Tuesday, May 15, 2012


(October 1940, U.S.)

Charlie Chaplin, I'm sure, was called many things in his lifetime. STUBBORN has got to be the most applicable accusation because THE GREAT DICTATOR was his first fully talking picture twelve years after talking pictures had finally come into existence. Interestingly, though, his classics of the 1930s like CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES might not have been classics had they been talking pictures. Who can explain these things?

At the time of THE GREAT DICTATOR's release, the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Chaplin's film advanced a stirring, controversial condemnation of Adolf Hitler, fascism, antisemitism, and the Nazis, whom he excoriates in the film as "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts". At the time, though, Hitler was someone just begging to be parodied and slandered, from the Three Stooges to Bugs Bunny to Ernst Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942). I can't imagine anyone having pulled it off better than Charlie Chaplin. Take a look at his physical transformation into Adenoid Hynkel, the ruthless dictator of Tomainia...

Like Peter Sellers in DR. STRANGELOVE, Chaplin is playing multiple roles in this film. In addition to Hynkel, he plays the complete opposite side of the coin in a Jewish barber who's suffered a serious case of amnesia since the "first war" and has absolutely no idea that in the great length of time in between wars, the dictator and his stormtroopers have come to power over the Jewish people and the ghetto they inhabit. This ignorance gives the barber a unique bravery than on one else has the courage to use as he stands up to the stormtroopers in more than several funny physical instances. And of course, as circumstance and perhaps cliche would have it, the barbers strong resemblance to Hynkel eventually puts him in a position of assuming the great dictator's identity. This is the opportunity Chaplin uses to deliver a long and rousing speech to not only his country but to the people of the world who are watching this film when he basicall reverses Hynkel's anti-Semitic policies and declaring that Tomainia and other countries will now be free nations and democracy will prevail. He then calls for humanity in general to break free from dictatorships and use science and progress to make the world a better place. Oh, doesn't it sound wonderful? This was 1940, though. We all know that history records much of those prospects never occurring. We keep trying...we DO keep trying.

Dated as the comedy in this film may be, I confess that I do continue to laugh my ass off when Chaplin as Hynkel breaks into a mad rant of foreign dialogue that's supposed to sound like the German language right up until the point where's coughing up a fit. It's just another irresistable way for us to poke fun at history's most ruthless dictator who deserved everything he got, even in the movies.

With THE GREAT DICTATOR's twist of mistaken identity, the similarity between the Jewish Barber and Chaplin's classic character of "the Tramp" allows him to break away from his old persona in the sense of film characterization, but at the same time, to also capitalize on that same persona in a visual sense. The very similar nature of "the Tramp" and Barber characterizations were likely an effort by Chaplin to maintain his popularity with filmgoers who had come to love "the Tramp" over the last decade. Chaplin creates a new character from the old, but he nonetheless counts on the persona to bring film audiences into the theaters for his first journey into the world of sound, and with it, the boldest political statement he could have possibly made at the time. Bravo, Charlie!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jewish Barber: "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone."

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