The Great Dictator (1940), released to DVD and Blu-ray on May 24th, 2011 is the second of Charlie Chaplin‘s features to receive the Criterion treatment, following 2010’s release of Modern Times (1936). Times was Chaplin’s last silent feature, produced nine years after the advent of sound. Chaplin stated that when, and if, his famous character the Tramp ever spoke, it would be as a farewell. He found a reason for the Tramp to break his silence in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich; this was the birth of The Great Dictator.
Few people wanted Chaplin to make this anti-Hitler satire, and the speech at the end of Dictator was even seen by some as communist propaganda. It securely put Chaplin on the subversive list. Within a few years, Chaplin was thrown out of the United States, only to be invited back by the Academy Awards for a honorary Oscar (he never actually won one) in 1971. Chaplin accepted the honor as a sign of mending.
Chaplin later said that if he had known the actual extent of the horrors perpetrated in Nazi Germany, he could never have made The Great Dictator. His detractors went so far as to accuse him of merely being angry at Hitler for stealing his mustache. Of course, Chaplin had been making films against government oppression and the struggle of the little man almost from day one. Additionally, Chaplin’s half-brother’s father was Jewish, giving him further motive to lampoon the dictator. Chaplin’s mistake was that he spoke out against Hitler and the Third Reich before the United States entered the war.
Whether or not the Jewish Barber is the Tramp has been debated for years. He is not referred to as the Tramp, but he is certainly a Tramp-like character, and that is really enough. But, for the first time, Chaplin is uneasy with his iconic character. After seeing the Tramp in all of his silent eloquence for years, hearing him speak in the opening WWI sequence is greatly disconcerting. This opening is awkward, and Chaplin reveals that verbal humor is not his strength. Jokes about gas and, later, plays off the words “Aryan” and “vegetarian” fall embarrassingly flat. His Tramp doughboy had done better lampooning the Great War in First National’s uneven Shoulder Arms (1918), which may be the first anti-war film. Still, the Marx Brothers bested Chaplin in both of his anti-war films with their hilariously surreal and biting Duck Soup (1933).
When The Great Dictator picks up in Nazi Germany, the film improves, albeit sporadically. Not surprisingly, Chaplin’s best moments are in two and a half silent vignettes. In the first, the Jewish Barber is in a scuffle when Paulette Goddard‘s Hannah accidentally hits him over the head with a frying pan intended for one of the bullying Nazi soldiers. The Barber’s brief, dazed dance trot down a ghetto street, past shop windows painted with the word “Jew,” evokes anxious humor. Unfortunately, this brief scene is only half silent. The scene is framed with slapstick interplay between the Barber and the stormtroopers—ranging from buffoonery with a paint dipped brush to an attempted lynching—which further weakens its impact. All of this is akin to Keystone Cops antics. Something more unsettling was desperately needed.
The second and third silent vignettes are shared between the Barber and the Great Dictator (also played by Chaplin). The Barber’s shaving of a customer, choreographed to the music of Brahms, is a brilliantly polished bit of quicksilver business and has nothing to do with the rest of the film. (The shaving sequence had been attempted in a previous short and is a good example of how Chaplin re-worked ideas). It is the Tramp’s best moment in the film, however. In the final silent vignette, The Great Dictator nearly copulates with a balloon globe of the world. Oddly, it is in the portrayal of Hitler, rather than the Barber, that we see more of Chaplin’s Tramp shining through. The Dictator hearkens back to the earliest Keystone Tramp characterizations, when the little fellow could be cruel, selfish, and remarkably antagonistic. (Later in his career, Chaplin’s First National Tramp has a moment, in The Pilgrim , when he delivers a sermon in a hyperkinetic, uncannily Hitler-like stance). Chaplin clearly invests most of his energy into this new character.
The Barber’s cutesy relationship with Hannah is forced and occasionally irksome, although through no fault of Goddard, who is probably Chaplin’s best leading lady. Her role here is not the level of her compelling Gamin in the Modern Times, but she is Chaplin’s equal in ways that Edna Purviance, Georgia Hale, and Virginia Cherril, good as they were, could not be.
In 1917 Chaplin lost his great on-screen nemesis, Eric Campbell, to a car accident. Chaplin’s films thus lost the sense of rudimentary mystery that Campbell’s foil gave to the Tramp. The closest Chaplin came to having a worthwhile nemesis again was in Jack Oakie’s “Napolini” (i.e. Mussolini.). Although Oakie has been rightly praised for his performance here, time has also somewhat rusted his Chico Marx-like caricaturization. Almost as good, although his appearance is brief, is Henry Daniel’s Herr Garbitsch (likely based on Joseph Goebbels). Daniel, as usual, supplies macabre precision to his villainous role, although he is, overall, too sophisticated for the part. The Great Dictator benefits from Chaplin’s attention and development of his co-stars Goddard, Oakie, and Daniel, but the film also frequently flounders by being littered with flat, obvious jokes.
The speech at the end is as naive and as heart-felt for its age as John’s Lennon’s “Imagine” was three decades later. Chaplin steps out of character here, and critics of the period were right in their assessment that the speech throws the film off. In hindsight, the oration is a coda of sorts for Chaplin’s Tramp, although, again, verbal expression amounts to a new, nervous language for the actor. The creation and the creator merge into a persona of maudlin sentimentality and extravagant social satire. To criticize Chaplin for either is to criticize Chaplin as a whole.
Chaplin said if the Tramp ever spoke, he had to say something important. Imagine, a filmmaker actually believing a film needs to have a point. For all of its flaws, The Great Dictator is an important and enjoyable film. Whether it’s important or enjoyable enough is debatable.
*The Criterion extras are sprinkled with The Great Dictator‘s seeds. “Chaplin’s Napoleon” is a short “visual essay” detailing an abandoned film on the French dictator. More interesting is the short King, Queen, and Joker, directed by Chaplin’s brother Sydney. It contains one of two blueprints for the barbershop sequence (the second is a scene cut from First National’s Sunnyside).
Another fascinating document in this impressive criterion package is film critic Michael Wood’s impassioned essay in defense of the film. Chaplin was probably grateful, considering all the negative heat he received from other quarters.