the Little Tramp was her savior, there was much snuffling and blowing of noses. Then a single spotlight sprung from the darkness and illuminated a balcony overlooking the square. A little man stepped out and waved. And we cheered and cheered.”

5 thoughts on “The Great Dictator (1940)

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