The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)

Clearly “The Great Dictator” isn’t your ordinary Chaplin for a number of reasons, namely that it’s, you know, his first full talky.  Could the enduring image of Charlie Chaplin and the last vestiges of his Tramp exist in the frightening world of sound when he proved to be that quirky god among men in a world of perpetual silence for decades beforehand?  

Eh, sort of.

It was pretty inevitable to compare “The Great Dictator” to Chaplin’s earlier films, namely from a “silent vs. sound” standpoint.  And for that reason this movie felt awfully weird to me.  It felt weird because Chaplin wasn’t playing the Tramp (other than a few scant scenes where his Jewish Barber dons the iconic small suit, cane and hat).  It felt weird because, obviously, a Chaplin movie was bombarded with dialogue and sound effects for the first time.  And it felt weird because this was by far the most politically-motivated film of Chaplin’s that I’ve seen.  I easily applaud Chaplin for trying something different (not even the Tramp, perhaps the greatest enduring character in all of cinema, could last that long into the era of sound 😕 ) and something that was so obviously important to him (opening the world’s eyes to the atrocities being committed by Adolph Hitler’s regime).  But, what results is a comedy with a message that’s often wildly entertaining but even more often wildly uneven.

As different as “The Great Dictator” was from vintage Chaplin, elements of it felt incredibly familiar, and for that I couldn’t help but feel relieved.  There’s the beginning of the film on the battlefield, where Chaplin’s Jewish Barber tries and fails to operate war machines both gargantuan and ludicrous.  This was “Modern Times” all over again, and it felt right at home in a Chaplin movie.  Other sight gags abound that you’d expect a Chaplin film to pull off with ease, and “The Great Dictator” does just that.  There’s the Barber and the injured pilot flying the plane upside-down (with the camera rightside-up), or dictators Hynkel (Chaplin) and Napaloni (Jack Oakie) having their tongue-tied food fight, or the Barber and friends eating their cakes, carefully trying to avoid a possible concealed coin that will signal one’s martyrdom.  It’s Chaplin-esque slapstick humor at its almost-finest.  Almost, because something just seems off once Chaplin enteres the unknown territory known as sound.  

In his silent films of old, comedic set pieces could go on and on seemingly forever and lose none of their comedic potency because Chaplin was such a physical artist, delivering laughs and striking emotional nerves using image rather than words, and physical and facial mannerisms rather than dialogue.  It was the human emotional experience in its purest form…just one of the reasons why the ending of “City Lights” is perhaps the most tear-inducing ever.  Now, though, “The Great Dictator’s” combination of classic Chaplin-esque slapstick and traditional dialogue-driven narrative just don’t seem to mesh well.  Now filled with sound, comedic set pieces that would feel perfect in a silent film simply go on too long.  Chaplin’s opening speech, in gibberish German, as Tomania dictator Adenoid Hynkel is delightfully over-the-top, takes full advantage of Chaplin’s still-sharp physical talent as a comedian/imitator (looks and sounds like Hitler)…and goes on at least 5 minutes too long.  That famous sequence where Hynkel ballet dances with the baloon-globe in his gargantuan office is cute..but goes on at least 5 minutes too long.  I’d have to say that other scenes, like the plane ride and the Barber’s run-in with stormtroopers and a frying pan-wielding Paulette Godard, “work,” but barely.  Throughout “The Great Dictator” the use of sound is full, but strange, and never more strange than in scenes of physical comedy like these.  You just get the feeling that Chaplin was out of his league when it came to sound, and indeed sounds ranging from a plane engine to a frying pan hitting Chaplin’s and stormtroopers’ heads and Chaplin’s cautious and unassuming voice feel added on or even superfluous, as if a different track entirely from the movie itself.  They’re very fun to watch, and visually on par with anything Chaplin ever did, but with the odd sound effect here and there, things get awfully awkward.  It’s more of the same stuff that made Chaplin so successful as an entertainer, but when it’s surrounded by sound and a traditional movie narrative, it’s exposed.  It’s a strange day indeed when the best elements of Chaplin’s talent as a filmmaker feel awkward, or dare I say inappropriate in a film made by Chaplin himself 😕 .

I realize it’s unfair of me to criticize “The Great Dictator” by comparing it to earlier Chaplins, but hell, I can’t help it.  Could you?  In the Tramp, Chaplin created the greatest comedic film character of all-time, and in the end that was both a blessing and a curse.  You just know that any attempt to deviate from that one formula and character that he perfected over decades would run him into trouble.  “The Great Dictator’s” often been hailed as a masterpiece, though, so I’m probably dead wrong, but the way I saw it, it was just a bit off-kilter.  I guess I was just greedy and wanted to hold on to the eternal illusion of the Tramp, always on the fringes of society, always showing more life and vitality than that life he unwillingly spurned.  And in those silent films, that world the Tramp spurned was exaggerated, and wonderfully so.  Here, though, Germany’s stand-in Tomania is certainly exaggerated (especially in the ridiculously cavernous palace of Hynkel, who’s storyline I enjoyed MUCH more than the Barber’s), but somehow sound decreases that illusion a bit.  Paulette Goddard, so wonderful and inspiring as the gamin in “Modern Times,” here was shrill and irritating to me once she found a voice.  The story of the Barber and his fellow ghetto residents doing what they must to survive amidst the cruelty of the stormtroopers, as awful as it sounds, bored me.  The dialogue bored me, the delivery by the actor seemed awfully mumbly, and half the time I was just asking myself when the next patented Chaplin bit was gonna come.  But, of course you gotta consider much of those story elements to simply be placeholders for Chaplin’s antics, the main attraction, so for that I give it a pass.  Also, other than the globe dance, you really don’t see that utmost physical prowess that you’d associate with the incredibly athletic Chaplin in his heyday.  But in a movie about Nazis of all things such jolliness wouldn’t really be appropriate, would it?  And I guess Chaplin was starting to get old 😛 .  So again I give it a pass.  I suppose Chaplin just had the misfortune of finding himself within the transition from one distinct era of cinema into another, and he had to scramble to adapt.

If Chaplin making the transition to sound isn’t tragic, then, then surely the abandonment of the iconic Tramp must be, right?  Actually, didn’t bother me, it turns out.  I thought his Barber was a nice quasi-substitute…just as clumsy, just as clueless, and in the end, just as noble, especially in regards to Hannah (Goddard) and his fellow Jews.  But the real selling point for me was Chaplin’s other role, as that slimy dictator Adenoid Hynkel.  Who knew a stand-in for Hitler could be so funny and so endearing?  And more shockingly, who the hell knew that Chaplin could have such acting range and natural talent when it came to – *gasp* – vocal delivery?  One minute Hynkel is a monstrous yet diminutive tyrant spewing semi-German nonsense to the masses a la Hitler, the next he’s calm and collected and speaking English, only to delve back into that showy German when competing with Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, whether by subtly raising his barber chair or going for an all-out food fight.  He’s a bipolar little imp of a man with a Napoleonic complex, and everything about Chaplin’s performance of Hynkel is wildly unpredictable and absolutely wonderful.  And consider the cinematography of Hynkel’s palace/lair…that deep focus camera that makes his office seem so cavernous and imposing at the same time.  It says more about the disgustingly lavish lifestyle of Hynkel (and indeed Hitler), and the contradictions that define the dictator’s life and values, than any of the melodramatic dialogue that peppers the Barber’s half of the story.  In a movie full of ironies, perhaps the biggest irony of all is that its best character and story element by far is the one by Chaplin that’s completely different from the one he relied on so heavily for decades.  Go figure.

If Chaplin wanted to make an effective transition into sound long after his filmmaking compatriots, he sure as hell didn’t make it easy for himself making his first talky a send-up of Hitler and Naziism.  He did say that if he had knowledge then of the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities, he would never have made “The Great Dictator,” and certainly that makes sense.  “The Great Dictator” hints at the rise of Naziism’s evils, as we see “JEW” painted on the storefronts in the ghetto, or talk of being sent to concentration camps, and to say that putting all that in conjunction with elements of vintage Chaplin is awkward is an understatement.  But I have to say, though, that despite any unevenness that carries over from Chaplin’s transition into color, he makes a hell of a political commentary.  Somehow his endearing presence that had warmed so many hearts before adds a certain poignancy to a very serious situation at the time, and even served as a wake-up call disguised as a slapstick comedy.

But if all that was a wake-up call, then the Barber’s final speech might as well be a fucking foghorn.  Good lord, what an awful decision that was on Chaplin’s part.  Just from a logical standpoint, would you expect a lowly barber, thrust into the situation of being mistaken for a dictator, to be able to think up a 3+ minute monologue on the importance of freedom and democracy and the evils of prejudice like he does?  Breaking out a speech you’d expect the President’s Press Secretary to write is the last thing you’d expect a Chaplin Tramp-esque character to do, and at this point any final, fragile bond “The Great Dictator” held with Chaplin’s great movies of old suddenly shatters.  What was a subtle allegory on world events becomes a painfully obvious lecture.  It comes at us from left field, and from a standpoint of both a Chaplin movie and a subtle message movie, it was woefully out of place.  It’s a shame, really, that Chaplin felt the need to bring his politics to his art so glaringly.  I mean, “City Lights” to me is a flawless film: flawless because it deals simply and directly with the human condition and the importance of being altruistic, in a way that was both funny and heartbreaking, using pure and undiluted images.  Even when Chaplin started to get political in “Modern Times” with his semi-Marxist message concerning the dehumanization of the working class, that film was wonderful in at least establishing an incredibly innocent and lovely relationship between the Tramp and the gamin.  Now, though, within the realm of full sound and words, I guess Chaplin saw an opportunity to make his worldview as clear as possible.  Should’ve stuck with what gave him success before 😦 .

When you look at “The Great Dictator” in the mirror that is Chaplin’s career, of course it’ll be one of his more uneven films.  He was, after all, the last holdout in cinema’s sound transition.  But just taken on its own, I can’t dispute that it has to be one of the better comedies of the 1940s.  Sure it’s uneven, but it’s also bold in dealing with such a touchy subject manner in such a carefree way (you almost feel guilty, completely buying into Adenoid Hynkel as a great comedic character), so for that, even its faults are fascinating.  Most importantly, though, despite its unevenness, it’s still a Chaplin film through-and-through, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why.  Turns out Chaplin, the great and utterly unique  maverick of cinema, didn’t lose his ability to entertain.  Like the Barber after his little plane crashes, he just had to wade through the muck known as sound and narrative to do it.


1 comment so far

  1. […] critic and basic film lover who’s ever lived, even by me in my reviews of Modern Times and The Great Dictator.  Rest assured, though, young Chaplin here is indeed vintage Chaplin and vintage Tramp, so if […]

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