What a surprise! Yet another week here of the Cinematic Century and yet another Charlie Chaplin flick to discuss. I’m very on brand here. Charlie Chaplin was just a wonderful creator, and he had an almost ridiculous skill at making films that are so perfectly up my alley. And his film from 1940, the Great Dictator is no different. I love this film. In fact, I’ve already written about it on the site before, just like last week’s Stagecoach. I did consider picking a different film from 1940, since I’d already discussed the film in depth, and wasn’t sure if I had anything more to say, but that felt dishonest. Because the Great Dictator isn’t just my favorite film of 1940, it’s one of my favorite films period. Yeah, there were some sources of competition in the year, but none of them really had a chance to beat this film. The biggest competitor is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s absolutely terrific Rebecca. And I really enjoy Rebecca. It’s moody, gothic, and full of that wonderful patented Hitchock weirdness, tossing an average person headfirst into an insane scenario and seeing how they possibly could deal with it without shattering. I love that from Hitchcock, but I still think that that same theme would be explored better in the future. And, let me tell you, Hitchcock is going to get several spotlights over the course of this project. Let’s give Charlie Chaplin one last hurrah. We also have the wonderfully strange and beautiful work of art that is Fantasia, but I don’t even know how I would begin describing the “plot” of that film. His Girl Friday is a delightful screwball comedy from 1940 that I also highly recommend, especially if you’re a fan of the fast-paced quip-heavy comedies of the era. And there’s also the Grapes of Wrath, a wonderful adaptation of a wonderful novel, and somehow also a film I’ve talked about on the site before. It was a strong year. But, there’s no way I can deny the powerful masterpiece that is the Great Dictator.
I feel like the last few Chaplin films I wrote about here on Cinematic Century I mentioned the fact that he considered it to be his first talkie film, but didn’t end up pulling the trigger. For a while he felt like talkies were just a fad, but once it became clear that they were there to stay he began suggesting he needed the perfect idea for his first foray into the world of sound. The possibly apocryphal sentiment was that he needed something to say. And then he came up with an idea. During Adolph Hitler’s rise to power it became inevitable for people to note the similarity between the tyrant’s facial hair and that of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Chaplin became fascinated with Hitler, seeing him as a foolish person who needed to be taken down a peg or two. And, when things started to get dark in the rise of Nazi Germany, that sentiment changed from mere mockery into outright contempt. So, Chaplin started developing this film, a refutation of everything that the Nazi’s stood for, and a profound call to sanity. He brought his familiar comedic shtick into the world of the talkie, and in the process did his best to portray Hitler and the entire fascist movement of the time as utterly absurd and contemptible. And it was a hit. People loved it, both in America and England, and it’s become one of the most famous works in Chaplin’s entire oeuvre. It remains one of Chaplin’s most beloved films, and is damn close to being my favorite of his works. True, once the real horrors of Nazi Germany were revealed to the world years later Chaplin kind of regretting treating the subject with such levity, but it’s still an incredibly powerful film, and well worth the wait of Chaplin finding something to say.
The Great Dictator follows two men whose lives become inextricably linked. We have a man only known as the Barber, a Jewish barber who is knocked unconscious during the First World War and is put into a coma, and Adenoid Hynkel, the tyrant of Tomania who rises up following the War. During the war the Barber came to the aid of a pilot named Schultz and bravely fought for his native Tomania, but he was involved in a pretty terrible plane crash, and is thrown into a coma. When he finally awakens twenty years later and is released from the hospital, he finds his native land completely changed. Hynkel and his fascistic regime have taken over, and the small Jewish community that he’s lived in his whole life has become a very dark, sad place. His friends and neighbors have kept his barbershop free while the Barber has been gone, and he’s welcomed back to the neighborhood with open arms. And, despite the darkness and oppression, he’s able to find friendship, and even romance. The Barber falls in love with a young woman named Hannah, and things start to go pretty well for the Barber.
Unfortunately, we also need to check in on Hynkel. He’s continuing to take complete control of Tomania, and is being pushed by his advisers into becoming more militaristic and oppressive. He wants to invade the neighboring country of Ostralich, and to do so attempts to get a loan from a series of Jewish bankers. But, when they refuse, he decides the only alternative is to start oppressing the Jewish people of Tomania, letting him just take their money to fun his wars. And, just like that, the lives of the Barber and his friends is put in jeopardy. Until the Barber learns that the Tomanian officer put in charge of the neighborhood is Schultz, the man the Barber saved in the War. Schultz helps keep the citizens of the ghetto safe, and even tries to protest the treatment of the Jewish people to Hynkel. Which doesn’t go well. Schultz is arrested, and scheduled to be taken to a concentration camp, but he manages to escape in the process, and flees back to the ghetto. The Barber and his friends keep Schultz hidden, and together they begin plotting an assassination of Hynkel. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out very well, and some Tomanian soldiers arrive and arrest Schultz and the Barber.
Meanwhile, Hynkel has been hoping to ramp up his war with Ostralich, especially now that he has managed to steal so much money from his people. But, he still feels he needs a partner, and invites a fellow fascist, a parody of Mussolini called Napaloni to Tomania to discuss the idea of them working together to conquer Ostralich. The two leaders fight with each other, and are constantly trying to prove who is the toughest, but eventually Hynkel gets what he wants, and orders the invasion of Ostralich. Which couldn’t happen at a worse time, because Hannah and most of the other neighbors in the Ghetto have fled to Ostralich. So, Hynkel’s war has begun, and things looks pretty solid for him. Which of course means that it’s time for him to go for a relaxing hunting trip in the Tomanian woods. And, as luck would have it, he ends up going to an area very close to the camp that the Barber and Schultz were sent to, right at the time that the two manage to escape from the camp. They’re then caught by some Tomanian soldiers, who mistake the Barber for Hynkel. The Barber and Schultz are brought before a massive crowd and asked to give an inspiring speech to the people of Tomania after the successful invasion. And, not giving up a chance to speak to his people, the Barber plays along and delivers one of the finest speeches in cinematic history, telling the people to ignore tyrants and demagogues and become a true democracy, hoping for the world to end up a better place than it ever had been before.
This is a film that I could watch over and over. I love Chaplin’s silent features. It’s what he’s most known for, and he put such an incredible mark on the genre that it’s impossible to deny how wonderful those films are. He’s one of the defining figures in the world of silent comedy, and his films are clearly some of my favorite of all time, since I’ve talked about a good deal of them during this project. But there’s just something about the Great Dictator that blows me away. He takes the shtick that he’s been perfecting for decades and brings it into the modern age, and with an incredible message to boot. Chaplin’s phenomenal in this film, expertly weaving between the two performances as the Barber and Hynkel. The film is full of wonderful gags, taking these incredibly dark and important times and finding some humor in them. Chaplin eventually went on the record as feeling like they maybe wouldn’t have treated everything so lightly if they’d known the true horror of the Nazi regime, and I suppose that’s a hard thing to argue. But, as time has gone on, this film remains one of the most defining and inspiring works in the career of one of Hollywood’s greatest creators. And he does it by making a film that simultaneously feels familiar to his past work, and completely new.
One of the things that I’ve hit upon time and time again during this Cinematic Century project is the idea that Chaplin was so skilled at blending humor and heart. There were other silent comedic actors who were able to make funnier movies, but I don’t think there’s a single creator who was able to play with our heartstrings quite like Chaplin. His films got down deep into ideas of loneliness, acceptance, and love, all while putting out some of the funniest comedy this era of Hollywood cinema had to offer. Chaplin had an amazing ability to get right to the heart of a matter, discussing some incredibly human things in a way that was understandable by everyone. So, it made sense that a film like the Great Dictator could take that ability and turn it into a far more political message than Chaplin had ever had before. His movies had always been a tad political, looking at the state of the poor in American society, and even getting pretty deep into the caustic nature of Capitalism in Modern Times, but the Great Dictator is the first time that he harnessed his populist powers to try and convince humanity to walk back from the brink of madness. Sadly, this was not the case, but there’s still something incredibly powerful about watching this film, specifically that final speech. Chaplin waited until he had something to say to finally take the leap into sound, and he really accomplished that. The entire film is full of a humanizing beauty that tries to get across the dignity of humanity, and the idea that we should work together, not against one another. And then Chaplin just stands up, looks at the camera, and lays out his views on the world, hoping to change as many minds as possible. And, despite the fact that humanity continues to not learn the lesson that Chaplin was trying to impart, it will never not inspire me. It’s a beautiful speech, a beautiful film, and just a beautiful experience.
The Great Dictator was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and released by United Artists, 1940.
Categories: Cinematic Century