The Great Dictator (1940) - 8/10
I set the bar high in my mini Chaplin season by starting with The Kid. Despite some excellent films since, I don’t think I’ve seen anything to quite match it. Until now perhaps. Although 20 years on from that debut, this film is a very different prospect. It feels like a real step up. It’s got some real weight to it with its ridiculing of Nazi’s and Chaplin himself bites off a lot more, playing two characters. The hysterically named Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler and the oppressed Jewish barber who’s essentially Chaplin’s much loved Tramp. I guess this film was inevitable with the rise of the Nazis. Chaplin and Hitler were similar ages and there’s some interesting comparisons put forward in last years The Real Charlie Chaplin, but it’s the moustache isn’t it. No one would rightly sport such face follicles these days and although I’m sure it was more popular in the 1930s, it’s now iconic and sadly probably more for Hitler’s evil than Chaplin’s humour. Chaplin here though, puts up a good fight. There’s plenty of war machinery and explosions in the opening scenes, but Chaplin can find humour anywhere as it goes on to feel like a more farcical Proto-Dr Strangelove. What is a little disarming is the dialogue. That’s right, this is a talkie! Chaplin’s lines mostly though are short, clipped, trying not to get in the way of his physical comedy, but there’s plenty of dialogue from others, which replaces the music from the silent era films and well, I miss it! Although Chaplin’s characters talk. As Hynkel it’s either Germanic-gibberish, that’s sometimes comically translated by a narrator or like the barber, he tends to say as little as he can get away with. After the First World War, with fictitious countries involved, the barber suffers a mental breakdown and spends years in hospital. Unaware of the time that’s passed and the rise of fascism in his country. Returning to find his shop covered in cobwebs and JEW painted across his windows, there’s a real Twilight Zone tone to it. He befriends Hannah (the returning Paulette Goddard from Modern Times) and along with his wartime friend on the inside, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), goes about unwittingly and haphazardly taking on the Nazis. There’s a lot more depth to The Great Dictator. This is what dialogue can give you I guess, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the simplicity of the earlier films. The scene in which Hynkel toys with a globe balloon in his office surround by his double cross insignia is amusing, but it is a little harder to laugh, knowing what happened in the five horrific years that followed this release. It’s very much a comedy, but a somewhat sombre one. The barber soon finds himself in a plot to save his country by eliminating the dictator, but instead is captured as his friends escape to neighbouring idyllic Osterlich. Which the dictator wishes to invade, if it weren’t for Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria getting in the way. With barbers struggles and the dictators foolish pageantry, there’s quite a lot going on. It looks great too, the sets, the wardrobe, but then it did cost an estimated $2m! Inevitably the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and here Chaplin’s Tramp finally speaks fluidly, in a rousing speech against dictatorial fascism. Delivered directly down the camera, it’s powerful, hopeful stuff, quite a movie moment. If only real life could be so simple.