- Director: Charlie Chaplin
- Writer: Charlie Chaplin
- Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich, and Billy Gilbert
- Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#24), 5 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – Charlie Chaplin, Best Supporting Actor – Jack Oakie, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming with Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video
Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were both born into poverty three days apart in 1889 and ended up as two of the best-known people in the world. Obviously their lives took very different routes from there. Yet they somehow ended up with basically the same weird mustache, a fact that Chaplin took advantage of when he decided to skewer the Nazi regime at a time when whether the US should be actively opposing the Nazis was still a controversial issue in American politics. Hollywood was skittish about financing a movie that openly waded into current world politics, and so Chaplin had to put in a million dollars of his own money. He later said that, had he known the true horrors of the Holocaust, he couldn’t have made a comedy where his character is sent to what’s openly and matter-of-factly referred to as a “concentration camp.” He spent many more millions on donations to Jewish refugees. But maybe it’s good that he did make this movie, because I think it’s hard to say that it didn’t have a positive influence on the world.
In The Great Dictator, Chaplin plays a dual role as an unnamed Jewish barber, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Chaplin’s usual Tramp character, and as “Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania,” the world’s least veiled version of Hitler. By the end of the movie, the fact that they look exactly like each other is used for some mistaken-identity situations, but not before Chaplin gets to spend a lot of time yelling into a microphone in fake German. He also gets in some digs at the way the media sanitizes the crazy ranting, with an English translator speaking over a crazy speech in much more polite terms. This is the sort of movie where everybody has silly names: Hynkel is assisted by the Goebbels stand-in “Garbitsch” (say it out loud) and Herring (instead of Hermann Gȍring). Eventually, the dictator of “Bacteria,” “Benzino Napaloni,” shows up. He is, if anything, a broader caricature of Mussolini than Hynkel is of Hitler. Veteran comedian Jack Oakie somehow got an Oscar nomination for his role as Napaloni, which mostly consists of yelling fake Italian like, “What-a you-do, you big salami!”
The most famous bit of the movie is an elaborate ballet Chaplin-as-Hynkel performs with a balloon globe of the world. If you haven’t seen it, you pretty much owe it to yourself. It is the best of a few classic Chaplin bits of physical comedy. In another, Hynkel and Napaloni each sit in barber chairs, but neither wants to be below the other, so they keep cranking their chairs up and up until they’re ridiculously high. In another bit, the barber and a bunch of other Jewish men from the ghetto eat puddings, one of which is supposed to have a coin in it (whoever gets the coin is supposed to attempt to assassinate Hynkel). But the barber’s has like twenty coins in it (for reasons), which he desperate tries to keep the others from realizing until they all spill out of his mouth.
This is the second movie we’ve featured in which Chaplin cast Paulette Goddard as his female lead. As I said writing about Modern Times, she feels like a modern refugee popping up in old movies, for reasons I have trouble putting my finger on. Here she plays a Jewish girl from the ghetto who ends up falling for Chaplin’s barber for reasons that are not entirely clear. Five years earlier, Goddard and Chaplin had been romantically together, but by the time of The Great Dictator, she was his estranged wife. You wouldn’t know it from watching their continued chemistry here. It’s actually interesting to me that Chaplin is very open about including the Jewish community as the movie’s oppressed underdogs, given that he does thinly veiled versions of the Nazis and renames various nations. Hynkel’s symbol looks mostly like a swastika, but isn’t quite. In doing so, he tips his hand a little bit, in his point for making the movie. The Nazis aren’t just bad because they’re ridiculous, they’re bad because they’re horrible people. He was a little bit ahead of the curve on that one.
Other than the globe ballet, the most famous bit of the movie is Chaplin’s final speech, after he is put on a stage to speak to the world, as everyone thinks he’s actually Hynkel. He then delivers a three-minute speech directly to the camera, in which he basically breaks the fourth wall, any attempt at artifice falls away, and he says what he actually wants to say. Reaction to this over the years has been mixed. Roger Ebert complained that it brought the movie to a screeching halt and nearly ruined an otherwise great film. Others called it “the most inspirational speech of the 20th Century.” I don’t know about that, but it hardly ruins the movie for me. Maybe it’s just that, in a different time than when Ebert first wrote that essay, a little bit of sincerity is perhaps more welcome. Anyway, I’ll just leave the speech here and you can try and decide for yourself: