Friday Flashback: The Great Dictator (1940)

At the risk of sounding like a genuine Film Snob, I must admit that I shake my head in disappointment at those who think that films like The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, and Superbad are among the funniest films of all-time. This is not to say that these movies – and recent films of their kind – are not funny. They certainly are – and I enjoy them very much. But when I watch a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (which I had the extreme pleasure of re-visiting last week), I am once again reminded of what truly brilliant comedies are made of. I very rarely use the word “genius.” In fact, I think the term may only apply to a mere handful of artists in the history of movie-making. And cinematic pioneer Charlie Chaplin is indeed one of those few.

Chaplin insisted on making silent films for years – even long after The Jazz Singer revolutionized movies and the “talkie” sound era began. With The Great Dictator (in which he wrote, produced, directed, starred and co-composed the score), Chaplin made his first true talking picture – and boy did he have a lot to say. Not only laugh-out-loud funny, the movie was the very first film of its time to use biting satire against the Nazi regime and in particular, Adolf Hitler. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, The Great Dictator has long been considered a true classic of the cinema – and for good reason. The movie was also selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

With The Great Dictator, it’s as if outspoken Chaplin thumb-tacked images of Hitler and the swastika emblem on the wall and zipped dart after dart into them. It’s a scathing commentary on Nazism and on dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. On top of this, the film is hysterically funny (featuring some of film’s most classic comedic moments & scenes), and yes, even romantic (typical Chaplin). Chaplin takes on two roles here – and does a marvelous job in both (earning a well-deserved “Best Actor” Oscar nom). As the Jewish barber who has been hospitalized for 20 years after a plane crash during WWI, Chaplin’s character returns to his beloved barbershop in the Jewish ghetto, but because he has suffered severe memory loss, has no idea how drastically the world has changed and how brutally the Jews are treated. Oblivious to his societal status, the barber (who, Chaplin swore at the time, was not a representation of his infamous Little Tramp character despite obvious resemblances) stands up to the harsh stormtroopers who continue to invade the ghetto and humiliate its citizens.

Chaplin also plays the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel, leader of Tomania (an allusion to ptomaine poisoning), and a riotous lampoon of Hitler. Chaplin’s Hynkel is wildly funny, though he does not mean to be. He is also terribly insecure, always seeking the advice of his Minister of Interior Garbitsch (pronounced “garbage” and wonderfully played by Henry Daniell) who is modeled after Joseph Goebbels. Jackie Oakie plays Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, with showy arrogance. Hynkel and Napaloni are fighting over who will take over Osterlich (Austria) and the battle of wits between the two makes for some funny sequences. Billy Gilbert plays the feeble Minister of War (talk about your paradoxes) Herring, who is the subject of much of Hynkel’s abuse. Rounding out the lead cast is the beautiful Paulette Goddard who plays Hannah, a fearless resident of the ghetto and the object of the barber’s affection.

The scene that the film is most famous for is the one when Hynkel dances with a large, balloon-like globe, while he fantasizes about overtaking the world. He does this to Wagner’s Lohengrin, and at the very end of the sequence, the balloon, of course, pops. The scene I can’t get enough of – and I think it’s one of the funniest scenes in film history, is Hynkel’s first speech to his people – and Chaplin’s wonderful mockery of the German language. It’s an extraordinary scene that showcases the comedic brilliance and wonderful acting abilities of Charlie Chaplin. Do yourself a favor, and watch the video below.

The Great Dictator is no doubt a phenomenal cinematic achievement. Chaplin was never one to back down and was very politically-minded (see J. Edgar Hoover). Here, he has created one of the very best satires of all-time, not to mention one of our very best comedies. For those unfamiliar with Chaplin’s prolific canon of work, I would recommend The Great Dictator be your introduction to his genius. He does lay it on a bit thick at the end (when his barber gives the speech imploring Hannah to look up to the skies above), and though a bit melodramatic, I can forgive this as it is simply Chaplin speaking to his audience. Watching it again reminded me that, yes it’s funny watching a woman shit in a sink — but it is the stuff of Charlie Chaplin that remains timeless, original, important, and yes, remarkably funny, now 70+ years later.

5 Responses to Friday Flashback: The Great Dictator (1940)

  1. Pingback: Film Friday | Weekly Roundup | | Pretty Clever Films Pretty Clever Films - Silent Films & Classic Movies Discussed

  2. Pingback: WORDS ‘N’ PICTURES: Criterion’s Incredible Cover to THE GREAT DICTATOR « All Day Comics

  3. Pingback: Film Friday | Weekly Roundup « Pretty Clever Films

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