d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 124 mins.
The Great Dictator was Charles Chaplin's first film with spoken dialogue, and boy, did he have a lot to say. Audiences knew from his previous film, Modern Times, that he had a few political bones in his body, but the difference between the degree of politics in Modern Times and The Great Dictator is as loud as the difference between silence and sound. This film blows out the doors and windows as far as satire is concerned: the world's most recognizable comedian unleashed his scorn on the world's most treacherous tyrant.
Chaplin had been told he and Adolf Hitler had more than a few physical similarities. Both were short, with dark hair and the toothbrush moustache that the latter stole from the former. Both were actually born within days of each other, too, but that's obviously where the similarities end. You couldn't have two more unalike characters, which is precisely why Chaplin was the best person to sharpen his harpoon and set course to deflate the tyrant. In the film, Chaplin plays two characters: one is a Jewish barber, injured during World War I and stricken with amnesia that metaphorically resonates when he is reintroduced to society. When he returns to his old barbershop, he finds the word "JEW" painted in the windows and police patrolling the ghetto. This is thanks to Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again), the infantile, pompous, and ruthless dictator of fictitious Tomania. With a wink and a nudge, the credits coyly warn us in the beginning that "any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental," as if after seeing Hynkel we're going to be concerned with the fact that he looks like the barber; by the time we meet Hynkel, similarities with the barber are the last things on our minds. It's an utterly unveiled send-up of Hitler, with Chaplin caricaturing all the megalomaniacal qualities to the nth degree.
I've read a large selection of criticism that suggests The Great Dictator isn't as good as Chaplin's earlier films, specifically The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. Well, of course it's not. There aren't many films out there that can claim to be as good as that trifecta of silent masterpieces — and "silent" might be the imperative word there. Comparing Chaplin's silent oeuvre to his sound films is a logically flawed starting point. We're tempted to say that the romance of The Great Dictator doesn't blend as seamlessly into the film as a whole as the romance in The Gold Rush or City Lights. That's a perfectly acceptable complaint (and one that I'll actually second), but at the risk of sounding like a Chaplin-in-sound apologist, I don't re-watch The Great Dictator for the romance, just as I don't watch A Night at the Opera for its silly romance that distracts from the genius of the Marx Brothers. In a way The Great Dictator is doing things Chaplin had always done and also never done before. He pantomimes, he gets hit on the head with a cast-iron skillet, he dances until he falls down; that is the Chaplin standard, something he did better than almost anyone in his silent films. But Chaplin's humor became Chaplin's humor because it had a certain heart to it; that heart is unmistakably romantic in The Gold Rush and City Lights, and partially romantic in Modern Times. Between 1936 and 1940, his heart (like many in the western world) re-situated itself. The Great Dictator is a satiric dirty bomb. Now he could rely on dialogue to move the plot, and for once, dialogue to make a joke. What this film shows is that Chaplin hadn't yet found the perfect way to write the dialogue of innocent love (he'd never fully reclaim it, but Limelight comes close), but he had discovered more important ways to let his comedy speak for itself, literally.
So, as Chaplin's first film with spoken dialogue and full barrage of sound effects, The Great Dictator shouldn't be expected to keep the same company as his earlier silent works. Certainly Chaplin employs a few nice bits here that would have played as well in a silent film (a dud artillery shell spins around and follows the barber as he inspects it; Hynkel and the graceful ballet with the globe balloon; the barber shaving a man in perfect rhythm to Brahms; etc.), but aside from the very skillful slapstick, most of the humor here is strictly dialogue driven. The key to the joke lies in the vocal inflections: the innocent wonder in the barber's dialogue; Hynkel's germanic-based rants of pure gibberish and the meek translations that follow, followed by the dictator's trying-too-hard-to-be-indifferent voice later. Other characters are blessed with good voices, like the overblown high spirits of the idiotic Herring (Billy Gilbert, in a parody of Hermann Gorring); the deadpan delivery of Garbitsch (Henry Daniell, in a parody of Joseph Goebbels, in a name that must be said outloud to truly enjoy). These are characterizations and jokes Chaplin was not able to do before. In one scene, Garbitsch visits Hynkel to discuss the complaints of the masses. Hynkel wants to know what they have to complain about.
"The quality of the sawdust in the bread," Garbitsch says.
"What more do they want?" Hynkel responds. "It's from the finest lumber our mills can supply."
It seems to be requisite in every review of The Great Dictator to mention Chaplin's own thoughts about the production. He became increasingly uncomfortable as production went on and Hitler began to squeeze Europe tighter and tighter in his vice grip. Chaplin wrote later that if he had known the full extent of the Nazi Party's evil, it would have been impossible to make The Great Dictator. But that sort of analysis has always set a little uneasy with me. Would the film have really been impossible to make? I doubt it, and although I'm no Chaplin biographer, I doubt Chaplin meant it would be truly impossible. For a man as gifted as Chaplin, nothing seemed impossible, but I'll grant him it would have been more difficult, just not for the reasons we most commonly assume. It's because Chaplin would have been more self-conscious, and self-consciousness limits comedy. The fact that he wasn't entirely bound makes the film as casually acidic as it is. (This is not to say he wasn't bound at all; to the same extent he was, as others were, since the closer it came to 1940, the more information about the inhuman horror reached the citizens of the world).
There's nothing inherently offensive here (at least to me), only an awful lot that's tremendously sad. Although his satire on Hitler is a bit one-sided, it often brushes the edge of darkness. When Hynkel says after the Jews he's going after the brunettes, it's impossible not to cringe at how close Chaplin's joke was to the truth. Taken as it is, in its 1940 incarnation, it's perfect for what it does, and wanting anything else is wading out too far into a catch-22 where we want Chaplin to deliver commentary on events of which he doesn't know the extent. It simply can't be both ways, and that's where I think The Great Dictator trips up many who do want it both ways. What's evident then is that, even if Chaplin didn't know the brutal and atrocious horrors of the European ghettos, he knew the projected path of fascism and what resulted is a movie as ridiculous as it is fearful of the bleak reality had been descending on Europe's Jews.
The film ends with an impassioned speech from Chaplin, delivered from the barber who has been mistaken as the tyrant. It stretches credulity—why doesn't anyone try to stop him? where did he find these words after so much innocence? Many think it shifts the film in a fundamentally large way and mucks up the ending; after two hours of making us laugh, Chaplin the professor takes over and delivers a lecture criticizing authoritarianism, tyranny, and senseless bigotry that ends in the deaths of too many. "It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now," Roger Ebert writes. Mark Bourne says: "Whether it's underwritten or overwritten is hard to say. Yes, Chaplin's appeal for reason and kindness is inarguable, yet as the speech rambles forth trying to open our eyes to too many ills at once, it's punctuated less by plain-speaking Lincolnesque oratory than by naive kumbaya. Its truths are swamped by airy truisms. His intent is honorable, no question. It's the execution that's so damned frustrating."
But I love the speech. It raises my pulse, and it makes me proud to love Chaplin. When the end of the film comes, Chaplin, as he did with the romance of The Gold Rush and City Lights, manages to convince me to turn off all the centers of my brain that deal with logic and the intricacies of filmmaking. When he takes that stage, confused to be Hynkel, he gives us a version of the world as it could be, and that bypasses my brain and speaks to my heart. Although I've read a tremendous amount of criticism against it, I've never read a proposal that moves me even a fraction of how Chaplin can.
As expected, Hitler and all Axis powers banned the film, although the tyrant's curiosity got the best of him and he procured a copy through Portugal and screened it twice. ("I'd give anything to know what he thought of it," Chaplin later said.) In places such as Franco-controlled Spain, the film stayed banned as far into the 1970s. But what may be unexpected is that it was Chaplin's most commercially successful film, and it secured five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, but won none. That's a bit of a shame, but it does disprove claims that it was a film ahead of its time. True, the full measure of its humor might only be recognizable this far removed from the age of propaganda and from the war, but it was by no means a failure upon its initial release. I think with time it's gotten better. For the absurdity of tyranny, I'll take Duck Soup, and for subverting Nazism with ridiculousness, I'll take To Be or Not To Be. But The Great Dictator is a film I simply cannot leave behind. It's an impassioned and courageous satire, balancing humor with tragedy, pathos with rationality, all while championing a world of peace and tolerance. Chaplin has a voice, a real voice in sound and in politics. He's brave, he's earnest, he's a prophetic dissident of the highest order. He wants nothing less than to the change the world. He didn't, but he was among the first to shoot an arrow into the eye of evil. As far as I'm concerned, that's a hell of an accomplishment.
15 March 2009
d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 124 mins.