#605) The Great Dictator (1940)

#605) The Great Dictator (1940)

OR “Sound and Führer” 

Directed and Written by Charlie Chaplin

Class of 1997

The Plot: During the Great War, an unnamed Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin) fighting for the country Tomainia suffers memory loss while saving a pilot named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). 20 years later, the Barber is finally released from the hospital and returns to his barbershop in a Jewish ghetto. The Barber soon learns that Tomainia has been overtaken by fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin), with Schultz as one of his commanding officers. When Hynkel orders a purge of the Jewish ghetto, the Barber leads the fight against persecution and tyranny. But underneath all this slapstick and satire is a heartfelt, urgent message for unity and compassion amongst all human beings.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites this as the film that allowed Chaplin “to mix politics with comedy”, culminating in his “impassioned plea for peace and tolerance”. As always, Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance is on hand with an all-encompassing essay on the film.

But Does It Really?: For someone best remembered for silent pictures, Chaplin sure has a lot to say in this movie. With “The Great Dictator”, Chaplin doubles down on his fame as a comedy legend for a no holds barred political satire, and the results speak for themselves. Powerful, profound, and oh yes, it’s funny too. “The Great Dictator” endures thanks to the longevity of both its filmmaker and its subject matter, and while it can never fully match Chaplin’s pinnacle in the silent era, it stands next to those films as a classic, and proof that Chaplin could evolve with the times.

Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the obvious jabs at Hitler, “The Great Dictator” takes time to razz Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (Dictator Napaloni), Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Minster Garbitsch), and Nazi leader Hermann Goring (Field Marshal Herring).

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release (though not without its share of controversy), “The Great Dictator” received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture – the only Chaplin film ever to do so. Perhaps it was the film’s touchy subject matter, or Chaplin’s status as a Hollywood outsider, or maybe just the plethora of strong contenders that year (“The Grapes of Wrath”, “Rebecca“, “The Philadelphia Story“, etc.), but “The Great Dictator” failed to win in any category.

Other notes

  • No one knows definitively how Chaplin got the initial idea for “The Great Dictator”; some sources have producer Alexander Korda giving him the idea, others have Chaplin being inspired by a screening of “Triumph of the Will” at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Regardless, at some point during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, Chaplin became aware of his physical and personal similarities to the dictator. In addition to their small physiques and toothbrush mustaches, both men were born in April 1889, rose from poverty to worldwide fame, and had an affinity for classical composer Richard Wagner. Chaplin wanted to make a film that would poke fun at these similarities, as well as raise awareness to the growing anti-Semitism he had witnessed and experienced (although Chaplin grew up with no religious affiliation and was a self-described agnostic, “The Gold Rush” had been banned in Nazi Germany on the assumption he was Jewish). “The Great Dictator” began filming in September 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II.
  • Although “Modern Times” was the first Chaplin film to have a soundtrack, “Great Dictator” was his first true sound film, complete with dialogue. That being said, most of the WWI prologue is presented visually, with sparse, utilitarian dialogue serving primarily as set-up for the sight gags. As the film progresses, the dialogue becomes more natural and character-driven.
  • Even with the prior knowledge that this movie is Chaplin making fun of Hitler, my reaction to Hynkel’s first appearance was “Well this is risky”. Chaplin was able to take this risk by financing the film himself ($1.5 million); removed from any studio interference, though still receiving a number of threats from Nazi sympathizers. 
  • Hannah is played by Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s romantic partner at the time. In the years since “Modern Times”, Chaplin and Goddard had started to grow apart, both focusing on their careers, and “Dictator” was their final collaboration before their amicable separation in 1942.
  • It’s interesting to watch Goddard’s energetic, feisty performance with the knowledge that she had recently been passed over for Scarlett O’Hara. Maybe I’m just so used to Vivien Leigh’s portrayal, but I can’t imagine Goddard in the role. “Gone with the Wind” would have been a completely different movie.
  • I know it’s the point, but every one of Hynkel’s stormtroopers looks and sounds like Curly Howard. I didn’t know Germany had a Brooklyn.
  • There is debate over whether or not Chaplin’s Jewish Barber is his iconic Tramp character. Officially, the Tramp had been retired in “Modern Times”, but the Barber is seen wearing the Tramp’s trademark outfit (complete with hat and cane) in a few scenes. I like to think it’s The Tramp, if just to make him canonically Jewish.
  • The score was composed by Meredith Willson, a young songwriter still 17 years away from his best-known work: Broadway’s “The Music Man“. Although receiving sole credit for this film’s score, Willson would later recall “the best parts of it were all Chaplin’s ideas.”
  • Shoutout to Maurice Moskovich, a Yiddish theater veteran appearing as the kindly Mr. Jaeckel. I recall enjoying his performance as a similar character in “Make Way for Tomorrow“. Moskovich died shortly after production wrapped, and “The Great Dictator” was his final film.
  • Henry Daniell is giving me some strong Basil Rathbone vibes as Hynkel’s right-hand man Garbitsch. If Daniell looks familiar, he’s the editor in “The Philadelphia Story” (the only character in the movie who actually says “the Philadelphia story”).
  • Easily the film’s most memorable scene is Hynkel, giddy with the prospect of world domination, joyfully playing with an inflatable globe, twirling and bouncing it with Wagner’s “Lohengrin” prelude playing in the background. It’s the perfect metaphor for how fragile the world is in the wrong hands, and it should surprise no one that the best moment in this Chaplin film is the one with zero dialogue.
  • This is easily Chaplin’s darkest film. With the stormtrooper raids and cold-blooded killings, “Dictator” definitely trades in its director’s signature pathos for a bleaker examination of the Nazis and their persecution of Jewish people. We’ll see a similar mix of satire and tragedy in another wartime comedy: “To Be or Not To Be“.
  • Of all the German gibberish Hynkel spouts in this movie, “pin-headden!” is my favorite.
  • Spicing things up during the film’s last third is longtime comedy veteran Jack Oakie as Benzino Napolini. Rare is the comedian who can go toe-to-toe with Chaplin, but Oakie succeeds with his bombastic energy and cartoonish Italian. While I’m surprised Oakie got an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, I support the Academy’s decision to honor a purely comedic performance.
  • Funny how we go a whole movie with Chaplin playing dual roles and we don’t get the mistaken identity plotline until the very end. We don’t even get a “Parent Trap” style split-screen. This movie crawled so “Dave” could walk.
  • Maybe watching this movie a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a bad idea.
  • Oh boy, what an ending. Having been mistaken for Hynkel, the Jewish Barber is asked to address Hynkel’s supporters with a radio speech. Here Chaplin drops character, looks directly into the camera, and pleads with his movie-going audience to fight for their freedom and their right to democracy. While considered preachy in its day, it hits a lot closer to home now, when it feels like our democratic system will collapse at any moment. “The Great Dictator” – as well as Chaplin’s entire filmography – endures because the themes are evergreen. There will always (unfortunately) be brutal oppression somewhere in the world, and there will always be the need for a little guy like the Tramp to stand up for what’s right.

Legacy

  • “The Great Dictator” was released in October 1940, and was an immediate hit in the U.S. and England, becoming Chaplin’s most financially successful movie. The film did, however, have its share of detractors, with several Latin American countries banning the film, and a lawsuit from author Konrad Bercovici, who claimed he came up with the film’s concept years earlier.
  • According to the aforementioned Vance essay, while the movie was banned in Nazi-occupied countries for obvious reasons, Adolf Hitler still procured a print of the film and held two private screenings. Hitler’s reaction to the film has never been reported, with Chaplin once saying: “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.”
  • In his later years, Chaplin admitted that had he known the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities at the time, he never would have made “The Great Dictator”.
  • Chaplin was invited by Franklin Roosevelt to recite the film’s final speech at FDR’s inauguration ceremony in 1941. The speech has also resurfaced in recent years, a close second to the globe scene in regards to iconography. And I can’t put my finger on it, but Chaplin’s speech about banding together and standing up to an easily mocked tyrant saw an uptick in views starting around 2017. Hmmm….
  • “The Great Dictator” marked the beginning of the end for Chaplin’s reign as a beloved movie star. The film’s strong political message (an unheard of concept in 1940) polarized some critics and viewers, leading to accusations of Chaplin’s Communist sympathy. This, mixed with an ongoing paternity suit, shattered Chaplin’s public image, culminating in his American re-entry permit being revoked in 1952. Although Chaplin made a handful of movies following “The Great Dictator”, none of them were as successful as his earlier films, and it wouldn’t be until the 1970s when Chaplin’s career would be reappraised and celebrated in America.
  • After the war, parodies of Hitler more or less disappeared, but were revived in the ’60s thanks to Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and the end of the Production Code. Hitler has served as comic fodder/cautionary commentary for years, most recently in Taika Watiti’s “Jojo Rabbit”.

Further Viewing: “You Natzy Spy”, a 1939 Three Stooges short and the first major Hollywood production to openly mock Hitler, released nine months before “The Great Dictator”.

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