Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) is undoubtedly his most controversial film. It is also one of his greatest. His portrayal of Adolph Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel was scathing. By also playing a look-alike Jewish barber, Chaplin managed to contrast good and evil in a remarkably simple manner. But there is nothing simple about The Great Dictator as a whole. Unprecedented is more like it. This is a truly funny, poignant – and ultimately inspiring film about (of all things) the Nazis. Only Chaplin could have pulled off such an audacious feat. One day in the not too distant future, he would pay a heavy price for being a man of conscience.
The film opens with the kindly barber in combat during World War I. His group is under heavy fire, and he finds himself separated from them. He stumbles upon an injured pilot named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) and comically, (but effectively) assists him in escaping the enemy by getting the man’s plane airborne.
Once they are safely out of range, the plane veers out of control and crashes. The barber suffers from amnesia as a result, and is institutionalized for 12 years. When he returns to his shop in the Jewish ghetto, our hero has missed the rise of dictator Adenoid Hynkel, and the subsequent terrors his neighbors have been subjected to.
Meanwhile, Schultz has become a prominent member of the party. During a stormtrooper raid on the ghetto, he arrives to inspect their work and recognizes the barber. He orders his men to leave the occupants alone from then on. When Schultz is later deemed a traitor for disagreeing with Hynkel, he is sent to a concentration camp. Soon he is joined by the occupants of the ghetto – including his friend the barber.
Schultz and the barber manage to steal officers uniforms, and walk out of the camp. A case of mistaken identity finds Hynkel arrested as the barber, and the barber himself is called to give Hynkel’s scheduled speech at a rally. What transpires is an unprecedented piece of movie history. It is here that the barber/Little Tramp/Charles Chaplin chose to address the world from the screen for the first time – on the brink of America’s entry into World War II.
We are 71 years removed from the world Chaplin spoke to in 1940, and it is hard to imagine just how much a triumph of the will it was for him to even make this picture. His first major opposition came from high-ranking Jews in Hollywood itself. They feared that such an attack on Hitler could spur brutal retributions upon the Jewish people of Germany. A valid point, but Chaplin’s response was to wonder just how much worse it could possibly get. At the time, nobody knew just how hideous things already were.
Through back channels President Roosevelt urged Chaplin on, and all but guaranteed that the film would see a wide release. Roosevelt surely hoped that a movie like The Great Dictator might open up the isolationist American public’s eyes to the horrors occurring in Europe.
The political point of The Great Dictator is obviously the main thrust, but it is far more than an anti-Hitler screed. The budding romance between the brave barber and handmaiden Hannah (Paulette Godard) is a sweet counterpoint to the harsh world of Hynkel. In fact, the whole ghetto is idyllic for the brief time that Schultz declared it off limits.
The funniest sustained sequence involves a ball to honor the country of Bacteria’s dictator Benzino Napaloni (Jack Okie). Okie’s portrayal of Mussolini is perfectly over the top. Both dictators are scheming against each other, and looking for any advantage. At one point, Hynkel is advised to dance with Madam Napaloni (Grace Hayle) as a gesture of goodwill. Madam Napaloni is a very large woman and Chaplin’s attempts to hold on during their dance are hilarious.
The two despots adjourn to negotiate in private a little later. They wind up in Hynkel’s barber shop. While both have attempted to gain the upper hand throughout their encounters, this bit is priceless. I have no idea why Chaplin chose barbers as such a motif for his film, but it sure works here. Watching these two attempt to notch their respective chairs a few inches higher than the other is classic one-upmanship.
There is also the famous dance with the globe. Watching Chaplin’s magnificent performance with a huge balloon of the world is spellbinding, and reminiscent of his earlier dance with the rolls in The Gold Rush (1925). It is telling that the sequence is delivered silently.
One wonders how The Great Dictator would have played without sound, or if Chaplin even considered it. Most certainly the main story would have worked. The speech at the end would obviously not have been possible though. It is conceivable that the point could have been made by condensing the speech onto cards – or delivering it in some other manner.
Obviously, Chaplin knew what he was doing though. When the mistakenly identified barber at the podium slowly gives way to the impassioned film auteur Charles Chaplin speaking his mind – we are witnessing a one-of-a-kind moment. He has chosen to directly address his audience for the first time – on the eve of the greatest conflict man has ever known.
As part of The Criterion Collection, The Great Dictator contains a full second DVD of supplemental materials. First among these is a one-hour documentary from Turner Movie Classics titled The Tramp and the Dictator (2001). In it, narrator Kenneth Branagh looks at the parallels between the lives of Chaplin and Hitler. The paths these two men chose, who were born only four days apart, are striking. Interviewees include author Ray Bradbury, director Sidney Lumet, and historian Arthur Schleisinger Jr., among others.
”Chaplin’s Napoleon” is a 20-minute visual essay about his work towards a film about Napoleon. Much of this would find its way into The Great Dictator. A second 20-minute visual essay titled “The Clown Turns Prophet” chronicles the making of the film.
Among Chaplin’s memorabilia, some unmarked color film was discovered a few years ago. These 16mm rolls turned out to have been shot during the filming of The Great Dictator by his brother Sydney. In a way, they function as something of a precursor to Hearts of Darkness (1991), the award-winning documentary of the making of Apocalypse Now. Like Hearts, the 27-minutes of behind-the-scenes footage offer alternate views of completed takes, as well as rehearsals and other preparatory activity. Unfortunately, this is all silent – so there are no candid remarks from Chaplin. Still, the material is fascinating.
In homage to Chaplin’s barber, Criterion has rounded out the second disc with two short, complementary pieces. The first is the barbershop scene from King, Queen, Joker (1921), and the second is a deleted barbershop sequence from Sunnyside (1919). The booklet contains a number of essays regarding the making and impact of The Great Dictator. I found the reprint of Chaplin’s New York Times rebuttal to his critics to be the most indispensable item.
In the theatrical trailer, the film is called “Charlie Chaplin’s Masterpiece.” It is one of many, but it is the final one. Sadly, the left-leaning and fearless Charles Chaplin was hounded out of his adopted homeland (he was born in London), twelve years later during the McCarthy era. By all accounts he lived a happy life in Switzerland, and even made a couple more films before his death in 1977.
Chaplin’s return from exile to accept an Honorary Academy Award in 1972 was greeted with the longest standing ovation in Oscar history, 12 minutes. It was a hero’s welcome, and The Great Dictator was the most courageous act of his remarkable career.