The Great Dictator


The Great DictatorDaniel: One of humanity’s strangest coping mechanisms is laughter, especially in regards to extreme darkness and evil. The world is absolutely full of vile, hate-filled actions, it permeates through the ranks of human history. Right alongside of it, however, has been a satirical companion that allows us to view the atrocities, not as less evil, but as an acknowledgment to their foolishness upon our race as a whole, as a coping mechanism that causes laughter in the midst of a dire situation. One of the darkest comedies ever produced was Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, in which he lampoons the Nazi regime while America was still at peace with Germany during World War II. Rather than sidestep any issues, Chaplin dives head first into the controversy, depicting the persecution of the Jewish people, the totalitarian government of the Nazi party and the arrogance and self absorption of Hitler. The humor clearly paints the dictator’s party as the villains while the Jewish people are depicted as the protagonist, particularly Chaplin’s barber character. The film addresses one of the darkest events of the 20th century, but it does so with pratfall gags and sight gags, causing the audience to laugh while they think about the political issues that Chaplin brings to the table.


Paul: We could talk all day about each of the interesting ways in which The Great Dictator is “historically important.” As you mention, there’s the Hitler satire, made before the U.S. even entered the war — a time of isolationism that Hollywood encouraged by almost never addressing Nazism. At the same time, this movie was groundbreaking because it was Chaplin’s first full talkie. He waited until 1940 to put the silent era behind him for good. Every other silent star had either adapted to the new rules or been forced to retire a decade earlier. Chaplin had the reputation and the financial means to be stubborn. Finally, though, he made the transition, and although he only made four more films after this one in the remaining thirty-seven years of his life, that transition was remarkably smooth. The Great Dictator is an enormous achievement, both politically and comedically. Chaplin was looking both backward and forward in time — back to his own silent comedies and his Little Tramp character, forward to the world-shattering war that was coming; back to political comedy such as the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup, with its absurdist skewering of the masters of war, and forward to Bugs Bunny and his hijinks in a barber shop. Looking even further ahead, if we consider Quentin Tarantino’s use of violence as just a bloodier sort of slapstick (which I think it usually is), then Inglourious Basterds is another homage to this film. That’s quite a pedestal it’s sitting on, but let’s try and push that aside for now. How did The Great Dictator work for you just as a comedy film?


Daniel: I watched this movie for the first time recently, and I’m always impressed when I watch older slapstick comedies at the level of intricate detail that goes into the physical jokes involved. Chaplin wasn’t just an actor, he was akin to a circus clown using his entire body as an instrument of comedy. I love that, although it’s his first full length “talkie” that he laces the movie with his signature silent sketches. You mentioned his barber shop scene, and that stood out to me as well. It’s absolutely hilarious the way his shaving technique mimics the sound of the music, years before Bugs does the same thing to Elmer Fudd. Strictly as a comedy, leaving all social aspects out of the film, I think the funniest bits are when Chaplin portrays the dictator Hynkel. His lengthy German speeches condensed to single words by interpreters, his self-indulgence being overshadowed by his incompetence had me laughing almost the entire time he was on screen. Perhaps the most iconic scene in the movie was, consequently, one of my favorites. When Hynkel dances with the globe, I thought it told us absolutely everything we needed to know about the character. Did you have any favorite parts, or segments that you thought worked particularly well?


Paul: It’s completely uncompromising. Chaplin doesn’t sacrifice any of his preferred methods; like the producer says in Singin’ in the Rain, he just adds talking to it. And some of the funniest parts are verbal. Of course, Hynkel’s gibberish speeches are great examples, but I’m also thinking of Chaplin as the barber in the opening scene with Schultz. It kills me every time when their plane starts going down and Schultz goes into his sentimental speech. Later, the two characters have a hilarious moment that’s both verbal and visual: they attempt a rooftop escape with the barber carrying most of Schultz’s insane amount of luggage, only to drop everything — one by one — off the side of the building, with Schultz whining about losing his stuff while the barber’s life is in danger. There are plenty of great Hynkel moments, too, like his periodically stopping in a room to model for a painter and sculptor, leaving seconds later. The globe scene and the barber shop scene (which occur one after the other in the film) are more impressive and beautiful to me than hilarious, but they are fantastic in the way they develop the characters and sneak some silence into a talking film. What did you think of the characters in the story, besides the two Chaplin played himself?


Daniel: Aside from Chaplin’s characters, I got more than a few chuckles at Jack Oakie’s character Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria. His comically atrocious Italian accent paired with his spars of superiority with Hynkel allow both actors to play off of each other, with Napaloni being the louder and more brash of the two. While the movie boasts a number of fantastic comedic segments, I was surprised by the weight of some of the scenes, particularly the scenes involving the ghetto. It wasn’t devoid of humor, by any stretch of the imagination, but in the midst of the jokes the actors managed to convey a particular weight and seriousness. Though it’s not unusual for Chaplin to strive for dramatic achievements alongside the pratfall jokes. This is of course underlined by the final speech given by the Jewish barber at the end of the film when he is mistaken for Hynkel. It’s an almost surrealistic mixture of serious themes and comedy that, rather than estranging the audience from the story, draws us in.


Paul: People often consider that closing speech to be a somewhat jarring moment in which Chaplin dumps the story for the sake of spelling out his message. That’s true, and there’s plenty of speech-making throughout the film, with characters looking directly into the camera. It’s as though Chaplin wanted to be sure the audience got the point, that we didn’t get lost in the silliness and forget the very real situation in Europe. Chaplin (the writer-director-producer-composer-star) had an ego on him, to be sure. After all, it’s easy to look back and call him a hero for thumbing his nose at Hitler when Der Fuehrer/Phooey was still in power, but it all comes down to the mustache. Chaplin wanted to rescue an important part of his image. Of course he had no idea what was actually happening in concentration camps, and he later came to regret that aspect of the film. Still, when the speech begins, it’s immediately clear that Chaplin is speaking from his heart, and everything else falls away. It’s surprisingly powerful.


Daniel: Chaplin’s arrogance and stubbornness proved to be of immeasurable value, particularly in the case of The Great Dictator. The fact that he was uncompromising in his vision led to one of the most popular comedic films of all time. Chaplin himself is legendary in the film industry. He was an engineer of laughter, and he shines in this movie. With a strong supporting cast and politically poignant scenario, The Great Dictator manages to win the hearts of viewers throughout the generations it has transcended. While the political aspect of the film serves more of a reminder than a stern admonition to the world. Regardless of how you feel about using “preachy” agendas in film, this is a movie that will undoubtedly make you laugh, and that’s something that has and will last as long as we have record of Chaplin’s career.


Paul: It’s a movie at the crossroads of history — Chaplin’s final screen appearance with the “Little Tramp” persona and first full-length talkie, a bold piece of anti-Nazi propaganda that can still rouse the audience against tyranny today. The more times I watch the movie, the more all that stuff stands out. The first time I saw it, I was just laughing and grinning for two hours. But knowledge of history really helps with the experience. It made a simple dialogue exchange, just before Chaplin’s closing speech, stand out to me on this viewing. Schultz, realizing the barber has been mistaken for the dictator, says, “You must speak.” The barber replies, “I can’t.” Schultz says, “You must. It’s our only hope.” And then the silent movie star spoke out against the most dangerous man in the world. That kind of moment is the reason we watch movies.


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2 Responses to “The Great Dictator”

  1. Looking at Dark Comedy with Charlie Chaplin and Four Lions » Popcorn and Peril Says:

    […] Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a film I had the pleasure of discussing earlier this month on another blog that I write for. The second is a lesser known British film entitled Four Lions. Both focus on extremely dark […]

  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark | Gaffer MacGuffin's Movie House Says:

    […] Two guys talking about movies « The Great Dictator […]

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