It is a strange twist of fate that one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled men of the 20th century both sported the same iconic, if unflattering, bit of lip hardware. Charlie Chaplin donned the toothbrush mustache as essentially clown makeup, providing his Little Tramp character a trait every bit as essential as his derby and cane. Adolf Hitler certainly had an iconic appearance of his own, but chances are he didn’t find his stache to be particularly amusing. Chaplin, however, felt otherwise about the German Fuhrer, having apparently been inspired to parody Hitler after finding the overblown Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator (1940) in September 1939, just as World War II kicked off, but it should be noted that this was an American film and the United States was still more than two years away from entering the war. In this regard, Chaplin was flying directly in the face of American isolationist sentiment and taking head on the Fascist forces and growing antisemitism of Europe. And in doing so he demonstrates one of the true powers of comedy: the mighty don’t necessarily mind being feared or hated, but to be made ridiculous… that hits where it hurts. (124 min.)
J. – The Great Dictator is the last of four Charlie Chaplin films on the Sight & Sound Top 250 list, and I almost hate to say it, but I’m really rather glad to put the comedian behind us. I’m sure we’ll discuss our overall impressions on the Chaplin films below, so I suppose I’ll just leave that thought hanging out there for now.
The Great Dictator was a real mixed bag for me. It certainly has some inspired moments, but there are more than a few segments that just don’t work or just beat a joke to death. And perhaps the most egregious of these segments is the opening 10 minutes of the film, in which Chaplin plays a spectacularly incompetent artillery soldier from Tomainia, the fictional stand-in for Germany, during World War I. The opening gags and setups are not only almost entirely laugh-free but shockingly amateurish in approach and delivery. This was Chaplin’s first foray into all sound film-making and perhaps that accounts for the problems with these opening bits, but it comes as something of a shock after the assured direction of Modern Times. The movie finally picks up some steam when Chaplin’s soldier comes to the assistance of a wounded and woozy officer named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). The scene where the two men find themselves upside down in their fighter plane without realizing it is a solid bit of comedy, and Chaplin wisely inverts the image to allow for some great gags like upward flowing water and an unruly pocketwatch. But it’s still a shaky start and is indicative of the variable quality on display throughout the course of the movie.
S. – I found the first sequence quite disorienting, it didn’t really fit with the rest of the film in tone nor the way it was shot. After watching the whole movie it seems even more jarring, as though it had been tacked on as a last minute decision. Thankfully the quality soon picked up, and I agree with you, J., that the flight sequence was the first really entertaining part of the film. Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler in the guise of Adenoid Hynkel is brutal, he systematically strips the dictator of any dignity. We are presented with a boorish, strange, insecure blowhard obsessed with world domination. His closest companions don’t fare too well in Chaplin’s vision either. Considering the time this movie was produced in, it really was a gutsy move, or perhaps the fact it could be made at all is testament of the United States seemingly wilful ignorance about the magnitude of the horrors unfolding in Europe. One of my favorite recurring gags in The Great Dictator is Hynkel’s half-hearted return salutes as he is continually greeted with a vigorous “Heil Hynkel” whenever someone enters the room. His exasperation is a small thing, but worked for me much more so than some of the more elaborate parody sequences.
J. – I definitely think it was a bold choice of Chaplin to take on Hitler in this way, even if in hindsight Hitler seems like an obvious target. Chaplin had crafted and used his lovable scamp character for over 20 years by this point, and he risked creating a direct association between himself and one of the world’s greatest monsters. And this was probably a terribly uncommercial venture, as it ran against American sentiment of the day and it is uncertain that even those who hated Hitler would want to go watch a comedy about the man (think of the generally poor box office for Iraq/Afghanistan War films during the last decade). Worse yet, the film could inadvertently lionize the target of its abuse and condemnation.
But as you said, S., that is definitely not the case here, as Adenoid Hynkel is made to be a raving, insecure buffoon. I particularly liked our introduction to the character as he makes a radio address in Chaplin’s spastic faux-German. Chaplin does a very good job of mimicking Hitler’s own speechifying style, only using little touches to highlight how stupendously ridiculous the Fuhrer’s demagoguery really was. Perhaps my favorite joke in the whole movie was Tomania’s official English translation of Hynkel’s speech, which showed just how willing all too much of the world was to not listen to the horrible details of Hitler’s policies and plans. But this great opening scene unfortunately opened up a vein of comedy that the film really should have stopped mining: the fake German. Hynkel frequently busts out in paroxysms of “mitten da sauerkrauten” and the like when he gets angry, a gag that basically ceased to be funny after the opening speech but which was repeated ad nauseum throughout the film. I think part of the problem was Chaplin’s reliance on silent movie comedy — I’m guessing he just felt more comfortable speaking gibberish and letting his body and face sell the performance rather than his words. Despite being an all talking film, The Great Dictator generally traffics very heavily in the humor of the silent era, which I think is frequently to its detriment.
S. – Having a speaking character doesn’t really mesh well with Chaplin’s comedy, particularly in his role as a local barber who returns to his Jewish neighbourhood following an extended stay in a sanatorium recovering from his war experience that opened the film. The barber is more like the tramp of old in his mannerisms, but somehow in the world of sound Chaplin’s presence is diminished. There are some wonderful moments of physical comedy on display, particularly where the barber goes about his trade in a daze, seemingly oblivious of the customer in the chair or during his manic and defiant battles with the patrolling stormtroopers. But when dialogue is required Chaplin is frequently overshadowed by the other actors in the scene. He seems smaller somehow. In particular Paulette Goddard, as love interest Hannah, dominates any scene that she shares with the barber, sometimes almost seeming to be speaking for him as though he was not able to express himself. Perhaps intending to counter-balance this dynamic, the physical comedy routines are allowed to run longer than they should, which has the unfortunate effect of carrying on with the joke long after the humour has evaporated.
J. – Yeah, I definitely found the elements with the barber to be the weaker side of things. I liked that Chaplin played both the role of the put upon man and the brutal dictator, but I agree that he tends to fade into the background during very talky scenes. I feel like Chaplin acknowledged that himself by having the barber lose his ability to create new memories after the War — he was basically trapped in 1918, the time at which Chaplin himself was perhaps at the height of his fame. And so it is the physical comedy routines that come to the fore in the barber sequences, and they often are quite funny — particularly the shaving of the customer in time with the classical music, which is a complete gas. But everything still feels bogged down and slow, and I’m sure a big part of that is the subject matter. It’s great that Chaplin was sympathetically portraying a Jewish character and that he was taking on the stormtroopers, but the light-hearted slapstick that is his forte just clashes, often badly, with the seriousness of the situation, deflating both the comedy and the drama. I mean, the barber comes within a hair’s breadth of being lynched, but that scene begins and ends with slapstick.
The Hynkel side of proceedings is handled much better, and Chaplin’s imperiousness and impatience create a more interesting and more involved character. But even so, I felt like Chaplin served as the role of a reactor in both of his parts, which is great in silent comedy but pushes his characters out of prominence in a talkie. Hynkel may be a domineering lout, but the best lines and the forward movement of the plot is typically left to his underlings Garbitsch (Henry Daniell, basically playing Joseph Goebbels) and Herring (Billy Gilbert, as a stand-in Hermann Göring). Gilbert — who has a small but excellent role in His Girl Friday (wait till he tell’s his wife about it!) — in particular tends to be much funnier than Chaplin. But Chaplin really cedes the film to Jack Oakie, whose Mussolini-esque meathead Benzino Napaloni is far and away the best part of the movie.
S. – Oakie steals the show as Napaloni with Chaplin mostly relegated to his straight man when they share the screen. Without doubt the Hynkel-Napaloni scenes got the biggest laughs from me, the food fight being the standout sequence, such creative use of spaghetti! I have a lot of respect for Chaplin as a director for allowing the comedic performances of the supporting cast to shine, but his famous persona does seem largely out of place here. I think you make a good point, J., that broad slapstick tomfoolery doesn’t quite gel with the subject matter. As this film was made before the full extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazi party came to light, this was clearly not intentional and Chaplin’s impassioned plea at the close leaves no doubt that he was deeply moved by the unfolding war. To me the combination of boisterous satire topped off with a solemn plea to humanity is a strange and rather uncomfortable one. What did you make of it, J.?
J. – In some regards I think that Chaplin’s speech at the end is the finest moment of the film. It is a grossly self-indulgent move by the film-maker, essentially creating a two hour prologue to a pontification session. But Chaplin’s speech is clearly coming straight from the heart and really does speak to man’s better — no, make that best — angels. And in the climate of the day that talk was a direct rallying cry to the forces already combating the Fascists and a call to arms for a dithering United States that was all too content to stay on the sidelines while the world destroyed itself.
But I still have serious reservations about the entire premise of the film. Like Modern Times, I felt like The Great Dictator was too scattershot and lacked a larger sense of purpose and perspective. Sure, Chaplin’s speech at the end may explicitly state his beliefs and concerns, but his movie doesn’t live up to the idealism of that speech in at least one important way. The Adenoid Hynkel character is successfully portrayed as a petty, violent, manipulative megalomaniac with delusions of global domination (shown best through the justifiably famous ballet with the globe), which is an excellent way to use parody against a dire enemy. But Hynkel and the Tomainian military are also portrayed as grossly incompetent. This might be good for wringing out a few laughs, but it makes it harder to view them as a credible threat if you make them into buffoonish clods. The episodic nature of the film and this lack of consistency in its satire do weaken the impact of the film, and have the unfortunate effect of making the more serious moments sound preachy rather than inspired and artificial rather than organically linked to the plot. The best thing I can say about this film is that it paved the way for more successful comedic assaults on Hitler and the Nazis, such as the excellent wartime Looney Tunes and Mel Brooks’ hilarious The Producers (1968).
I’ve had some serious misgivings about most of the Chaplin films we have seen (City Lights being the exception), and while I found much to admire in all of them, I’ve generally been left unsatisfied. I’m glad we watched these four films together, but I’m not sad to be moving on.
S. – I wonder if feature length movies are really the best forum for Chaplin’s comedy. With the exception of City Lights, the other films suffer as a whole from their episodic nature and while they all contain some truly amazing sequences there is a lack of cohesion that prevents me from being drawn completely in. For me, The Great Dictator is the most erratic of those on the list and I felt very aware that I was watching a sequence of set pieces as opposed to a fully realised story. Without doubt there is much to admire about the comedic talent of Chaplin, and having four films on the Sight & Sound list is testament to his influence, but his movies have not made a lasting impression on me.