1940, Movies

The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin)

As the only American film (before their entry into World War II) to deal with the Nazis, I think we have to give it, and Chaplin, a lot of credit. It might seem crazy now, but some people didn’t think this movie should be made, or at least should be toned down. And this is a pretty mild film. But, if you just think about the various people in the world who are super eager to enable fascism in 2022, it’s not so crazy.

So I want to give it a lot of credit, but it’s also a mess, despite its reputation among some critics as one of his best films. It tries to combine two different film eras in one basically, with classic Chaplin silent gags combined with the attack on the Nazis. Some of the slapstick set-pieces feel like they belong in another film.

Another thing that is a mess is the accents – there are American, British and Yiddish accents with no explanation as to why. And then there’s Hynkel’s pigeon German. It’s pretty funny at first but it also makes no sense given that they speak English the rest of the time. I guess the gag is that Hitler’s mode of speaking is all performance, and doesn’t even resemble regular German and he just talks like a normal person off mic.

Some things work really well, including some of the seemingly unrelated slapstick scenes. (It’s Chaplin, of course.) One of my favourite gags is Hynkel trying to pretend he’s extremely busy. Also, the food fight between the two dictators is pretty classic.

I think Chaplin is too kind to Hitler. He portrays him, partially, as a stooge of Goebbels. But he does get some essential things right about these people, even through caricature. At bottom, they are sad, angry buffoons. There’s one scene with Hynkel and Napaloni that reminded me of Trump’s infamous obsession with winning the handshake, for example.

It’s a brave film for its time, despite its flaws. But I just have trouble getting over those flaws when it comes to thinking how it compares to his earlier features.


PS This is the first talkie I can remember hearing Chaplin’s voice in. It sure is weird the first time you hear it.

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