Brandon's Review of The Great Dictator
The Great Dictator(1940)
I find The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's debut talkie, a hard movie to reconcile I don't like to say some things are too dark to be funny in fact I really enjoy Life is Beautiful another comedy set in the Holocaust but it has to be a very specific kind of comedy to be funny with this kind of subject matter. In all fairness to Chaplin what would otherwise be his magnum opus a witty slapstick smack down of Adolf Hitler was released in 1940 a few years before the US even entered WWII and before the full details of Nazi Atrocities were known. Chaplin who was a noted anti-talkie director set out to make a statement against Hitler portraying him as a bumbling fool while also attempting to portray the severity of life in the Jewish Ghetto and the project became so dense and so complex he had no choice but to use sound to convey the message. The film was received skeptically by some at the time while others were just as ready to hail it as a modern masterpiece truly validating Hollywood films as an art form able to make sweeping social statements but I think in the passing years the idolization of Chaplin and the subsequent discovery of just how absolutely wrong and terrible Nazism had sadly put this movie in a realm beyond serious discussion for many. How do I think it holds up? Let's take a look that could win if it would ban together to fight back.
The film's protagonist is Omler (Charlie Chaplin) a variation of his Little Tramp character as a Jewish Barber who is put in a coma following an airplane crash in WWI. He awakes to find himself in his home country of Tomania which is now ruled by ruthless dictator "Fuey" Adenoid Hynkel (also Charlie Chaplin) who has set about ghettoizing and persecuting Jewish Tomanians. Luckily he is able to survive brutal bullying from Hynkel's storm troopers by a beautiful local Jewish girl named Hannah (Paulette Goddard) who takes an interest in him and takes him in with her benefactor. Things heat up as Hynkel grows increasingly ruthless and eventually Omler must try to escape with Hannah and the help of Storm Trooper Officer Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) a higher up in Hynkel's army who owes his life to Omler from the war. The film also follows the antics of Hynkel with his glib and brutal Minister of Propaganda Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and his bumbling Minister of War Herring (Billy Gilbert) as they try to broker a peace deal with the bombastic Dictator of nearby Bacteria Benzino Napolini (Jack Oakie).
Let me just say there are a LOT of things I like about this movie that honestly more than make up for its faults many of which are not really its fault. First of all the movie is obviously to be commended for taking a strong Nazi stance when many in America were still antsy on the subject soundly trouncing Hitler and his regime while attempting to amidst the comedy shed some light on the atrocities being committed like in the Concentration Camp and Ghetto Burning scene and its powerful closing speech. Omler's speech as Hynkel at the end is one of the most powerful and charged closing scenes I've ever seen a heart warming speech about perseverance and doing what it is right over what is easy that still comforts and hangs true today and is to me the single greatest thing Chaplin ever did. Chaplin also makes the transition into talkies seemlessly while a lot of the laughs still rely on physical comedy there are surprisingly some witty verbal gags in here as well and he delivers his lines particularly as Hynkel in a bastardized and fucking hilarious German with real comedic timing and force. And since it's Chaplin the physical gags are HILARIOUS so many of these set pieces still work so well today and whether intended to be black or not often times just the darkness of the comedy of seeing basically the Little Tramp smack around Nazi Storm Troopers who are trying to paint Jew on his window is unsettling humorous. But this is where to me a lot of the problems in the movie come in, given the eventual fate of so many European Jews which Chaplin I'm sure didn't know about at this time the at times light hearted farce here is a little uncomfortable, and it's portrayal of Hitler as a silly bumbling little man is I think a little offensive to the memory of the numerous people he had killed. The Holocaust is one of the greatest tragedies of all time and while its cool this movie recognizes the severity of the persecution of Jews even before they were butchered the horrifying extremes to which the real event went renders some of these scenes with a bit of a morose aftertaste.
Really even the at times uncomfortableness of the movie make it all the more fascinating as this is an effective time capsule of the day this movie was made while the actual Holocaust was happening and as such its view and portrayal of it is part of what makes it both a work of art and a document. All in all though I see why this movie might be controversial but I really do view as a bit of an unfortunate masterpiece. Chaplin emerged into the sound era fully charged and with all his wit and comedic sensibilities intact as well as his skill as a director. A scene where Hynkel essentially enacts the Final solution causing the Jews in the Ghetto to flee back to their homes which they do in tune to some swelling horrifying music is an effective shot many directors couldn't pull off today and shows why he was not just one of Hollywood's most legendary figures but a directing visionary as well. All in all The Great Dictator is well worth watching and in fact I feel should be viewed by all at some point.