The Great Dictator
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The Great Dictator (1940) traces the very different paths of two men from the imaginary country of Tomania: the first is a Jewish barber who suffers amnesia as a result of a plane accident which occurred while rescuing an officer during World War I. The second is Hynkel, the Dictator of Tomania, who gesticulates wildly, shouts incomprehensible gibberish and harbors not-so-secret ambitions of global domination. Years after his accident, the Jewish barber finally recovers from his amnesia and returns home, only to find the ghetto under the oppressive rule of Storm Troopers who wear the infamous "double cross" on their sleeves. The barber befriends Hannah, a spunky young laundry girl given to resistance; he later runs into Schultz, who is now a close associate of Hynkel but orders the Storm Troopers not to harass the Jews of the ghetto out of gratitude for the barber's help years ago. Meanwhile, Hynkel plans to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich but must negotiate with Napaloni, the wily Dictator of Bacteria first. The barber winds up arrested with Schultz and thrown into a concentration camp, but his uncanny resemblance to Hynkel gives him - and the world - one last hope.
The Great Dictator was a turning point in the creative development of Charles Chaplin. Up to that point he had played largely silent roles, resisting the transition to the dialogue-oriented filmmaking that dominated the sound era. His previous film Modern Times (1936) was not truly a silent film, insofar as it featured a limited amount of dialogue in addition to the sound effects and music on the soundtrack. However, Chaplin still relied almost entirely on visual gags as an actor for that film. While the Jewish barber in The Great Dictator talks normally (though sparingly), Chaplin's impersonation of Hitler via the character of Hynkel was an extraordinary tour-de-force. Chaplin not only imitated Hitler's gestures, he concocted a kind of pseudo-Germanic gibberish, which Hynkel shouts during public speeches and his frequent tantrums. Jerry Epstein has reported that Hitler's favorite architect Albert Speer regarded it as the most accurate impersonation of Hitler's mannerisms. According to some sources, Hitler himself screened the film twice in private, though never shared his feelings about the film. At the same time, the film has several visual gags that remind one of Chaplin's genius for physical comedy. The most famous of these is Hynkel's graceful ballet with a balloon painted as a globe. Two of the set-pieces--the Jewish barber shaving a customer to the tune of a Hungarian dance by Brahms and the competition between Hynkel and Napaloni as to who can raise his barber chair the highest--are surely the inspiration behind Chuck Jones' Bugs Bunny short Rabbit of Seville (1950), demonstrating Chaplin's continued impact on other filmmakers.
Some sources credit the initial concept for the film with a 1937 conversation between Chaplin and film producer Alexander Korda. However, Konrad Bercovici, a writer and close friend of Chaplin, sued Chaplin for five million dollars in 1942, claiming to be the author of the original story. The case was eventually settled for approximately $90,000. Such lawsuits over creative works are hardly uncommon - the French production company Tobis had previously attempted unsuccessfully to sue Chaplin over the alleged resemblance between Modern Times and Rene Clair's A Nous La Liberte (1931), to give just one example. However, Bercovici's case appears to have some merit: for her 1997 biography of Chaplin, Joyce Milton uncovered Bercovici's original treatment and quoted it at length. She suggests that Chaplin's failure to give credit was due at least in part to a desire to distance himself from Bercovici, who had run afoul of the Communist Party (with which Chaplin associated) thanks to his comparisons of Stalin to Hitler.
Chaplin's attempt to satirize deadly serious subject matter was destined to be controversial. In 1938, once word spread about the project, German Consul George Gyssling wrote a letter of protest to Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, regarding Chaplin's plans to "burlesque" Hitler. Once the film was released, critics expressed mixed feelings about the film's approach. On the one hand, the reviewer in Variety felt that the film would be a hit with audiences in spite of "the portions of the film which dwell too strongly on the persecution of Jews in Germany, the pathetic lot of the ghetto unfortunates, or the manner in which Chaplin burlesques the dictatorships." Film critic Otis Ferguson was more critical, describing the film's central difficulty with his usual eloquence: "When this is funny it is funny as always [...] but it is also tragic because a people is being persecuted; these Jews are straight characters, not the old cartoons; and the laughter chokes suddenly and is reluctant to start again. Chaplin likes to pull out all the stops on sentimental passages, but this thing is too near and meaningful. It isn't that a comedian should be denied indignation and kept clowning forever; it is that old thing in all art of the demands of unity, of a complete or sustained mood or tone. He was always a funny figure against the rude world, but the gulf between a kick in the pants and a pogrom is something even his talent for the humorous-pathetic will not cross. And his unrelieved six-minute exhortation to the downtrodden of the world, look up stand up, etc., is not only a bad case of overwriting but dramatically and even inspirationally futile."
In spite of such reservations, the film was Chaplin's greatest financial success to date and received five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie), Best Original Screenplay (Chaplin) and Best Score (Meredith Willson). Chaplin, of course, would not be the only great comedian to take on such subject matter. Jerry Lewis directed and starred in the legendary unreleased drama The Day the Clown Cried (1972), about a washed up clown who entertains children in a concentration camp. More recently, Italian actor Roberto Benigni directed and starred in Life is Beautiful (1997), which earned him Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film. While Life is Beautiful may arguably do a better job of maintaining the impossibly tricky balance of slapstick comedy, sentimental romance and historical tragedy, it can hardly match The Great Dictator's Olympian heights of inspired lunacy.
Producer/Director/ Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Photography: Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer
Editing: Willard Nico
Principal Cast: Charles Chaplin (Hynkel and the Jewish Barber); Paulette Goddard (Hannah); Jack Oakie (Benzini Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria); Reginald Gardiner (Schultz); Henry Daniell (Garbitsch); Billy Gilbert (Herring); Maurice Moscovitch (Mr. Jaekel).
By James Steffen