Sunday, August 14, 2022
CANON OF FILM: "THE GREAT DICTATOR"
THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
Director/Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Somehow, I always felt like of all of Chaplin's films, this would be the one that would age the worst. Well, maybe not age the worst, but definitely seem the most of it's time. You'd think I would've gotten to this one sooner considering how wrong I've been on this one in particular the last few years, but..., anyway, "That damn ballet dancer", as W.C. Fields used to refer to him, was, once again, more right than we realized.
Thirteen years into the age of talking pictures, Charlie Chaplin finally made his first talkie, and it spoke loudly. Before that, he had made what are probably his two best features, “City Lights,” (1931) and “Modern Times,” (1936), with the latter marking the last appearance of his “The Little Tramp,” character, although he does play a variation here, a character known only as “A Barber,” along with him playing Dictator Hynkel. “The Great Dictator,” first started being made in 1938, at a time when opinion on Adolf Hitler, was actually fairly mixed in America. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and there were fascists in America then as their are fascists now, and to claim that they simply went away and came back is a gross misnomer. Many anti-semantic groups secretly condoned Hitler's then rumored practice of eradicating the Jews, and the country as a whole had not taken a side one way or another in regards to Hitler.
By 1940, when the movie was released, that had changed, and Chaplin’s daring satire on Hitler, dictatorship, and Nazism became his highest grossing film ever, and earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Saying that however, it is still fair to say that “The Great Dictator,” is actually one of Chaplin's weakest films now, although it's still quite powerful; this would be his most pre-"Limelight" overuse of sentimentality, and more importantly is his his infamous five minute long speech at the end of the film, where The Barber, at this moment confused for Hynkel, stating Chaplin's own personal views on dictatorship and Nazi practices. It spoke loudly at the time, by the one man who up 'til then, had never spoken at all, but the speech stops the movie dead in its tracks. Yet, the speech is probably the entire reason Chaplin made the movie. (And it's trended several times over in recent years I might add. But who's surprised Chaplin would go viral, really?)
The movie would eventually lead to him actually being deported from America over a decade later, under the veil of being supposedly a Communist, which he wasn’t. He wasn’t Jewish either, which was another rumor at the time. "The Great Dictator" was banned in much of Europe at the time, in some parts for decades. The movie begins with the character of the Barber, after being a WWI hero, and some of the battle scenes in the film are not only incredible for realism at that time, but some are incredibly funny, including the entire sequence about the dud tank bullet which starts off with just a funny bit where the bullet limps out of the shot cannon, but Chaplin continues the joke by investigating the bullet, and leading the joke to it’s natural hilarious conclusion. (If you can find it, there's some great very rare behind-the-scenes footage, shot in color, of Chaplin preparing this sequence, and it might be some of the Earliest color footage of Chaplin.)
The Barber, injured in the war, in a coma, and suffering from amnesia, wakes up twenty years later to find Dictator Hynkel in charge, and he has to now rebuild his life in the ghetto. It's basically a subversion of Rip Van Winkle that seems so obvious, it's kinda stunning nobody had done it before, or really for that matter much since. He meets a nice girl from the family next door (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s then wife) who helps him from being taken away by storm troopers, one of them being a guy who’s life he saved back in the war. The other famous sequences from the film include Chaplin’s choreographed dance sequence that he has as Hynkel with an inflated globe, that eventually bursts right in his face. As well as a wonderful sequence with Oscar-nominee Jack Oakie, obviously meant to reference Mussolini, where both dictators attempt to one-up each other by sitting in higher chairs than the other, until they’re both near the ceiling and unable to get down. It's stunning how much it seems being a corrupt and murderous dictator essentially involves this diluted belief that they somehow always have to be better than everyone else.
It’s certainly a landmark film, just for being one of a literal handful of films to criticize the Nazi regime before the war, or any kind of dictatorial practices. Chaplin was of course, one of the very few people in Hollywood who even could do that though, but it's not like anybody had to twist his hand on it. "The Great Dictator" is Chaplin’s is by far his most pointed and important satire; I'd be hard-pressed to call it his most personal and emotional film, I think that goes to "Limelight", but I think it's fair to say that it was the one that he was the most proud of having made.
Posted by David Baruffi at 12:13 AM