Chaplin Diary, Part 16: The Great Dictator

In my previous Chaplin Diary entry, I called Modern Times “arguably Chaplin’s last performance as The Tramp.” But there’s still a lot of Chaplin’s “little fellow” in his first true talkie, The Great Dictator.

By the late 1930s, even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t make silent films anymore. No one wanted to see them. The change was inevitable.

Chaplin plays two characters in this anti-Nazi satire, and both use Chaplin’s famous mustache. The first of these characters, the Jewish Barber, is very much The Tramp. He’s still a little guy at the bottom of the totem pole, just trying to get by, but with a chivalrous streak that occasionally conflicts with his strong sense of self preservation. And like The Tramp, he doesn’t have a name.

Chaplin’s other character has a name (a first for Chaplin) – Adenoid Hynkel, also known as Dictator of Tomania and also Der Phooey. He looks like The Tramp, but he’s at the top of the totem pole.

And it was inevitable that Chaplin would satirize Hitler. If nothing else, the comedian had to reclaim his mustache.

For a first talkie, The Great Dictator came out very well. It contains several brilliant slapstick sequences, and Chaplin successfully mixes his physical comedy with dialog and sound effects. But the movie is occasionally slow and worse, preachy. The movie runs over two hours – much longer than anything else he yet made.

This is in no way the best anti-Nazi comedy made when Hitler was a real threat. That would be To Be or Not to Be.

I watched The Great Dictator on FilmStruck.

Not surprisingly, many of the funniest scenes center around the title character. When Der Phooey speaks in public, he shouts German-sounding gibberish. In private, he desperately hides his insecurities. He struggles to impress a Mussolini-like dictator played hilariously by Jack Oakie. His two top aides are named Garbitsch (pronounced garbage) and Herring. His psychopathic dance with a globe balloon is a sublime and hilarious moment.

The Jewish Barber is a less interesting character, even if he is the hero. He looks like Chaplin’s Tramp, but he’s no longer an everyman. He’s specifically a Central-European Jew with an inexplicable English accent. You can feel the screenplay stretching to avoid giving him a name. Old friends call him “the barber;” a newspaper headline calls him “A Jewish Barber.”

But he has his moments. He cuts a man’s hair to the tune of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5. He swallows several coins to avoid a suicide mission. He threatens stormtroopers by pulling a houseplant out of its pot and putting it back in.

At its best, The Great Dictator mixes sound, visuals, humor, and horror. Early on, Stormtroopers march through the Jewish ghetto singing a childish ditty with the lyrics “We’re the Ary, Ary, Ary, Ary, Aryans!” The first time you hear it, it’s funny. The second time, it’s frightening.

For the first time in his career, Chaplin cast well-recognized supporting actors, such as Oakie, Henry Daniell, and Billy Gilbert. Chester Conklin, whose work with Chaplin goes back to their year together at Keystone, pops up in a couple of scenes, almost unrecognizable without his trademark walrus mustache.

Once again, Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s wife at the time) plays the strong, courageous female lead, and she does it well. But in one scene, she looks directly into the camera and tells us how people should behave. But that’s nothing compared to the speech Chaplin gives at the end of the movie. When Chaplin finally talked, he lectured.

There are scenes in a concentration camp, but it’s no Auschwitz. The prisoners even get letters from home. Chaplin allegedly said that if he’d known how horrible the camps really were, he would not have made this movie.

You must give Chaplin credit for attacking anti-Semitism. The major studios were beginning to make anti-Nazi movies, but they carefully avoided that topic.

But Chaplin’s slow filmmaking methods didn’t match well with political satire. When he started making The Great Dictator in 1938, he was trying to wake people up. By the time it opened in 1940, most of the world was woke.

It would be seven years before he made another film.