Well, here it is; probably the largest gap in my film viewing history – until now, I had never seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Of course I knew well enough about the film, but had never had the cause to seek it out; my days of watching Chaplin seeming to be largely behind me. When I saw that it was a part of the Best Picture field, I was pretty pleased to be given a reason to watch it and fill that particular hole in my viewing, and indeed when I’d gotten to the field of 1940 I knew it would be the final film I would check off from that list. Really, though, it was that it had been so long since my last Chaplin that was of chief worry for me; would I still be able to appreciate and enjoy him and his work, or had the slew of nonstop dramas that I’d seen for the Best Picture odyssey mellowed me too considerably? During my watch, it threatened to at first, but leave it to Chaplin to come through when it matters the most.
Here, Chaplin pulls double-duty in two roles; one, as the dictator of fictional spoof on Nazi Germany known as Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel, and the other as an unnamed Jewish barber, who happens to bear more than a passing resemblance to Hynkel (go figure) but who couldn’t be more different in personality and character. While Hynkel tries to conquer the world and encounters a myriad of troubles in his quest to do so, the barber is just trying to get by in the ghetto created by Hynkel’s policies. Really, there’s not a whole lot of narrative to this one, being the type of film it is; it stumbles from gag to gag and coincidence to coincidence rather than craft a throughline for events to happen, but that’s what it’s supposed to be doing. I had to admit, when the film started I didn’t think very much of it; the sound design in particular threw me off, the film opting for odd batches of silence where I’d been taught to expect background noise or soundtrack at the very least, and indeed the film’s abrupt jump straight into the war-time gags initially made them unable to land for me. It was a little bit into the film, though, that I’d noticed it was starting to grow on me; by the time of the scene where Hynkel is swayed into world conquest and dances with an inflatable globe, I knew I was watching something particularly special. What finally sunk in about The Great Dictator seems silly enough to say, given that this is a comedy first and foremost and most all are aware of that going into it, but it was that this is supposed to be a satire that escaped me at first glance; when it finally got into my head, the film made a whole lot of sense, especially as it got into the later portions of the picture. Satire is supposed to not just be funny, but a parody of real life, and not just to be a parody for humor’s sake, but to use that parody to say something about the world and/or the state of it, a definition The Great Dictator perfectly captures with Chaplin’s closing monologue, dictated directly to the camera in a blunt reveal that Chaplin is not speaking to the crowds of Tomainia, but to us the viewers. In being a parody, and in being a satire, using comedy to make us understand the world a little better, The Great Dictator succeeds effortlessly.
I guess the best advice I could give to someone looking to fill the same hole in their moviewatching history that I did with this picture is: don’t go into it expecting it to be a great drama, or perfectly made, or for it to wow with incredible production value. This is a picture of importance, not of soul-crushing proselytizing but of lampooning to take the edge off a serious issue to get us to look at it with a clearer head. In short, don’t go into The Great Dictator expecting it to be what it very clearly isn’t, or especially what it’s not supposed to be. Going into this with the right mindset, one will find the magic of Chaplin is still very much alive and well here, even with this being his first ever talking picture. Chaplin, with this, would become the first ever person to be nominated for producing (Best Picture), acting, and writing for a single film at the Academy Awards. Needless to say, he hasn’t lost a step.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10