Great Dictator, The (1940)
Release Date: October 15th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Grace Hayle, Carter De Haven, Maurice Moscovich, Emma Dunn
et in a period between two World Wars, April of 1918, a revolution is afoot in Tomainia, a country at civil unrest, despite the military division on the front lines remaining confident that its war machine is invincible. Part of this assurance comes from an enormous new cannon that is being tested, certain to give the Tomainian army the upper hand. Unfortunately, one of the most inept of soldiers (Charles Chaplin) is tasked with operations; he’s a mustached little man who hobbles about like the iconic tramp of Chaplin’s earlier works. Helmeted and armed with a hand grenade, he manages to wander into dangerous territory to march alongside enemy troops before rushing back through the gunpowder fog to save a comrade and fly his plane to safety. But when the war comes to a halt, with an armistice arranged, the Jewish ex-barber and patron of battle stays several years in a hospital, suffering from amnesia.
During the following economic depression, the ruthless dictator Hynkel (also Chaplin, and intentionally identical in appearance) rises to power, shouting to crowds of enthusiastic supporters (in a marvelously satirical spoof of Adolf Hitler and the German language, punctuated with coughs and guttural nonsense), among them his overweight Field Marshal Herring (Billy Gilbert), the Minister of War, and Herr Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), the Secretary of the Interior. Liberty is banished, free speech suppressed, and the Jewish population targeted for persecution. As conditions worsen in the Jewish ghetto, the barber reopens his shop and meets Hannah (Paulette Goddard), a compatibly poor, air-headed young woman, full of life and hope, even as stormtroopers invade their quarters.
Perhaps even more caustically effective in ridicule due to the serious, familiar WWII setting, “The Great Dictator” manages poignancy, adventure, romance, heartbreak, purpose, pathos, and elevated comedy – along with, of course, slapstick comedy. Chaplin speaks with a high-pitched, bewildered, diminutive voice, matching the vagabond look he perfected, paralleling the booming, commanding appearance of his Hitler parody, while supporting roles offer similarly complementary hilarity. Poetic dialogue from outrageously daffy pilot Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) and Chaplin regular Paulette Goddard, with her Jean Arthur-like, marginally shrill vocalization, add to the uniqueness of his first official talkie – though his mastering of silent filmmaking would have made for a welcome dialogue-feel production, even in 1940. It’s actually a touch odd to hear spoken words from this cast.
But the hallmarks of his style are still present. Gazing into the camera, oodles of slapstick (navigating a plane upside down, tumbling down stairs, acrobatic roughhousing, and dexterous dancing due to whacks on the head), his signature garb, character confusion, a food fight, and a witty shave timed to Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 all make an appearance. There are also new schemes for wartime hilarity, including nutty inventions for combat efficiency, the famous tossing of a balloon-like globe (then symbolic and now iconic), the Field Marshal’s medal-overloaded uniform, and funny monikers such as the rival dictator of Bacteria, Napaloni (Jack Oakie), and the base at Pretzelberg.
While the first half sets up the tone of humor, the second half succumbs to the heavier themes of survival, martyrdom, invasion, and affliction – with talks of concentration camps, imprisonment, and execution. The pacing and emotions also stall due to an unusually lengthy runtime. More than the expected assemblage of skits with recurring characters, “The Great Dictator” attempts to tell a grander, straightforward story, but utilizes too many subplots in the process. By the time the inevitable switch is made between Hynkel and the barber, it’s not a major point, but rather a momentary joke and an avenue for Chaplin’s powerful speech about war. While the film is something of a last hurrah to his prolific career (he would only direct four other features over the course of the next 27 years) and undoubtedly important (though Chaplin himself would later admit that he should not have expressed such levity with characters and events that would, unpredictably, descend into such horrors), the simpler, more lighthearted efforts of his past remain far more enduring, pleasant, and hilarious.
– Mike Massie