My Hall of Fame
If there is anyone who can successfully make anything to do with either WWII or Adolph Hitler a joke, it would be Charles Chaplin- even if it came with his later regrets. When the famous comedian decided to (almost single-handedly) create a satirical comedy-drama, poking fun at Hitler himself, as well as many others closely involved with Hitler, Chaplin knew he could do it successfully because he found humor where others did not. Years later, after the atrocities of the Nazi’s and their actions were known to the world, Chaplin admitted that he would never have made a film like “The Great Dictator” (1940) if he would have understood the truth behind what was happening in Europe. Whereas this attitude is understandable, the powerful message that this enormously important (and somewhat underrated) film has to offer, combined with Chaplin’s fearless performance, create a cinematic experience that is both hilarious at times, and heart-wrenching at others.
“The Great Dictator” opens during the great war, as an unnamed Jewish soldier (Chaplin in one of two roles) is fighting for his fictional country of Tomainia. After a series of amusingly comedic blunders, he finds himself helping Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) into an airplane and flying secret documents to their commanding officer. They crash, just as the war comes to an end, but the Jewish man suffers from memory loss, and the next twenty years go by without him remembering anything.
Jumping forward to that time, it turns out that the Jewish man is in fact a barber, who runs a shop in the ghetto. (He looks similar to Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp, but also has many differences.) He returns to his work, next door to Hannah (Paulette Goddard), a laundress, who bond over a physical dispute with local stormtroopers. He is unaware that being Jewish is no longer acceptable, now that the notoriously brutal dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) has begun his master plan of world domination.
The remainder of the movie is cut into two sections. One between scenes of the dictator, or “The Phooey” as he is called, as he stumbles about trying to take over the world with his cohorts, Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and Herring (Billy Gilbert). The other involves the Jewish barber and Hannah reeking havoc on Hynkel’s stormtroopers. Needless to say, there is a ton of laughs awaiting in both stories, and, as Hynkel and the barber look alike, everything is culminating toward an inevitable big finish.
Charlie Chaplin is a genius, in every aspect of the word. In addition to starring as both leading characters in the movie, Chaplin also wrote, produced, and directed. He even wrote the musical score along with Meredith Wilson (who later would give Chaplin the “creative” credit). “The Great Dictator” is completely his vision, and even though many stepped up and tried to take credit for contributing ideas, Chaplin is the one man smart enough and brave enough to pull it all together- and not just into a decent film, but into a true masterpiece.
The comedic value here (like all of Chaplin’s films) in undeniable. You can’t help but laugh and smile throughout as he, in his first full-talking film, delivers with dialogue, facial expressions, set pieces, and, of course, physical stunts. The surprise of this picture isn’t in the comedy, but in the drama. Chaplin had a message to deliver, and “The Great Dictator” gave him the outlet he needed. Making a film such as this, at such a crucial time in the world’s history, could have ended in absolute failure. Chaplin, however, doesn’t seem to know how to fail, and ended up creating an important, memorable film that even today gives viewers a chance to see how influential and important one man could be. There is a story that Chaplin had seen the German film “Olympia” (1938), and used it to aid him designing “The Great Dictator”. I wasn’t around in 1940 to see how this movie played as a piece of propaganda, but it is both moving and inspiring today.
Besides Chaplin, who gives not one, but two brilliant performances, Paulette Goddard also contributes with her usual perfect blend of hilarious, almost slapstick comedy, and touching drama. She constantly has to continue jumping back and forth between the serious scenes and the comedic ones, which is not all that easy to do. Also getting in on the fun is Jack Oakie, who plays a neighboring dictator named Benzino Napaloni. (Man I love Chaplin’s character names!) Oakie is so entertaining in this film that he even earned himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
When it was all said and done, “The Great Dictator” became Chaplin’s highest grossing movie. Also, after the fiasco centered on the Academy’s removal of 1928’s “The Circus” (and don’t get me started on the stupidity of that!), “The Great Dictator” ended up being the only one of his films to be a Best Picture nominee, and his only Best Actor nomination. (Both of which were thoroughly deserved.) Today “The Great Dictator” is not the first of his films that will come to a movie fan’s mind, but with classic comedies like “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), and “Modern Times” (1936), it is easy to see how “The Great Dictator” has been lost in the shuffle. Trust me, however, when I tell you that missing out on seeing this amazing film would only be an injustice to both Chaplin and to yourself.