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The Great Dictator (1940) – Charlie Chaplin’s heroic failure

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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.

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  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    Very interesting take on this classic, AB. Enjoyed reading it.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Thanks, pal.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Damn, didn’t know you had it in you. Completely solid piece of writing. (And no snide asides in there either.)

    Loved it. Thank you.

    I didn’t realize the film was made in 1940. I thought it was post-WWII.

  • http://paskudnyak.blogspot.com The Proprietor

    It’s most interesting to compare “The Great Dictator” to the Three Stooges’ “You Nazty Spy” and “I’ll Never Heil Again”. “You Nazty Spy” actually came out before “Great Dictator”, and for my money is the far more effective satire. The Stooges’ slapstick seems to work far better than Chaplin’s morality play, even though Chaplin directly addressed the vehement anti-semitism issue. Moe’s characterization of “Hailstone” is an extension of his usual swaggering, dumb leader, however, there’s a palpable undertone of the fear and loathing the Stooges felt for the Nazis, especially given their heritage.

    Moe’s Hitler characterization would be resurrected later in “They Stooge To Conga” and “Back From The Front”, although merely as a disguise to fool the villains of the shorts. Interestingly, Moe never spoke the name Hitler in the shorts, using only Schicklgruber (the family name he was almost known by due to the poor record keeping in the family and the province). In one memorable gag, with Vernon Dent and the usual Stooges supporting cast “Heil”-ing away, Moe blandly responds, “Heil Myself”.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    excellent al. This is one of my favourtie chaplin flicks, just held off the top by Modern Times, and i have a particularly soft spot for A King In New York. Mind you, he did get a lot darker in the lesser-spotted Monsieur Verdoux.

    Perhaps the biggest failing in the film is that it’s twenty minutes too long. I wouldn’t cut a minute from that speech, though.

  • SFC SKI

    I have never seen this in its entirety, I will have to pick it up, thanks for the great review.

  • Chapliste

    Chaplin himself later said that had he known the atrocities of the Nazis, he wouldn’t have made the Great Dictator. So he wasn’t actually aware how far the Nazis went in their evils. But considering the threats Chaplin received from the rightist groups during the making of the film, we could but admire his courage and determination.

  • http://www.kalyr.com/weblog Tim Hall

    If I’ve remembered my WW2 history correctly, most of the worst Nazi atrocities hadn’t even happened by 1940, so Chaplin deserves some slack for underestimating the horrors.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Plus, he began making the movie as early as 1937, so even more so to that point. I certainly was not criticizing him for a failure of knowledge. Who could have even believed such things were possible?

  • mac

    “Lesser men have been elected president based on speeches that didn’t sound this good”

    Best line of all!