Charlie Chaplin took his time coming around to the world of talking pictures, not directing his first all-talkie until almost a decade-and-a-half after the era began. But with that film, 1940’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin sure had something to say. A direct attack on the person of Adolf Hitler made at a time when the United States was still firmly isolationist and a number of European countries were in appeasement mode, the film is bold, if a little clumsy, and in hindsight, more than a little problematic.
Chaplin himself declared he would’ve never made the film if he had known the true atrocities of the Holocaust being perpetrated when he made it. That puts him in a better position than Roberto Benigni, whose comic stylings of the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful come with no such caveat. Still, The Great Dictator treads some uncomfortable territory with its juxtaposition of slapstick and references to concentration camps and ghettos.
It’s also not a very effective satire. The film’s portrayal of Hitler stand-in Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, mostly relies on scenes of blustering speeches, given in a ridiculous faux-German dialect, peppered with “sauerkrauts” and “wienerschnitzels.” Is a snickering depiction of how silly German sounds really the most withering attack you can mount?
That’s not to say The Great Dictator is without value. Chaplin is adept at playing both the vain, preening Hynkel and the poor Jewish barber living in the ghetto who bears a strong resemblance to him. While the scenes don’t reach the emotional heights of Modern Times, the barber’s romance with Hannah (Chaplin’s wife Paulette Goddard) is still quite charming, and there are a number of sequences that are downright delightful.
It’s somewhat telling though that the film’s best set pieces — a dud shell from a cannon, an upside-down plane ride, Hynkel’s iconic globe dance, the one-upmanship antics between Hynkel and Mussolini cypher Napaloni (Jack Oakie) — would have been perfectly at home in a silent film, or are essentially silent here. Much of Chaplin’s artistry stands on its own without words. Of course, the element of sound makes possible the film’s famous ending — with Chaplin as barber decrying (though not explicitly) the values of Nazism. I’m of two minds about this approach, which lacks elegance, but is so clearly heartfelt, it almost makes up for it.