Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Grace Hayle, Carter De Haven
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 126
Date: 10/15/1940

The Great Dictator (1940)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Heroes and Villains

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1998, Roberto Benigni received much critical acclaim for his Life Is Beautiful, a comedy about the Holocaust. And director James Moll and producer Steven Spielberg crafted the latest heartbreaking documentary about life for the Hungarian Jews in concentration camps. But in 1940, no one knew the horrors that were going on. It was possible for Charlie Chaplin to make The Great Dictator because he didn't know the full extent of Hitler's hatred for the Jews. He himself said years later, "If I'd have known, I never would have made the film."

Lucky for us, though, that he did. I watched The Great Dictator nearly 60 years after it was made, and with plenty of hindsight, and I still think it's a masterpiece. It may be Chaplin's greatest work, even if it's not his most personal. It's also significant for being his first talkie, after fighting off sound for over a decade.

Chaplin plays two roles, Adenoid Hynkel, the screwball dictator who speaks both English and a kind of mish-mash German with lots of "sauerkraut" and such, as well as the character known only as "the Jewish Barber". It's the balance between these two characters that makes the film possible at all -- the ultimate good and evil. Hitler and Chaplin had quite a lot in common, really. They were born within a week of each other in April of 1889, and both sported little squarish mustaches. They were both incredibly powerful men, and reached enormous amounts of people. One spread laughter, and the other hatred. Chaplin saw his destiny was to speak out against the tyrant, and used the sound film in order to deliver his first speech.

The movie begins as the barber, in the thick of battle, inadvertently rescues a pilot and brings him to safety. But the barber suffers a concussion and loses his memory of the war. After he is released from the hospital, he goes back to work in his barbershop in the ghetto, only he doesn't know that his town has been occupied by the soldiers of the Double Cross (instead of a swastika). He tries to defend himself, and wins the admiration of a pretty neighbor girl, Hannah (Chaplin's ex-wife Paulette Goddard, who was also in Modern Times. Goddard was one of the three finalists for Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. If she had been chosen, perhaps The Great Dictator would never have been made.) By a twist of fate, the pilot whom the barber saved in the war becomes one of Hynkel's top men. Out of gratitude, he orders the goons to leave the ghetto alone.

Meanwhile, Hynkel holds a meeting with the Dictator of neighboring Bacteria -- Benzino Napaloni (Jackie Oakie) to discuss territory. Napaloni refuses to remove his troops from the border much to the fury of Hynkel. Hynkel also gets word that the funding they were trying to get for an attack (from a wealthy Jew no less) is not coming, so he launches an all-out attack on the Jews. The barber is thrown into a concentration camp, which to Chaplin's pre-war eyes, was a place where you goose-step all day long then go to sleep in a barracks. The barber escapes and is mistaken for Hynkel, leading up to the final, powerful, and controversial speech.

I say "controversial" because, although everyone would agree on the content, most people disagree with the artistic choice of ending this kind of movie with a long speech. But the speech is fine. It has things in it that should still be heard by audiences today. Other complaints about this movie are that it's not funny, it's too long, and it's too serious a subject to make fun of. The movie is not uproariously funny. It has many funny moments, such as the barber shaving to beat of a Schubert composition, and later absent-mindedly lathering Goddard's face with shaving cream. But Chaplin had other things on his mind besides just making people laugh. The scene in which Hynkel bounces the inflatable globe is more strangely beautiful than funny.

Secondly, the movie is too long. Perhaps, but who are we to judge? If there was any extra footage, I would want to see that too. The artistry in this movie is such that I was savoring every shot. And finally, the subject matter is too serious. Chaplin was well aware of how serious it was, and did not intend any bad taste, and there is none in the movie.

Earlier I said that The Great Dictator was Chaplin's best movie without being his most personal or his most ambitious. His most personal works are those with the Little Tramp, The Kid, The Gold Rush, and City Lights, in which he made us laugh and touched our hearts at the same time (after they said it couldn't be done). His most ambitious is perhaps Monsieur Verdoux, in which he abandons his Tramp character altogether for a cynical killer. The Great Dictator is his best movie because of its combination of the two Chaplins, and because of its hopeful message in which Chaplin does more than just get the girl or the gold. It's a masterpiece.

In 2011, the Criterion Collection released The Great Dictator on Blu-Ray as well as on a remastered DVD. It's an absolutely essential work of comedy, history, and artistry. It includes the extras from the 2003 Warner Home Video release, such as a 60-minute documentary from Kevin Brownlow comparing the strangely similar life stories of Chaplin and Hitler, as well as the recently discovered color footage (25 minutes) shot on the set by Chaplin's brother Sydney. The disc has a new commentary track by Chaplin experts Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, two new visual essays, one by Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli and one by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. There are also "barbershop" clips from two earlier Chaplin films, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by film critic Michael Wood, Chaplin's 1940 New York Times defense of his movie, a reprint from critic Jean Narboni on the film's final speech, and Al Hirschfeld's original press book illustrations. And the Blu-Ray comes with an uncompressed monaural audio track.

Movies Unlimtied