The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin’s famous Juvenalian satire of Adolf Hitler is rightly remembered as a heroic piece of political rhetoric through which its creator dared to hold up the evils of Nazism and the Third Reich to the light of scrutiny, exposing their inherent absurdities at considerable personal risk. It is beloved for Chaplin’s iconic and elegantly choreographed ballet of the globe*, which owes something to James Gillray’s 1805 etching ‘The Plum-Pudding In Danger’, and for the stirring humanity of its closing speech, neither preachy Marxism nor trite sentiment and without doubt one of the finest ever composed by anyone anywhere. But for all The Great Dictator’s undeniable socio-historical importance, its powerful denunciation of fascism and anti-Semitism, the purity of its intentions and its influence for good at a pivotal moment in world history, it has to be said that, in purely cinematic terms, Chaplin’s intervention in the war is frankly a tad tedious.

I realise this is a provocative statement to make but even the most staunch Chaplin fan must concede that, watched dispassionately over 60 years on from its original release at the height of the Blitz, the film is over-long and ultimately bows under the weight of its own worthiness. The Jewish ghetto scenes starring Chaplin’s wife Paulette Goddard and the impressive Maurice Moscovich in particular are well acted but intrude upon the humour of the palace episodes. It is hard to laugh at Adenoid Hynkel’s goatish lechery and mercurial temper once we have seen Goddard’s Hannah being pelted with tomatoes in the street or Chaplin’s amnesiac Jewish barber narrowly avoiding being hung from a lamp post by a mob of storm troopers. These surly individuals are also a reason for the failure of these sequences – they speak in reassuringly buffoonish Brooklyn accents and their brutality is cruel but does not come close to suggesting the violence and thuggery of what really went on.  Of course, the film was made before the true horrors of Hitler’s political machine became known and attempting to dramatise their savagery any further would risk capsizing the comedy altogether. But some things just aren’t funny and for my money these interludes should have been done away with altogether or at least reined in. The Marx Brothers avoided making the same mistake with Duck Soup (1933), focusing their attentions solely on the ludicrous Wonderland politics of Freedonia, but Italian comic Roberto Benigni fell into the same trap with his woefully overrated Life Is Beautiful (1997) and the results were ghastly.

However, I suppose these scenes do help to underline the human consequences of Hynkel’s orders, without which he might appear little more than a militarised clown, which would have blunted the message entirely. This point is perhaps best illustrated by Chaplin when he cuts between the barber and Hannah escaping from a burning building to Hynkel idly playing the piano like a latter day Nero. Without Chaplin’s barber character, the script, written by its star with assistance from young Marxist Dan James, would also lose its mistaken identity plotline, borrowed from Mark Twain’s The Prince & The Pauper (1881) by way of brother Sydney Chaplin’s King, Queen, Joker (1921), which would have required a rethink of the circumstances surrounding the final address. The barber, a veteran of the Great War, also makes for a pleasing throwback to the Little Tramp, the scenario recycled from a 1919 skit Chaplin had intended to include in Sunnyside, with perhaps a dash of W.C. Fields thrown in too. 

The palace scenes are much more successful, however. Hynkel is indeed a searing lampoon of the Führer, a creature supposedly born within the same week as Chaplin in mid-April 1889. Chaplin was said to be fascinated by the parallels between himself and the dictator, both knowing poverty in early life and sharing a love of Wagner, and once said to his son, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.” British political magazine The Spectator compared the two men with the matching moustaches in 1939, arguing that, “Each in his own way, has expressed the ideas, sentiments, aspirations of the millions of struggling citizens ground between the upper and lower millstone of society... Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good and the other for untold evil”. Adenoid Hynkel is less a “medieval maniac” than a monstrous overgrown child, irritable with his familiars, notably Herr Herring (Billy Gilbert), and competitive with his brash, domineering rival Napaloni (Jack Oakie). The latter injects some much needed energy into proceedings when he arrives in Tomainia for a state visit – his game of one-upmanship with Hynkel over a pair of raised barber's chairs a definite high point. However, the casting of Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, Hynkel’s Minister of the Interior, is a major misstep. Daniell delivers his lines with a steely absence of emotion, his coolly sinister presence as the power behind the throne suggesting a very real evil that again jars with much of the film’s broader humour relating to rants in macronic German, food fights, saluting and falling down stairs. It’s seeing the folly of these men exposed that’s funny, not the frightening realities of their sadistic megalomania.

Jean Renoir commented upon the release of La Grande Illusion in 1937: "I don’t think cinema can have an impact on society and even less so history. But I do think cinema can influence people’s moral code". Despite my gripes, there can be no question that The Great Dictator deserves its immortality, for the above speech and its contribution to the allied cause if nothing else. I maintain that it asks too much of an audience emotionally, over reaches itself in attempting the impossible and is overall something of a mess, albeit one elevated by a few moments of genius. For all that, it's also a defiant raspberry to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will (1935) and a work that dared to remind the world that ridicule is a powerful weapon. The Nazis considered Chaplin "a disgusting Jewish acrobat" (wrongly guessing his heritage) and doubtless would have had him executed had they won the war, while The Great Dictator also risked making matters worse for the Jews of Europe: neither consideration enough to prevent Chaplin completing a self-funded project he truly believed in, for which he is entitled to every credit. Its satirical legacy can still be seen today in films like In The Loop (2009), Four Lions (2010) and, perhaps most obviously, Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (2012). Comedy remains a serious business.

*There's a nice tribute to this scene in the recent Finnish-German steampunk sci-fi oddity Iron Sky (2012). A Nazi schoolteacher living on the dark side of the moon (don't ask) shows the film to a class of Aryan school children and refers to it as one of the finest short films ever made, implying that The Great Dictator consists solely of the ballet of the globe and lasts just 10 minutes. Chaplin's film has obviously been heavily cut by Joseph Goebbels to create the illusion that it is pro-Hitler. The teacher only learns the truth when she visits earth and attends a screening of the film proper at a New York art house cinema. Her shocked reaction as she exits the theatre is priceless.


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