Thursday, September 2, 2010

Day Sixty-Two: The Great Dictator

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #94
Year: 1940
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Jack Oakie

I haven't seen all of Charlie Chaplin's movies, but I'll be shocked if I watch one for this list that I end up liking more than The Great Dictator. The film was my introduction to Chaplin's work, and it is a brilliant pastiche of his own earlier work in slapstick comedy combined with a deadly serious satire of Nazism that no other filmmaker had dared to approach at the time of its release. Chaplin's trademark humor comes out throughout the film, but at many points it's offered in a blacker context than anywhere else in his career. He boldly stood up to the Nazis not with harsh words or, God forbid, a gun, but with comedy. Sure, the ending is a shot of Chaplin talking, essentially, to the camera, explaining outright how bad the Nazis are and how there's people all over Europe in need of liberation, but for the most part, his condemnation of the Nazi Party is limited to his ridicule of their sense of pomp and circumstance and their penchant for buffoonery. He's at his best here as both director and performer, and there has yet to be a "fuck Hitler" movie better than this save for Inglourious Basterds – and that took almost seventy years.

At the time of its release, The Great Dictator was Hollywood's greatest attack on Nazi Germany. Chaplin had made what will now forever be called a "Hitler mustache" famous two decades earlier with his Little Tramp character, so the natural balance of the universe almost demanded that a comedic interpretation of the life of Adolf Hitler should come out of that serendipity. The names are changed – Chaplin plays Hynkel, dictator of Tomania, not Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany – but the references are obvious from the get-go, and the directions that Chaplin takes it in are indeed brave, but never without comedic effect. There's no preaching for the sake of preaching here. (Although if there were ever a time that that were acceptable, it would be when the person being preached against is Hitler.)

Unfortunately, simply bashing Hitler isn't enough to make a movie, so there is something of a plot. In a classic case of mistaken identity, a Jewish barber (also played by Chaplin, and identical to Hynkel) becomes effective dictator of Tomania. His position of power affords him some huge advantages, but it also lets him see firsthand even more of the corruption and evil that is rotting through Germany – erm, Tomania. This all culminates, of course, in Chaplin's rousing speech that ends the film and reminds American what the enemy looks like. The plot is executed well enough, and it's admittedly nothing special, but this movie's real magic lies in Charlie Chaplin's giant middle finger raised high and pointed squarely at Nazi Germany. 1940 represented the first real turning point in film from preaching isolationist values to doing everything short of asking the president to declare war and the young men in the audience to enlist. In 2010, it's easy to look at the Nazis and say that they were one of history's most deplorable groups of people and that declaring war was the right thing to do, but Chaplin was speaking out of turn when he made The Great Dictator. And thank God he did, because it just happened to result in his masterpiece.

The Good: Chaplin's versatility and ability to incorporate dark political satire into his age-old Little Tramp routine.

The Bad: The plot is merely a vehicle for the satire, like a shitty store-bought tortilla chip with amazing homemade salsa on it. Still good because of the content, but leaves something to be desired.

The Skinny: I don't have a problem with this inside the Top 100.


    You called it way back when but I decided to wait to build up tension...

  2. Haha, I knew it! It really is a great movie. If I could remember all the stuff I learned about it back in high school when we had to watch it for that U.S. foreign policy class I'd reel it off, but I do know it made me a fan.