At a time when we are again questioned as to the importance of satire, and given that I recently rediscovered this movie in my DVD collection, I thought it might be worth commenting on. Much has been written on the background of this film and how it is positioned in the works of the Great Charles Chaplin (Modern Times, 1936). It is his first truly “talkie” movie, which when you consider it was made in 1940, essentially 10/15 years after everybody else went to sound it says something. Chaplin honed his craft in the silent era, and of course it shows, this is a very physically dramatic piece.
Chaplin directed, wrote and starred in this production, which for the seriousness of the subject matter is still capable of some classic comedy. Chaplin said in later life that had he known about the suffering of the concentration camps when he was making this movie in 1939/1940 he would never have made it. I can see his point, but looking further back in time, and viewing it against the evil it satire, I think it add value. I know if I had been around in 1940, I would have “qualified” for the camps, and I still think this work is worth doing and certainly worth seeing.
Written and produced before America entered WWII we see it start back in 1918 when one of our heroes (the nameless Jewish barber saving the military pilot, Schultz. The Barber is however later injured and suffers from memory loss.
Years later the barber escape the hospital and is given shelter in the very ghetto no supervised by Schultz. Later Schultz is ordered to “ethnically cleanse” the ghetto but refuses. Over all the plot is almost secondary to the message. The roles are often stereo-typed but this is a satire and so they may need to be, an example of this is the boot-boy thugs of the dictator.
Chaplin’s by no classic performance with the globe together with his addressing the people in a very Hitleresque (if there is such a word) style are equally heart stopping. We see his designs to conquer the world and make alliances very much reflecting the world around him at the time. Some say “Modern Times , (1936) is a superior film, technically it maybe, but they are sufficiently different not to be too closely compared to each other.
The Great Dictator showed us that Chaplin was more than a tramp or slap-stick comedy actor. We know his business dealing from history and the impact they had on Hollywood, but The Great Dictator is a significant film, a classic and an important piece in the history of cinema.
It would be unfair not to mention Paulette Goddard (Hold Back the Dawn, 1941) who plays the Jewish neighbour in the ghetto who helps our barber , while Reginald Gardiner ( A Yank in the RAF, 1941) plays the part of Schultz, the rescued soldier who went on to command units of the Hynkel’s storm troopers until he, having witnessed the atrocities of the dictator, changes sides and protects his barber friend. One should also mention Jack Oakie (Little Men, 1940) who played the part of the Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria, a not very veiled parody of Mussolini. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, both Chaplin and Oakie received acting nominations for their roles here.
As powerful as this film was at the time, it has not lost any of its power and indeed is arguably as relevant today as ever, if not more so.
**** This is a level above the rest and should be viewed not just for the cinematic history but also how it fits in to the wider world.