The Great Dictator (1940)

Last year I reviewed one of my favorite movies, 1957’s 12 Angry Men.  I commit to this being a Disney blog, so here: the guy who plays Herring, Billy Gilbert, the parody of Herr Goering, also played…

There.  Happy?

Anyway, Charlie Chaplin.  The Tramp himself.  He was indelibly one of the first and greatest stars of cinema, turning vaudeville into a performance with a greater variety of opportunities for comedy.  In fact, Walt Disney admitted Chaplin was the primary inspiration for Mickey Mouse (Though his staff claimed Mickey was more akin to Walt himself) and he gave Walt arguably the best advice he ever recieved: to own everything he produced or lose it. 

By the late 30’s synchronized sound had been in cinema for over a decade, and it was clear “talkies” were no longer a passing fad.  Chaplin sold his Tramp character with his notable silence for some time, and was supremely uncomfortable with the idea of the Tramp speaking.

But for a variety of reasons…whether it was over Hitler essentially stealing his mustache, the fact the two were born days apart, or even if it was out of a greater sense of morality, Chaplin, 50 at the time, decided he couldn’t stay silent – literally – any longer.

Cease and stop superficial systemic scandals, for the silent star stages his subtle cynicism against the sinister sadist in cinematic sensationalism.

The plot: During the Great War in 1914, a character simply referred to as the Jewish barber (Chaplin) fights for his home country of Tomania.  He aids an injured pilot named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) to safety…until they crash. Tomania loses the war not long after.

Nearly twenty years later, the barber has amnesia, and abruptly leaves the military hospital and returns to his ghetto barbershop.  He’s stunned that the police are defacing his property due to being a Jew, but he gets lucky, as his pilot friend, now Commander Schultz, has been promoted and repays the barber by ordering all stormtroopers to leave the ghetto alone.  As things settle down, the barber pursues a romance with a girl named Hannah (Paulette Goddard).

The stormtroopers are the enforcers for Tomania’s new regime fascist dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (Also Chaplin), who has clear disgust against the Jews, and is ready to go to war with neighboring Osterlich.  When Schultz protests Hynkel cracking down on the Jews and their ghettos, he sends Schultz to a concentration camp, but he escapes and hides with the barber…until the barbershop is destroyed and later, both of them are arrested.  Hannah and her family flee to neutral Osterlich.

After a heated debate with Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria, Hynkel signs a treaty to not invade Osterlich…but invades anyway and we see Hannah and her family already attacked by Tomanian forces.

Schultz and the barber escape the camp, stealing Tomanian uniforms.  The army generals mistake them for Hynkel and a pardoned Schultz and escort them to a victory parade crowd, where they await a speech by Hynkel…and the Jewish barber must speak.

How’s the writing?: I know I kind of over-explained the plot here, but that’s because it does kind of meander like that.  Each scene carries their own separate weight and do not come into direct contact for its inevitable “Prince and Pauper” set up until the very end.  You’re watching the story about a simple man trying to make the best of what he can in a country where its leader strips away his safety and sanctuary.  On the other hand, it’s also about a fascist who puts on airs to look powerful and dignified when he’s just a temperamental dolt with megalomania. 

One startling thing you may notice is the tone is very diverse…but hardly dissonant.  It’s a Chaplin movie, so there are multiple moments of simple slapstick comedy.  It’s kind of weird to watch Chaplin fighting back against stormtroopers painting “JEW” on his barbershop windows to him getting smacked with a skillet and he dizzily dances around in the street.  But mostly the sight gag routines are their own separate scenes, like the pudding scene, or when he struggles with his and Schultz’ luggage on the rooftop.

The story is a slow burn.  With Chaplin playing both the barber and Hynkel, you expect the “Prince and the Pauper” bit to come much sooner, but you spend a great amount of time with Hynkel being his impulsively daft, ego-driven self, and the barber just going about his happy, simple life.  All of these moments are charming, and you feel all the richer knowing and understanding who they are as people and why they do what they do.

Does it give the feels?: All of the yes.  The barber is just a simple man happy to do his simple work.  He delights in making others happy, particularly by giving them one of his famous haircuts, and you see the kind of community the ghetto is, so delightful and pleasant are his neighbors.  So it hurts that much more when he and Hannah watch them blow up the barbershop, especially since you hear him softly murmur “There goes the barbershop.”, but never see his face.  Building on that, Hannah struggles to remain optimistic and urge him to run off to Osterlich with her, though even she, too, is heartbroken.

So yes…Chaplin speaks.  As Hynkel, he barks, chatters, snorts, shouts, as is to be expected when parodying Hitler.  The barber, however, who more closely resembles his Tramp persona, is meek, soft-spoken, and genial.  He is very sympathetic, timid, even, and his struggles are that profound.

The most heartbreaking is the final scene, and I’m gonna save that for later.

Who makes it worth it?: Chaplin has a great cast to work off of. Goddard is charming and sweet, Gardiner is sympathetic and noble, Oaks is bombastic and hilarious, and even Gilbert is affably sycophantic.  So let’s be honest: Chaplin is not alone in this.  He has a great cast backing his antics up.

So that being said…yeah, Chaplin is absolutely the star.

As the barber, he is the everyman: gentle, good-natured, and polite to a fault.  Generally averse to confrontation, but will jump headlong into a fight once he feels a cause is worth fighting for, however long the odds are.  As Hynkel, he’s egocentric, spiteful, pretentious, and kind of foolish.  There’s a bizarre beauty watching his megalomania flourish as he takes his globe balloon and does a ballet with it.  It’s a subtle genius, encapsulating Hitler’s clear delight in world domination to the point where he regales in it with a sort of innocent whimsy.  A man who regularly screams vitriol at Jews through street corner loudspeakers is lovingly, coyly playing with a world he sees as his.

There’s a ton of other great scenes.  An early set piece shows Hynkel bouncing between invention demonstrations with Herring, seducing his secretary, posing for painting and sculpture, and several other errands that demonstrate his ego, his vices, and his desires.  Chaplin clearly wanted to stick it to Hitler and it’s a thing of beauty.

Best quality provided: It’s a long movie, but most of it is pretty good.  I love the movie as a whole…but it’s that final scene where everything about it is worth it.

First, context.  Chaplin, as the barber, and dressed as Hynkel, and forced to give a victory speech in front of a massive crowd as Tomania has invaded Osterlich.  Metatextually, Chaplin kept the barber, a Tramp-like character, relatively quiet and soft spoken throughout the movie, trying very hard to keep his famous silence going for just that much longer.  But at last…here Chaplin is: a man forced to speak out against a world gone mad.  The barber, a timid fellow who just wants the world a little bit better for everyone.  The clutches his hat.  And instead of trying to maintain his image as Hynkel, instead, he opens with a soft, “I’m sorry.”

The speech that follows is breathtaking.

Chaplin pleads, no, begs the crowd to understand the cruelty of the modern innovation abd totalitarian forces and how hardened hearts have diminished empathy, kindness, and compassion.  I couldn’t do the speech justification by any stretch, but this speech is easily the best written for any cinematic feature ever produced, and became a timely message at every point in history since.

What could have been improved: If you’re not used to Chaplin’s classic slapstick, it’s going to be rather odd.  Like I said, this was a man who thrived on stages and silent movies, bumbling and going through comedic routines that seem oddly-placed.  Schultz establishes that one of the five men in the room (the barber included) must be randomly selected to go on a suicide mission to kill Hynkel.  How do they decide? By placing a coin in one of the five puddings served to the men.  Hannah, however, put a coin in all five to highlight the ridiculousness of the plan, so what ends up happening is a lengthy bit where each man is spooked at being “the one”, and shoveling their coins onto their neighbor’s puddings.  The barber, however, tries to avoid being found out and ends up swallowing most of the coins.  It’s a great bit of comedy, but it plays better in a Looney Tunes short.  Funny as it is, it definitely drags out the runtime.

Verdict: There’s a hundred reasons to watch this movie.  Watching Chaplin’s brilliant comedic routines.  A WWII-era satire of Hitler and the Third Reich.  A delightful de-fanging of one of history’s worst monsters.  A commentary about empathy and compassion in humanity in a world consumed by demagoguery.  A testament to standing up for what’s right when you can’t stay silent any longer.

At the very least, watch the speech on Youtube.  Everyone needs to hear it at least once in their life. I know I loved it when I was shown it in high School and every time I feel the pressure of fascism and totalitarianism swelling in the world I’m living in, I’m reminded of the barber…and Charlie, too.

Chaplin was no soldier. The very opening scenes show his barber character was a clumsy goof, but Chaplin felt just as strongly as any soldier the value of fighting against something as transparently evil as Adolf Hitler…he just chose to do so with a very different weapon. By both reducing Hitler to a joke and delivering a earth-shattering speech on the importance of human empathy, Chaplin was no less successful in helping the public see just how bad Hitler and his war machine really was. While I can only fantasize about what it’d be like to be as successful and influential as Chaplin, I get the stir to decry villainy and its atrocities in the world, but I am no fighter. My best weapons are the words I write and the comedy I bring, however meager, but I hope I can use these assets of mine to cause others to rise against the oppressive forces that threaten our lives and the lives of others.

This is why “keep politics out of my media” is bullhonky. We NEED movies like this to get us to recognize fascism before it gets our neighbors. After all, history bores us and comparisons to Hitler automatically invoke a reactionary “Godwin’s Law” gripe. And say what you will about Game of Thrones in its final season, Tyrion Lannister was right about one thing: stories unite us. Hell, nowadays, WWII in America is only told as a direct narrative the evil/good dichotomy was completely binary and we “saved the day”, as if nuances and complexities don’t matter and history itself does not have a giant “THE END” title card when the shooting stops.

We never deserved Chaplin’s genius, but we needed him. We still do. And I hope the words of his speech will continue to echo through history as a warning and glimmer of humanity. And whether tyranny coalesces as corrupt conglomerate, a radical lawmaker, a fascist president, a power-hungry totalitarian, and they tell you to move, plant your feet like Captain fucking America and say…

“No…YOU move.”

Ten Tomanian Double Crosses out of ten. Now let us all UNITE!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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