For a long time, I've been a big fan of black and white era comedy stars. The Marx Brothers have been a long time favorite, as well as Abbott & Costello. I've even found silent film comedy legend Buster Keaton to be entertaining. The combination of inane wisecracks and physical slapstick has always been an attraction for me. The one star that I've never really spent much time watching was Charlie Chaplin. It never was a case of not liking his acting or comedy style, I simply never found the time to watch his films.
This changed recently when I read about one of his movies, The Great Dictator. The film, made in 1940, was his first talking picture, and was written, produced, and directed by Chaplin himself. The film, considered to be his most commercially successful film, was a satire about recent world events of the time, and acted as a platform for Chaplin to speak out against the rise of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism, and anti-Semitism.
The Great Dictator tells the tale of a Jewish barber from the country of Tomainia who is injured near the end of a World War and lives with memory loss for twenty years. When he finally returns home to the ghetto he discovers that it is now governed by stormtroopers under the Tomainian regime of a ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel, who looks like an identical twin to the barber (both played by Chaplin). The film follows, in parallel, two story lines. The first being the life of the barber as he struggles to survive under the growing persecution of the stormtroopers and falls in love with his neighbor, Hannah. The second story line focuses on Hynkel's tyrannical plans to purge the Jews from the ghetto and invade the neighboring country of Osterlich. The two separate story lines eventually merge, but I won't spoil the ending by talking too much about it.
After reading about the film, I felt compelled to watch it. Netflix obliged me by sending me the DVD, and the other night I sat down to indulge in the great Charlie Chaplin.
Let me start by saying that, despite the sight gags, slapstick, and jokes, this film carries from beginning to end a deep rooted message about the lunacy that was occurring in Europe at the time. Although wrapped in a thin veil of comedy, the message in the film was blatantly clear. That message reaches a culmination with a speech delivered by the barber, which I will talk more about in a few moments.
In the role of Hynkel, Chaplain went to great lengths to mimic Hitler, and I must say, he did it with incredible success. Although the speeches in the film were utter gibberish (which you have to listen to carefully to get the humor), Chaplain captured the essence of the Hitler seen in so many newsreels. It was uncanny how well the actor was able to reproduce the mannerisms of the Germany dictator. It is said, but not confirmed, that Hitler himself had watched the film twice, although his response was never recorded. And, then there was the dance with the global.
One of the scenes that is probably best known from The Great Dictator is when Hynkel dances with a globe of the world. The globe is more of a balloon decorated to look like a globe. As Hynkel dreams of ruling the world, he dances with the globe, tossing it into the air over and over again, and balancing it on his fingers and toes. It is a beautiful piece of chorography that builds upon the direct parody of Hitler. I had never seen the scene before, but ended upon replaying it over three times because it was so enjoyable.
Finally, there is the barber's speech at the end. I will try not to spoil the ending for you, but I have to say that the speech was the point in the movie where my breath was taken away. It is the moment when the barber is elevated from being a simpleton to a philosopher of the very highest degree. The comedy halts, and Chaplain delivers a speech that leaves the viewer with the burden of living up to his hearty words. Although written in 1940, the speech seems to transcend time to be utterly relevant just as much today. The impassioned plea for brotherhood and goodwill is masterfully delivered with a single camera angle focused on Chaplain's face. As the speech builds to a crescendo, it is obvious that Chaplain is no longer playing a role in a film, but speaking from the heart.
The Great Dictator went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, and was popular not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom as well. In 1997, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 2000, the American Film Institute ranked the film #37 in its "100 Years… 100 Laughs" list. And, after having watched it, I can understand why. Unlike films from the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello, The Great Dictator was more than just a comedy. The message intertwined within is far greater than the laughs. It contains a lesson to all who watch it, and speaks to the very soul of mankind. It is truly a classic.