The Great Dictator: Triumph of the Tramp

CHAPLIN TALKS… WHILE YOU LAUGH!

greatdictatorLeni Riefenstahl’s now-classic documentary on the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will, was screened at the New York Museum of Modern Art with filmmakers René Clair and Charles Chaplin in the audience. The French director was horrified, but Chaplin started laughing. Clair recognized the intimidating propaganda value of Riefenstahl’s work, but that part of it seemed to elude the comedian. All he saw was this terrifically ridiculous figure, screaming gibberish at the crowds like a madman.

When the time came for Chaplin to make The Great Dictator, he based the title character directly on how Adolf Hitler delivered speeches.

In 1918, a Jewish barber (Chaplin) is fighting for Tomainia at the front and saves the life of a pilot, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), losing his memory in the process. The barber spends two decades in a hospital, but is finally released and comes home to his barber shop. It is now part of a ghetto where all Jews are forced to live. Tomainia is run by a ruthless dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin), who looks exactly like the barber. Schultz has risen in the ranks and is now commander of the stormtroopers who keep order in the ghetto. At first, the barber doesn’t understand that there no longer is law and order, that he lives in a dictatorship, and opposes the stormtroopers. Schultz recognizes the man who once saved his life and orders his men not to touch the barber. But Hynkel has plans to purge the Jews…

Hilarious parodies of Hitler’s speeches
Charles Chaplin’s first real talkie has silent bits that are among the film’s most effective, made in the style of the movies that made Chaplin famous. But sound is also used in clever ways, especially in the hilarious parodies of Hitler’s speeches, where Hynkel works himself up into a frenzy, spitting out his comically fake German in an aggressive way that has microphones cowering.

The film was banned in many countries, and no wonder – Hitler, this strange man who was born only a few months from Chaplin and bore an eerie resemblance to the comedian’s screen persona, comes across as utterly ridiculous. Some of the best scenes mock the dictator’s relationship with another laughable caricature, a parody of Mussolini, played to perfection by Jack Oakie. The movie may be a little long and uneven, and its portrait of the horrors facing Jews somewhat on the tame side, but the assault on Hitler and his ideology is very apt. The film’s most famous scene has Hynkel playing around and dancing with a large, inflatable world globe, a symbol of his quest for domination that looked particularly pertinent as the world was heading into its second year of the war Hitler had started.

Wonderful slapstick, with moments near the end that underline the tragedy of what was happening to Jews. Chaplin’s dual role works very well and it’s interesting to see how his classic Tramp has evolved into a Jewish barber. The scene where this character, dressed up as Hynkel, gets to address the world and uses the chance to promote human rights, freedom and democracy was at risk of becoming too cheesy, but Chaplin poured all his emotions into it and delivered a proudly liberal, magnificently ideological speech.

Chaplin published his autobiography in the early 1960s. Looking back on The Great Dictator, the famous comedian wrote that if he had known of the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, he couldn’t have made the film. The truth would have been too awful to make fun of. In other words, we should all be grateful that Chaplin was in the dark.

The Great Dictator 1940-U.S. 128 min. B/W. Produced, written and directed by Charles Chaplin. Cast: Charles Chaplin (The Jewish Barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (Hannah), Jack Oakie (Benzino Napaloni), Reginald Gardiner, Maurice Moscovitch, Billy Gilbert.

Last word: “‘Who are all these people?’ [Chaplin would] ask, looking around at all the hustle and bustle. He just couldn’t get over the shock of having them around. ‘Who are these people?’ he’d turn to me and ask over, and over, and over again. ‘You have to have them, Charlie’, I told him. Day after day his brother Syd explained the necessity. ‘It’s the law, Charlie. If we don’t use them, they’ll close down production…'” (Oakie on how regulations forced Chaplin to work with a larger crew, “Chaplin in the Sound Era”)

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