Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner
Art holds significant power in society, as it can be easily consumed but can carry messages reaching far and wide. It gives the artist the opportunity to state an intention and then demonstrate it within their art form. Film carries this power in the way it can imbue the messaging in a subtle, or in the case of The Great Dictator as overtly as possible to make the point clear and direct. Incredibly daring in its defiant satirization, Chaplin truly creates something special with this feature.
After waking up from a coma due to his action in war, a Jewish Barber (Charlie Chaplin) returns to his hometown to see it has been taken over by the Phooey of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin). As Hynkel continues his journey to be the ruler of the world, several Jewish individuals in the ghetto try to find a way to resist.
If I had the choice of who could successfully do an incredible satirical look at Hitler at the height of his prominence, Chaplin would have always been the choice. It almost seems unreal this film exists because of the link between Chaplin and Hitler. From being born merely days apart, these two have been connected because of the mustache no one dares to sport anymore. Some unconfirmed rumors believe Hitler was a fan of Chaplin and this feature serves as a stern reminder to the Führer and the rest of the world of how the latter felt about the former. Chaplin felt like the best person who could have put together a feature like this one and I’m eternally grateful he did because it’s truly a magnificent piece of work with his trademark comedy but also an incredible amount of heart.
Within the narrative, Chaplin portrays both a humble Jewish Barber and the dictator as well. Their demeanors and attitudes could not be more different and unsurprisingly Chaplin does spectacularly well in portraying both of them. The gentle and humble workman as well as the arrogant and hateful ruler. Their differences could fill a dictionary, which only makes the moment where they get swapped so memorable and the most impactful moment of the feature. Seeing as Chaplin sent this film to Hitler, having the moment where the anti-Semitic ruler gets mistaken as a Jewish person serves as the ultimate slap in the face, which then culminates in one of the great monologues in film history. It just gives me chills thinking about it.
Comedy comes in two forms in this feature to which Chaplin harnesses for both of his characters. When portraying the Jewish barber, it falls more into the typical Tramp physical comedy. Close calls in falling and narrowly escaping the grasps of the soldiers while an ally whacks them in the head with a frying pan. Lovely stuff as expected from the directorial skills of Chaplin, but the brilliance truly comes when portraying Hynkel. With this film serving as his first full “talkie” feature, he allows the insecurity of this dictator to stick out like a sore thumb to hilarious degrees. A man who can get on a microphone and proclaim the Aryans are the strongest group out there but when he needs to assert dominance in a 1-on-1 level, he waffles around like a buffoon. You can tell Chaplin had so much fun with this portrayal in further knocking down this man a couple of pegs from that perch.
Just like with many of Chaplin’s features, they have an emotional core to them and the sentimentality shines no matter the subject matter. It allows his works to be more than just comedic outings for him to display his skill as a director and actor. The emotion running through this film receives its exclamation point at the very end, but the pain felt by the Jewish individuals in the ghetto truly accentuates the impact of this community. While the barber brings the funny moments, a major player carrying the heart is Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber’s neighbor. She contains this fiery defiance of the storm troopers trying to patrol everyone in the town but her care runs through every interaction. Paulette Goddard goes toe-to-toe with Chaplin in this feature in all aspects, which truly says something of the quality she brings to the feature when the star, director, producer takes center stage for most of it.
With this being Chaplin’s first full talkie, it also demonstrates that even with his attempts at keeping silent films around the man could certainly adapt when needed to match the sensibilities of the audience. Almost defiantly so, the man not only has the ability to produce incredible silent works, he has the perfect voice to match the tone of his films. A jack of all trades.
Truly a wonderful experience to see, which left my mouth agape at the audacity of Chaplin in taking on this material. Rightfully it stands as one of his most prominent works and the history of the making of this film makes for an equally intriguing experience as watching the actual work. The Great Dictator stands as a testament to the power of art and filmmaking. It shows incredible bravery in Chaplin’s fearless satirization of a man continually building a powerful regime. Truly a piece of required viewing for anyone because of its power and impact in world history and in expressing the ever-evolving quality of Chaplin’s incredible filmmaking.