Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

May 20, 2012

For some reason, when I looked for my review in the usual places, I couldn’t find it. So here it is:

The Great Dictator (1940)
Grade: 90
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Jack Oakie
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Rating: Not rated (TV: PG)
Running time: 125 minutes

In 1937, Alexander Korda, the Hungarian director who had immigrated to Hollywood during the 1920s and relocated to London in the 1930s, approached the great silent comedian Charlie Chaplin with an idea for a mistaken identity comedy. Korda suggested Chaplin make a film exploiting the “coincidental resemblance” of his famous little tramp character to a certain mustachioed German dictator.

“I could play both characters, [Korda] said,” Chaplin wrote. “I did not think too much about the idea then, but now it was topical, and I was desperate to get working again. Then it suddenly struck me. Of course! As Hitler I could harangue the crowds in jargon and talk all I wanted to. And as the tramp I could remain more or less silent.”

And so, in 1938, Chaplin set out to make a movie called The Great Dictator. In it he portrayed the dual roles of Adenoid Hynkel, the buffoonish dictator of Tomania (originally called Ptomania, to make the allusion unmistakable) and an amnesiac Jewish barber who comes home from the trenches of the Great War to discover that storm troopers have converted his old neighborhood into a Jewish ghetto.

Though the film was made more than a decade after the advent of talkies, it was Chaplin’s first sound picture. Because it is a habit of the modern mind to hold the early icon-minting work of Chaplin in such high esteem (even if we haven’t seen The Gold Rush, City Lights or The Kid, we’re conditioned to think of them as “classics”), The Great Dictator is often relegated to the second tier of the artist’s work. Dictator, along with Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, don’t fit the modern notion of what a Chaplin film is, so we think of them as aberrations, as the stuff he did after he did his great work.

This is a symptom of cultural snobbery — The Great Dictator is funny and accessible, and modern audiences are more likely to recognize it as a movie than a museum piece. It is a silly film, and there’s something about this silliness — Hynkel dancing with a balloon globe, the comedic ratcheting of barber chairs — that strikes the modern sensibility as overt and obvious. The Great Dictator lacks the exotic, grainy grace of the silent pictures; its focus is too deep, its subject too broad and “important.”

The Great Dictator is a film that requires more context than most, though even today schoolkids would recognize Chaplin’s satirical target. Hitler is the great bogeyman, the worst man ever, the very Elvis of Evil.

As a shorthand signifier of something very bad indeed, Hitler has become an icon that we can flash to indicate a transgressive presence. For example, in the short film Homeland Hoedown, I saw some years ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, animators Paul Beck and Jason Archer seated a puppet resembling George W. Bush on Hitler’s knee, then draped a mask of the current president’s father over der fuhrer’s face. You can watch the film here.

Did Beck and Archer meant to say the then-president is a pawn of Nazism, or that George Bush the Elder is/was tantamount to the murdering dictator? Certainly not — they merely mean to express their displeasure with these presidents and have reached for a conveniently provocative symbol with which they might bludgeon him.

While their little movie might cause certain members of their putative audience to flush angry, to rail against this kind of characterization, Beck and Archer can rely upon the traditional license afforded political cartoonists (they’re exaggerating to make a point and to entertain) and the remoteness of the actual Hitler to our present moment. Hitler is dead and gone and he can’t hurt us anymore; he’s the famous dead monster available to anyone to caricature and mock. To most of us, Hitler is just an idea, an abstraction of how really terrible a human being can be.

That’s why some people object when artists — book writers or filmmakers — attempt to portray him as a human being, a psychologically complex creature capable of the full range of human emotion. They argue it is dangerous to humanize Hitler, to see his crimes as regrettable foibles, to recast the monster as victim. And they probably have a point.

But in 1938 Hitler was not an abstraction. Hitler was real and a lot of Americans considered him a potential ally. In 1940, when The Great Dictator was released, there was plenty of evidence that Hitler was a dangerous kook, but he had yet to be apotheosized into a literal anti-Christ, a malignant prophet of hate. Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel was not a broad swipe at an easy target, it was a precise and prescient portrait of — as The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote — “the most dangerously evil man alive.”

In 1940 there were prominent Americans who openly admired Hitler. Even those who saw him as a bully failed to comprehend the totality of his menace. Some saw him as a buffoon who would be quickly deposed, others as comic relief (the Three Stooges’ 18-minute short You Natzy Spy, which satirized Hitler and Mussolini, predated The Great Dictator by nearly nine months).


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“Halfway through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists. They had been advised by the Hays Office that I would run into censorship trouble,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography.

So Chaplin decided to finance his movie himself.

“Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain,” he wrote. Hitler might have a libel case.

“But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at. Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis. However, I was determined to ridicule their mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race.”

The Nazis did what they could — they called Chaplin a “little Jewish acrobat, as disgusting as he is tedious,” whose real name was allegedly Thorstein.

It wasn’t true. Chaplin wasn’t Jewish, just an anti-anti-Semite. Which was rare enough in those days, even among the decent people.

Structurally, the film is simple. The barber returns from the war and finds his fatherland under the sign of the double cross. There are troopers in the streets and Jews are persecuted. Hynkel, the barber’s doppelganger, has seized absolute power. The barber has no choice but to flee to a neighboring country.

Once there, he is mistaken for Hynkel, who has just annexed the country. Pushed to the podium to deliver a conqueror’s speech, the barber — or, more to the point, Chaplin — instead makes a six-minute plea for tolerance:

“The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls — has barricaded the world with hate — has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. …

“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men — machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! Don’t hate! Only the unloved hate — the unloved and the unnatural!”

These days it is fashionable to rate Chaplin as the lesser comedic genius of the silent era; sophisticates prefer Buster Keaton and there are whispers that Chaplin may even have borrowed his Little Tramp character from his onetime roommate Stan Laurel. Chaplin’s personality has seeped into the debate — Keaton was a mensch, Chaplin was devious and temperamental, a money-grubber more concerned with commercial success than making art.

Whatever.

It is incumbent upon us to trust the art before the artist, especially at the remove of more than 70 years. Watch the movie, put it in a historical context, try to tease out what is unique and telling about it, why it makes us laugh or cry. You don’t know whether the guy who made it was a weakling or a stud, and in the long run it hardly matters.

The Great Dictator is a great movie because it works as a film, and because it is a document of courage and faith, the prime exhibit in Chaplin’s humanist brief. He might have been a nasty little martinet in his personal life, he might have been a self-absorbed jerk, but he had the vision to see what some would not, and the mettle to do what he could to confound evil. The Great Dictator is a comedy, the work of a clown, but it is no joke. Chaplin had lethal intent.


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