The Great Dictator (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by James L. Neibaur

Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel, doing his dance to world domination

Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel, doing his dance to world domination

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin; music by Chaplin and Meredith Wilson; cinematography by Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh; with Charles Chaplin, Jack Oakie, and Paulette Goddard. Blu-ray, B&W, 125 min., 1940. A Criterion Collection Release, distributed by Image Entertainment.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Charles Chaplin’s landmark film The Great Dictator is another commendable step towards making more classic films available in the new format. Devoid of the dazzling visuals and enhanced soundtracks of the current blockbusters that Blu-ray tends to promote, The Great Dictator is, instead, a vintage-movie milestone that is truly significant to cinema’s rich history.

Released in 1940, a good dozen years after the talking-picture revolution, The Great Dictator shows silent-screen icon Charlie Chaplin finally conceding to the new format by confronting it head-on with a film that was both topical and challenging. Unlike Buster Keaton, Chaplin was not as interested in the technology of cinema as he was with character and narrative. While a fascinated Keaton wanted to experiment with talking pictures, Chaplin continued to release movies that were largely silent well after sound film had become the norm. Chaplin claimed, in interviews, that if his beloved Little Tramp character were allowed to have a specific language, he would no longer be a universal Everyman. Thus, his only releases during the 1930s—City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936)—were largely silent, save for music Chaplin himself composed, as well as carefully orchestrated sound effects. His choice to allow us to hear the Little Tramp’s voice in the latter film was via a musical number done in gibberish.

Chaplin’s success releasing silent films during the talking-picture era shows how much power the comedian had by that point in his career. Reports in movie-trade magazines as early as 1929 stated how theaters that were not yet equipped to show sound movies were losing business. Mediocre early talkies were drawing several times more than some of the best silent films. By the time Chaplin was filming Modern Times, studios were cutting up their dramatic silent features, which had been box-office successes only five years earlier, overdubbing silly music and wisecracking narration, and releasing them as sarcastic short comedies. Exhibitor H.E. Hoag stated in 1930: “A silent comedy is very flat now. In fact, for the past two years, my audiences seldom laughed out loud at a silent.”

The bigger studios hastily transformed recently shot silent features into talkies by dubbing in voices and sound effects. The smaller studios did not have the funds to accomplish this, and thus their silents of late 1929 and early 1930 received very little distribution, save for small-town theaters that were not yet equipped for sound. But by the 1930’s sound was so firmly established in the cinema that only someone with the status of Charlie Chaplin was able to pull off making a silent picture and enjoying a lofty level of success. One theater in Wisconsin reported record attendance for City Lights, despite snowstorms that closed roads. People were said to have walked through blizzard conditions to see the film.

Evidence has recently surfaced that Chaplin had considered making a talkie about colonialism in 1932, even to the point of having a manuscript prepared. But, for reasons we may never know, this film was not produced. By 1940, however, Chaplin decided it was time.

As the Third Reich came to power in Germany and began characterizing Jewish people negatively, word got back to Chaplin that a 1934 booklet entitled The Jews Are Watching You had been published, claiming that he was of Jewish heritage. A caricature of Chaplin, lengthening his nose and emphasizing his dark curly hair, referred to the comedian as a “little Jewish tumbler,” who was “as disgusting as he is boring.” Chaplin was not Jewish, but refused to deny it, believing such a denial would be “playing into the hands of the anti-Semites.” Friends had already been commenting on the fact that Hitler wore a mustache similar to Chaplin’s, and a rumor persisted that the dictator chose his facial hair specifically to resemble the beloved comedian. More intrigued than insulted, Chaplin chose to fight back using comedy.

As he composed the script, Chaplin arranged to play two roles in The Great Dictator, using his noted resemblance to Hitler as the axis of his filmThe humble Jewish barber appears to be an extension of his classic Little Tramp (even to the point of being clad in similar dress). The barber’s lookalike is dictator Adenoid Hynkel. It would seem that the heartless persecution of Jewish people by Nazi storm-troopers would hardly lend itself to comedy, and Chaplin later admitted that, had he known more about the atrocities, he would not likely have made the film. But somehow Chaplin effectively balances the humor with the underlying message.

Watching footage of Adolf Hitler’s speeches, Chaplin interpreted the dictator’s eye-bulging, nostril-flaring, animated movement as a solid basis for comic parody. Chaplin approached Hitler as a buffoon whose physical performance appeared to be a throwback to the comedian’s Keystone period, where such florid gestures were central to every comic’s performance. Investigating the dictator’s life, Chaplin was intrigued to discover that they were born only days apart in April of 1889, that both experienced poverty and similar parental issues, and that they shared certain interests (including an affinity for composer Richard Wagner’s music).

The Great Dictator shows a real evolution in Chaplin’s work from silent to sound comedy. The opening sequences, featuring the barber as a soldier on the battlefield, are a series of physical gags. The barber battles a faulty missile, has a live grenade slip down his sleeve as he rears back to throw it, and ineffectively mans a large antiaircraft gun that twists and flips him around as he attempts to maneuver the weapon. It is all very much like silent comedy, with vocal reactions obviously dubbed in during postproduction, and the action occasionally speeded up to faster motion. At one point during the battlefield sequence, smoke from the weapons fills the screen and the barber gets separated from unit. Walking through the smoke, the barber calls out “yoo hoo” in an attempt to find his fellow soldiers. There is no image on the screen, just the sound of the barber calling out. Hence, in his first talkie, Chaplin features a brief scene where there is sound and no picture. When the film shifts to the dictator giving a speech, however, it becomes quite noisy, with blatant gestures and shouting dialog. Hynkel’s German is Teutonic-sounding gibberish, with occasional words like “sauerkraut” and “wienerschnitzel” tossed in.

Throughout the film, Chaplin goes back and forth between the dictator’s life and the barber’s. Hynkel is surrounded by incompetence, on a furious quest to gain absolute power, too busy to stop for more than a few seconds to allow a portrait artist and a sculptor to work on his likeness. The barber’s life, which had been quiet and settled before the war, has now become tumultuous. The storm-troopers painting “Jew” on his window, and their fighting him when he tries to wash it off, confuses the barber, who has returned home after a years-long recovery from a war injury. Between these two characters, Chaplin presents one as overbearing, the other as unassuming. Their resemblance is coincidental.

These parallels continue during two of the most celebrated sequences in the film, both of which are silent set pieces. In the first, the dictator dances a ballet with a globe balloon, delicately tapping it into the air with his hand or foot as Wagner’s prelude to Lohengrin accents the scene. As the balloon floats down, he embraces it, causing it to pop in his face. Such is Chaplin’s symbolic statement regarding Hitler’s ultimate success in conquering the world.

The second sequence, following immediately after this one, shows the barber shaving a customer to the tune of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance, deftly timing his efforts to the rhythm, from applying leather to the actual scraping of the face. The film again gets noisy with dialog once Jack Oakie arrives in a Benito Mussolini parody. Oakie’s loud, bombastic style is another contrast with Chaplin’s quieter method and, to the comedian’s credit, he allows Oakie to steal virtually every scene in which they appear together.

The Great Dictator concludes with the barber assuming Hynkel’s identity and offering an impassioned speech for the radio that effectively reverses all of the suppressive policies of the dictator. Accused of being communist by the right and dismissed as sentimental by the left, it is most interesting in that it features Chaplin commanding a scene with pure dialog, ending his first talkie with an extended soliloquy.

The filming of The Great Dictator draws from a variety of influences. First, and perhaps least discussed, is the fact that Chaplin’s own half-brother Sydney once wrote, directed, and starred in a film entitled King, Queen and Joker (1921), in which he played the dual role of a barber and the ruler of a country. This could perhaps have provided some of the inspiration for the story once Chaplin decided to parody Hitler. The balloon/globe sequence goes back to Chaplin performing a similar bit at a party during the 1920s (he was filmed, and the footage survives). The idea of using comedy to present a message dates back at least as far as Chaplin’s 1916 Mutual production, The Immigrant, which investigates the treatment of people coming to America from overseas.

The Great Dictator finally had its general release, after several sneak previews, following two years of constant publicity about its filming. One particularly interesting result of the fanfare this film received while it was being filmed was that Columbia Pictures short-subjects producer Jules White borrowed the idea for his own satire on dictatorship featuring his popular Three Stooges. Since two-reel comedies were produced much more quickly than feature-length pictures, the Stooges’ comedy You Nazty Spy (Jules White, 1940) came out several months before The Great Dictator. This two-reeler, with Moe Howard offering a commendable Hitler parody of his own, was one of the trio’s biggest hits, spawning the sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (White, 1943).

Upon its release, The Great Dictator was quite popular with moviegoers and critics. Chaplin not only broke ground by making his first talkie, he also presented an honest, thoroughgoing portrait of the Jewish people at a time when they were poorly represented in English-speaking films. It may have been the novelty of hearing Chaplin speak, the topical storyline, or both, but The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest box-office success. In England, the critic for The New Statesman and Nation called The Great Dictator“the best heartener we could have.” Basil Wright in The Spectator praised it as representing “undeniable greatness.” American critics were equally impressed, even at a time when ninety-six percent of all Americans opposed entering the war in Europe. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times stated:

“…no picture ever made has promised more momentous consequences. The prospect of little “Charlot,” the most universally loved character in all the world, directing his superlative talent for ridicule against the most dangerously evil man alive has loomed as a titanic jest, a transcendent paradox. And the happy report this morning is that it comes off magnificently.… a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist—and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced.”

What is perhaps even more interesting is the reaction of period moviegoers, especially this comment from a theater owner in Detroit, Michigan, who submitted his comment to The Motion Picture Herald:

“I personally class this as an outstanding masterpiece. Chaplin had the nerve to show the world what Nazism means, so to that extent it is an anti-Nazi picture, but also gave us a great deal of the Chaplin humor which was Chaplin at his funniest. Regarding the much-discussed speech at the end, we have a good percentage of roughnecks and what may be termed the lower classes, and often it is hard to maintain strict order and quiet. But this mixed audience, and it was a good sized crowd, were so quiet during the speech you could almost hear a pin drop, and a burst of applause at the end that would have done Chaplin’s heart good to hear.”

Adolf Hitler was incensed that Chaplin dared parody him. While he was a fan of American cinema (King Kong was said to be his favorite movie and, oddly enough, Shirley Temple was his favorite actress), he continued to dismiss Chaplin as a “little Jewish tumbler.” The Great Dictator was banned from all occupied countries. Hitler’s curiosity was enormous, however, and had to be sated. Eventually, he arranged for a print to be shipped in through Portugal. He screened The Great Dictator privately for himself on two different occasions, but, unfortunately, history did not record his reaction to the film. Upon hearing of this, Chaplin told the press, “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.”

The Great Dictator has been available on DVD for many years, but this is its first appearance on Blu-ray in America (it was earlier released in this format by Kinowelt in Germany). The extras include commentary by Chaplin experts Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, color production footage shot by Sydney Chaplin, a barbershop sequence from Sydney’s film King, Queen and Joker, and Kevin Brownlow’s documentary The Tramp and the Dictator, comparing Chaplin and Hitler. The Blu-ray also comes with an accompanying booklet containing essays and Al Hirschfield’s drawings for the press kit. The sharper picture of the Blu-ray allows for better appreciation of the depth of Chaplin’s scenes, taken from the best available preprint material. The image is comparatively superior to existing DVDs, making the purchase of this latest version a recommended update to what may exist in one’s current collection.

James L. Neibaur is a film historian and educator whose next two books are Stan without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films (McFarland) and Chaplin at Keystone: The Artist as Apprentice (Scarecrow Press).

To buy The Great Dictator, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4