The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940) – Short version: I love this movie so, so much. Longer version: It goes to figure that when Charlie Chaplin finally decided to talk, he really had something to say. Picking on Adolph Hitler may seem like going after low-hanging fruit. I mean, we live in the post-Mel Brooks era. Making fun of Nazis is normal. Not so much in the 1930s, when this film was made. The U.S. was not at war with Germany yet and there were many around the world who thought that fascism was not a bad idea. Chaplin was encouraged strongly not to make this movie. By the time the movie actually came out in 1940, the tide of public opinion had turned in a decidedly anti-Hitler way so the movie was received well. It wasn’t the first movie to mock Hitler (that honor actually goes to the Three Stooges, of all people) but it struck a chord.

It’s not hard to see why. Chaplin has always had a great sense of humor beyond the physical comedy most silent film stars are known for. (One of the favorite arguments of the film nerd is who was better Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I split hairs and argue that Keaton was the superior physical comedian but Chaplin the superior film-maker and actor.) Chaplin plays two roles in the film. The first is a Jewish barber who is a veteran of World War I. He sustains a head injury and spends the next decade or so in the hospital. In that time, his country of Tomainia has been taken over by the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). The anti-Semitic Hynkel delivers impassion speeches of total gibberish (vaguely Germanic-sounding) to get his followers riled up. The film does have a lot of the usual laughs you get from a Chaplin film but it has so much more. Chaplin’s impassioned final speech doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a plea for tolerance and courage to stand against the forces of bigotry. It’s hard to separate the movie and the message. That’s okay though. This is a damn brilliant movie and worth seeing.

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