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Review: The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Directed by: Charlie Chaplin

Premise: A Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin) wakes up from a coma after serving in World War I to discover that his home country of Tomania has been overtaken by dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) who prepares for war and persecutes the Jews.  

What Works: Today’s audience takes lampoons of Adolf Hitler for granted. The leader of Nazi Germany has become a caricature in the public mind through memes and inane political debates that inevitably descend into name calling. Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 motion picture The Great Dictator is among the original Hitler parodies and it remains one of the best. Among the qualities that distinguish The Great Dictator is the way the filmmakers use the imagery of Nazism but in a way that cannot be coopted. In place of the swastika, The Great Dictator uses a double X symbol, instead of the name “Adolf Hitler” the titular character is named Adenoid Hynkel, rather than taking place in Germany, The Great Dictator is set in the fictional country of Tomania, and except for a few German words Hynkel speaks in gibberish. However, the distortion between the historical figure and the comedic character is slight and viewers now and in 1940 will understand who and what the movie is talking about. In its time, The Great Dictator was a bold statement. The movie was released in 1940, well before the United States entered World War II and at the time many Americans were ambivalent about the idea of participating in another European conflict. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was intended to highlight a moral imperative that many people did not yet acknowledge and the film lays out Hitler’s plans for world domination and Nazism’s persecution of the Jewish people. That sounds like the stuff of a pretentious Hollywood drama but Chaplin makes it humorous and therefore accessible. The Great Dictator is really funny. Comedy doesn’t usually age well but this film still plays more than seventy years after its release. Importantly, it’s funny in the right way. The movie ridicules Hitler and the Third Reich in a way that deflates the self-importance that characterizes all authoritarianism. However, The Great Dictator does that without diminishing the Nazi’s crimes against humanity. The persecution of Jews is not made ridiculous and in fact the movie builds empathy with those who are targets of Nazi violence or who resist it. The hapless Jewish barber is not acclimated to the authoritarianism of Tomania and so he’s able to see the insanity for what it is. His defiance of antisemitism and fascism begins as everyday decency but builds into a heroic plea for freedom and democracy. The Great Dictator concludes with an extraordinary speech. While it is didactic, the speech is a testament to humanity and hope and it is one of the great monologues in all of motion pictures. The overt politics of The Great Dictator make this a very different title in Chaplin’s filmography. Earlier work like Modern Times and City Lights had an innocent charm. That’s not true here and The Great Dictator is a sign of Chaplin’s maturation as an artist.

What Doesn’t: The weakest element of The Great Dictator is the love story between the barber and a Jewish woman played Paulette Goddard. The actress was originally from Long Island and that’s obvious from her voice and performance; she doesn’t come across as a woman living in a repressive European police state or even some comic version of it. The romance seems like something out of Chaplin’s earlier movies and it is out of place in The Great Dictator. But even as a leftover of Chaplin’s earlier work, the romance does not make the impact of the love stories in other Chaplin films. It’s forced and lacks the sweetness that made the romance in Chaplin’s other work so effective.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition includes the documentary The Tramp and the Dictator, featurettes, short films, a commentary track, a trailer, and a booklet.

Bottom Line: The Great Dictator is one of Charlie Chaplin’s best films. It still plays as a comedy but the movie is more than that and The Great Dictator demonstrates the possibilities of humor to ridicule power and make a political statement.  But it’s also a funny movie that is entertaining and steeped in humanistic appeal.

Episode: #661 (August 20, 2017)