The Great Dictator is a Charlie Chaplin creation, and I don’t use the term lightly. He wrote, produced, directed, played the two main roles in and had a hand in just about every aspect of the creation of this classic. His fame is warranted: it’s a work of genius. This being my first experience of Chaplin, I was pleased to see such an unexpected intelligence to the film. At first I was a little disappointed that I was to watch his first foray into the world of ‘talkies’ instead of one of his more iconic silent films, but the disappointment was short-lived.
The film features two main characters with separate storylines, one being the Dictator of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel (an unmasked satire of Adolf Hitler), and the other an unnamed, amnesiac Jewish Barber. Chaplin executes both roles with such brilliance that it would seem impossible for this production to have succeeded without him. There is much fun made of the pair’s visual resemblance, and yet the two are remarkably different personalities, despite both being utter boobs. The Jewish Barber receives a blow to the head in the Great War, after which he suffers from severe amnesia. Upon escaping his military hospital, he returns to his Barber shop in the Jewish Ghetto and, poignantly, cannot understand the persecution his people are facing. Meanwhile, Hynkel is a very busy man, who finds himself locked in a battle of wits (here I do use the term lightly) with Benzino Napaloni of Bacteria (Chaplin’s take on Benito Mussolini, played by Jack Oakie) over the invasion of Osterlich.
Filming started a week after WW2 began, before America entered the struggle and well before the horrors of the Holocaust were discovered by the Allies. It would be decades before satire could be used in the same way to reference Nazi Germany. Yet, it was still a bold move at the time, as at the film’s release America was firmly isolationist. At the close of The Great Dictator, Chaplin steps out of character and delivers an idealistic speech directly to the audience, which roundly condemns fascism and calls upon the free world to protect the values it holds dear. Given this is his first talking picture, Chaplin hit the ground running.
If I’m to criticise The Great Dictator, I would have to question the cramming of too many objectives into one film. The confusion of crowd-pleasing tomfoolery and well-informed point-making often produces an unsettled quality to this movie. But, perhaps this objection is more due to the power of retrospect than the demands of taste. Chaplin had a clear political message to convey and utilised his own reputation to spread it, necessitating the strong comic elements. In general, though some of the gags have aged, the humour strengthens Chaplin’s message, especially in satirising the Nazis, and it becomes intrinsic to the feel of the film. Besides, it wouldn’t really be Chaplin without a few tumbles, would it?
If you’re to see any of this film, it should be Hynkel’s speech, which Chaplin delivers (in German sounding gobbledegook) with both hilarity and uncanny accuracy alike. For those with short attention spans, watch from 3.30-4.00. Enjoy.