Charles Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (1940)
It’s over-long and the slapstick comedy is laid on very thickly but film legend Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” is daring political satire for its period, especially when one considers that at the time as now Hollywood generally shied away from taking a stand for ordinary people against those who would oppress them. Chaplin takes pot shots at war film propaganda, dictatorships (and Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in particular), revolutionaries and political authority in turns, and is clearly on the side of ordinary people against those who would oppress them. The actor / director / screenwriter plays two roles in the film reflecting the divide between repressive authority and humble worker bee.
An everyday man, unnamed but conventionally known as the Jewish barber (Chaplin), recovers from a 20-year amnesia brought on by injuries incurred during his time as a soldier with the Tomanian army in the Great War (1914 – 1918). While he has been in hospital, Tomania has suffered economic and political instability resulting in a putsch that brings Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) to power. The barber tries to return to his former job in the Jewish ghetto he calls home but the community is under constant harassment from storm-troopers. With the help of local girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber evades the storm-troopers and re-establishes his business but due to the past amnesia, he’s not easily intimidated by the security forces and he keeps getting into trouble with them. At one point in the film, he falls in with a bunch of revolutionaries planning to get rid of Hynkel but their plot to assassinate the leader fails before it even has a chance to go into action.
Running parallel with the story of the barber is a sub-plot centred around Hynkel in which he luxuriates in megalomania, plotting to take over the world and having to entertain the equally insufferable Mussolini figure Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. The subplot is basically an excuse for Chaplin to make fun of the real-life Hitler by exaggerating the man’s quirks and tempestuous tirades; the buffoonery is overdone and sometimes tiresome, to say nothing of the way in which the German language suffers undeserved humiliation and Italian-American people suffer stereotyping. A highlight of this subplot is the silent scene in which Hynkel, completely wrapped in fantasy, balances and plays with a globe, only for it to burst like an ordinary balloon. The symbolism and message behind this scene are priceless.
Flitting between being a talking picture and silent movie, the transitions are not always smooth and the film itself is uneven. Audiences of the time expecting straight-out comedy might have been puzzled by the switching from comedy to drama and back again, especially in the film’s later montage sequences where storm-troopers burst into the Jewish ghetto and start beating up people. The plot is thin and consists of linked comedy skits with only the barest connections between them. At times both plot and sub-plot seem to be hunting around for ideas that might refresh them with opportunities for more buffoonery. Major characters like Goddard’s Hannah are not well developed and serve as mouthpieces for Chaplin’s political messages of unity, tolerance and democracy.
The film’s main highlights are Chaplin’s acting which often shows surprising depth and intelligence beneath the slapstick and the character stereotyping; the near-ballet scene with the globe; two separate scenes in barbershops; and the climax in which, mistaken for the dictator Hynkel, the barber delivers a speech that at once pleads for universal love, tolerance, equality and brotherhood, and damns the capitalist structures and institutions that turn people into cogs in a cold-blooded machine system. (Significantly after the film’s release, the US government began to follow and scrutinise Chaplin’s career and political beliefs more closely, and FBI director Herbert Hoover used Chaplin’s beliefs and the various personal scandals that dogged the actor against him in a smear campaign that damaged Chaplin’s career.) Oakie chews the scenery as Napaloni and his scenes with Chaplin poke fun at megalomania and the petty arrogance of dictators and autocrats generally.
The real worth of the film lies in Chaplin’s deft use as actor, writer and director of both comedy and drama, using the techniques of silent and talking-picture film-making, to confront and criticise fascism, at a time when American society’s reaction to fascist governments was to ignore it (or work with it secretly), and to support ordinary people in their resistance against oppressive governments. At the time the film was made, Chaplin did not know of the horrors (because most of them were yet to come) of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, physically and mentally handicapped people, Soviet POWs and others in its network of concentration camps in eastern Europe.