Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Great Dictator (1940)

TOP 100 FILMS: #4

Jewish Barber must wrestle with the rise of dictator Hynkel (Charles Chaplin in both roles) whom he not only looks exactly like, but who is also persecuting him, and those around him. Meanwhile Hynkel attempts to befriend fellow dictator in an effort to expand his empire, and prepare for global war.

Commander Shutz: "Strange, I thought you were an Aryan."
Barber: "No, I'm a vegetarian."

Quick, make fun of one of the greatest mass murderers in the history of man. Not too hard right? Now try and do it while, not only is that person alive (and perfectly capable of taking offense/action), but in the most accessible of all mediums, film. Not quite as easy is it? Well, there in lies the absolute brilliance that is Chaplin's feature talkie debut, The Great Dictator.

These days Chaplin may not be seen as hip, or cool, as modern comedies attempt to be. Instead, Chaplin had a charm unlike any other. His subtle mockings at pre-wartime Germany, the rise of Hitler, and the impacts on society, laced in political satire, moves at the speed of light beyond cinematic norms. The ability to find silliness in such tragedy. The ability to find humor out of such human despair. It's a power, wit, and charisma you just don't find anymore.

Chaplin could do it all, and The Great Dictator is the stage. He's not just a goofy tramp, but an accomplished, and talented actor, who can blend verbal jabs flawlessly with quiet zaniness. Let's be honest, who else could tackle Hitler's desire for world domination by combining dance and a floating globe? It's that visual eye for character, and humor, that allows The Great Dictator to breath such life.

Sentiments of humanity, grazed throughout a land of humor in dark context. Laughter blended with sadness. Hope blended with despair. A comedy that reaches beyond the confines of its own genre to be something more.... but only when necessary. You see, Chaplin knows comedy, perhaps better than anyone in the history of cinema. He knows when you just have to be funny. Be goofy. Take a chance. Have two dictators fighting over chair height to prove themselves.

Then of course you have, the speech. If you've yet to see the film, and therefore have missed the film's final speech you've missed one for the books. Not only socially important, but hope filled. Riddled with triumph. A calling for those to dream again. Powerful, beautiful, all in one. Impossible to be beaten. The sort of speech writers can only dream of penning. Perfectly exuding everything Chaplin sought out to say with this film, and so much more. It's simply icing on one of the world's greatest cakes.

I recall once saying to a friend: "Chaplin isn't for everyone... I've just never met someone worth knowing who didn't enjoy Chaplin." Sure, that's a bit of a hyperbole, but there's also some honesty. Chaplin had a way of seeing the humor in things most others couldn't. He could bring it to life, creating this amazing world. While still reminding us the world created is not so different from our own. It is apart of each of us, our lives, and affects us greatly. And, for my money, The Great Dictator is the ultimate highlight of that motif.

21 better thoughts:

The Mad Hatter said...

Wow...a 10/10??? you never give those out!

Not like I'd argue, this is one of my all time faves for pretty much every reason you mentioned, and especially for the way Chaplin was able to take a legendary silent character, and give him one glorious turn in the talkie sun before taking his final bow.

"How's the gas?"
"Terrible, it kept me up all night."

Great post mate.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, one of Chaplin's best and a great transition to talkies.

Castor said...

Sadly, I haven't this masterpiece of the 7th art yet but with your raving review and knowing that it's one of your very favorite comedy of all-time, I hope I can get it on Netflix!

Japan Cinema said...

I always applaude people who can watch classic films and enjoy them. Anything past Taxi Driver I stamp with an immediate ZzZzZ stamp. Guess it shows just how mature of a reviewer I am :P

DEZMOND said...

with CITY LIGHTS, definitely the best of Chaplin's movies.

Univarn said...

@Mad Have you ever seen his film Limelight? I reviewed it some months back as it's also in my top 100. Such a heartfelt, and honest, farewell film, it's really a shame he did 2 more after it.

@silver Definitely. Few actors pulled off that transition, and though he only did a couple Chaplin nailed both.

@Castor Between Seven Samurai review and this, I'm going to have to start keeping a tab on you :P

@Japan It's ok, not everything can feature giant robots and the occult.

@Dezmond Ah yes, one of these days I'll do a piece on Chaplin's silent films.

Simon said...

To be fair, Chaplin said, had he known the full extent of what was going on in Europe, he probably wouldn't have done the movie, or at least done it the way he did.

That said, god, I love this movie! Also, Limelight, for the Keaton-and-Chaplin factor.

Castor said...

Aahaha fair enough, I just don't feel in top form as of late and this review of Seven Samurai will require nothing less than that.

Shubhajit said...

"I've just never met someone worth knowing who didn't enjoy Chaplin." I fully and completely and absolutely and whole-heartedly second that statement. He wasn't just one of the greatest directors, comedians, actors, posters, etc. of all time, but also a social observer & commentator like few else. Case in point: The Great Dictator, which you've appraised with this wonderful review of yours. What a brilliant political satire this was! My favourite scenes are the ones where Hitler is blabbering with a stenographer by his side, and where Hitler meets Mussolini.

David Deangelo said...

I too agree with you that it suits as best dictator. It was all awesome movies.

Univarn said...

@Simon Yeah, and it's one of the rare films that actually benefits with the added context history provides. Still, for not knowing everything, Chaplin captures much of it quite well.

@Castor I understand that feeling. I haven't seen a new movie in over a week because I've been in a bit of a rut.

@Shubhajit Oh the Hitler/Mussolini spoof scene is just priceless. The second that scene was over I knew I was in love with the movie till the end.

James R said...

I didn't get Chaplin for a long time until I realised how vital it is to see his films in the best quality prints you can get. If I'd known that those 1930s reissues of the Mutual shorts were travesties of the originals that would prejudice me against Chaplin for years, I'd have avoided them. Great Dictator could well be my own favourite Chaplin film.

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Anonymous said...

It's interesting that Hitler saw the Great Dictator film and found it hilarious. As the US was neutral at the time of the film's release, he obtained a copy and he used to show it to foreign dignitaries and his Axis allies in the war. They were shocked, expecting to be shown propaganda dirge from Goebbels and they got Charlie Chaplin!

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