City Lights and Modern Times, only used the soundtrack for music, sound effects, and gibberish. But sound comedy clearly wasn’t going anywhere, so Chaplin finally took the plunge—though he decided that if he was going to talk, he’d better have something to say. Did he ever.
Since Adolf Hitler had begun his rise to power, few had failed to notice that his small mustache caused a passing resemblance to a certain world-famous comedian. Editorial cartoonists had parodied the dictator’s attempt to siphon some of the public’s goodwill towards the comic, though Nazi propaganda attacked Chaplin as a “Jewish acrobat” (he was not, in fact, Jewish, but did not go out of his way to dismiss the charge). Now, it was Chaplin’s turn. In The Great Dictator, he launched a full-on comedic assault on Hitler and the Third Reich, playing a thinly disguised Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia.
Chaplin also appears as an unnamed Jewish barber, played as a version (at the very least) of the Tramp or “Little Fellow” that had brought him worldwide fame. Chaplin begins his story at the end of World War I, with a dose of battlefield humor and chain-of-command satire that recalls his uproarious short Shoulder Arms. The narrative then leaps forward to the present day; the barber returns to his neighborhood, after a hospitalization and memory loss, while his lookalike Hynkel has come to power. One assumes that the film will be a mistaken identity tale, but it doesn’t actually go down that road until the final 15 minutes; it mostly intercuts between the barber, persecuted in the ghetto, and the comically egomaniacal Hynkel.
Hynkel was the first entirely new character that Chaplin had played since 1914 (he adopted the Tramp character in only his second film), and one can feel his excitement at digging into this new challenge. It is an electrifying performance, and a wickedly funny spoof as well; spouting gibberish German (lots of “sauerkrauts” and “Weiner schnitzels”) at top volume into microphones that shrink away from his voice (“His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people,” notes the translator), Chaplin appears to revel in the opportunity to dip into a darkness that he would seldom explore (his next film, Monsieur Verdoux, would go even further in this direction). Self satisfied and smug, stalking into his portrait studio to glare at his artists before marching right back out, Chaplin first establishes Hynkel’s power and bile, and then, masterfully, deflates him as an utter buffoon.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his dealings with the film’s Mussolini figure, Napolini. He is first introduced in a hilarious phone call scene (if the writers of Strangelove didn’t study that bit, I’ll eat my hat), and then arrives in the personage of Jack Oakie, who gives the movie a jolt of rude, brash comic energy. Oakie (so funny in the W.C. Fields vehicle Million Dollar Legs) plays the role’s broad physicality to the hilt and sports an Italian accent that makes Chico Marx’s seem comparatively authentic and nuanced. Chaplin didn’t often meet his comic match on screen, but you can see Oakie pushing the master to up his game, lest the picture get stolen right from under him.
One can feel Chaplin struggling a big with the transition to full-on sound; his narration often sounds like recited intertitles, while joke names like “General Smellawful” and “Herr Garbage,” and cutesy dialogue exchanges (Schultz, asking about his plane: “How’s the gas?” Chaplin: “Kept me up all night”) confirm, lest we doubted, that verbal comedy was not the writer’s forte. As was often the case (albeit more sporadically) with Buster Keaton’s sound comedies, Chaplin’s best comic sequences tend to be those that are a) barely related to the plot, and b) bereft of dialogue. The Great Dictator’s most famous bit is Hynkel’s little pas de deux with an inflatable globe, and it’s wonderful, but the scene that follows—a hilarious syncopated shave—is far funnier.
Of course, it’s not all light laughs; this is serious business, what Chaplin’s doing, and there’s dark stuff in the movie (a scene where the barber is nearly strung up on a lamppost; the demonstrations, for Hynkel’s benefit, of a “bullet-proof uniform” and “compact parachute”). He plays the terrorizing of the Jewish ghettos straight (how could he not?), which is fine, and certainly commendable. Where he stumbles is in the film’s lapses into wide-eyed idealism (“Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d let us live and be happy again?” asks Paulette Goddard’s Hannah), which come to a head in the film’s still-controversial ending.
The big speech that Chaplin-as-the-Barber-as-Hynkel-but-really-just-as-Chaplin gives in the film’s final sequence, mostly direct to camera, is certainly heartfelt and pointed. But it is just too on-the-nose. It’s the filmmaker crossing the line from entertainer to polemicist; he stops telling a story—out of which powerful political and emotional points can made—and just preaches at us. It’s as if he’s stopped trusting the audience, and couldn’t imagine that his pointed satire was a more effective weapon than sermonizing. The ending of The Great Dictator is less an echo of City Lights or Modern Times than of Sinclair’s The Jungle. This is not intended as a compliment.
Though Chaplin steps wrong in his final scenes, The Great Dictator is nonetheless a funny, pointed, smart, and bold (lest we forget, it was released the year before Pearl Harbor) satire of Hitler’s Germany. The pacing occasionally flags, and Chaplin was not (and, for that matter, never really quite got) entirely comfortable with the shift to sound comedy. But this is still a memorable and well-constructed political comedy.
The Criterion Collection's new edition of "The Great Dictator" hits DVD and Blu-ray today. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.