At some level, Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire of Hitler, The Great Dictator, fails in the mission, but this may be the greatest and most worthwhile failure in the history of Hollywood.
Chaplin presented this as a major artistic statement, and many connisseurs understandably consider it Chaplin’s best movie. For one thing, it was Chaplin’s first talking feature. Sound had been the standard in the industry for at least 10 years, and Chaplin was the last big holdout. Also, he spent at least two years working on it, and obviously worked off a fairly large budget.
There’s surely a lot to be said for the artistic outcome of the film. Chaplin’s at the top of his game, and totally committed to his vision. He was on a mission to warn his audience of the Nazis, whose atrocities were only peaking and not yet widely known throughout the world when he put this movie out. Indeed, it’s hard telling just what Chaplin himself knew while making this film.
Perhaps the one best and most famous scene ever in a Chaplin film comes from here. It consists of dictator Adenoid Hynkel making love through dance to a beach ball painted up to be a globe. His Hynkel dance made a pretty striking poetic expression of a disturbingly erotic desire for brutal world domination. This may be the best five minutes or so Chaplin ever spent in front of a camera.
He also got a particularly effective satire of authoritarian mindsets with Benzino Napaloni (dictator of Bacteria) and Hynkel madly cranking up barber chairs, attempting to gain psychological advantage through height. [It's widely noted that these two most famous scenes from Chaplin's first talkie are silent.]
Jack Oakie’s Napaloni created an especially strong presence throughout all his scenes. I’ll take his diplomatic buffet scene with Hynkel head to head even with the famous Dr Strangelove scene.
Indeed, scene by scene this movie mostly works very well. There are numerous side characters with their own stories and concerns, like a real movie rather than merely a comedy sketch.
Still, Chaplin fails his ultimate mission. In no way does this film begin to get at the true ultimate monstrosity of the Third Reich. Chaplin tried very hard to express it, but his comic toolbox just didn’t have the colors and parts to do the job. Chaplin does some of his patented classical physical comedy, some of his very best. No form of a pratfall, though, could ever begin to express the horrendous things actually happening.
It’s not like he wasn’t trying. Indeed, some people objected at the time to the scenes of abuse in the Jewish ghetto, but they really were laughably tame compared to reality. There was some talk in the film of concentration camps and Jewish dissidents disappearing, but we never saw any of that. I remember only one Jew specifically actually being killed.
Charlie Chaplin was perhaps too decent a human being for the task at hand. It could be that he didn’t begin to know how bad it really was in Germany as he was making the movie, but even if he did, what could Chaplin do with it? Was he going to depict piles of bodies being dumped into mass graves?
Again, Chaplin was not goofing. He was manifestly serious in making his dictator an object of fear and loathing. There’s no moment whatsoever where he or his men are presented in even a vaguely sympathetic manner.
Perhaps Chaplin just wasn’t up to the particular challenge of depicting real evil. His gentle satire couldn’t begin to depict the Third Reich. The names of his dictators were silly, which might be amusing, but that’s all. Hynkel was “the phooey” of Tomania rather than the fuhrer. He had a “Garbitsch” instead of a Goering. Really, you’d have to have a horror movie to begin to do the job, and Chaplin just didn’t have that in him.
But he sure made a noble try of it. You can see him again and again pushing against the edges of his abilities. You have to really admire the depth and effort of his ambitions here, even if he’s not entirely successful in bringing them to fruition.
Also, this film represents the last incarnation of his famous Tramp character, embodied this time as the unnamed Jewish barber. The last scene of the movie makes a big swansong. The Jewish barber has been mistaken for the phooey, and put at a microphone to address his people. Turning directly away from the Double Cross script, he delivers a heartfelt six minute sermon on brotherhood.
Some consider this direct dramatic plea for democratic values out of place in the comedy, but it expresses more directly and eloquently Chaplin’s position than any other words in the film. Lesser men have been elected president based on speeches that didn’t sound this good. Indeed, J Edgar Hoover apparently took this speech as evidence that Chaplin was a communist.
Like I said, this may be the greatest failure in movie history. It may even, in fact, be Chaplin’s best work.