The Great Dictator

Ring a Ding Ding

The Great Dictator (1941)

     Perhaps I was cheating by watching a Charlie Chaplin talking picture as my first exposure to the “tramp.” Nevertheless, The Great Dictator has me thoroughly interested in the comedian’s less talkative roles. Made in the midst of World War II, this first of Chaplin’s talking roles came 11 years after sound pictures were an American mainstay. Regardless of the English immigrant’s expertise in the silent era, Chaplin managed to excite the masses with this film, earning acting, directing and writing Oscar nominations.

     Chaplin plays two roles, both his tramp as the Jewish barber and dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel. Whereas some Hollywood studios were apprehensive to dive into criticism of America’s wartime enemies (because they still hoped to hit up the movie market overseas), Chaplin clearly identifies Tomania with Germany in every manner from a mocking of the German language, to the persecution of the Jews to a similar symbol for the nation (a double cross instead of the swastika). Chaplin really makes use of sound by finding clever ways to degrade the Nazi endeavor (the Fuehrer is called “the fooey” and the Goebbels character’s name is pronounced “garbage”).

     The story is pretty basic with the purpose of the film being not about the plot so much as the laugh to be had at the general expense of the target nations (Mussolini is also mocked by the character Benzini Napolini, dictator of Bacteria). As Hynkel, Chaplin depicts general dictator duties: decision making, speech giving and common vanity. As the barber, Chaplin explores a slight romantic plot with Paulette Goddard’s character. A soldier in the first world war, the barber returns home with some amnesia not aware of the nation’s persecution of his people. He earns the ire of Storm Troopers when a soldier whose life he saved in WWI demands the tramp and his friends be left alone. That soldier and the barber find themselves on the run and eventually a case of mistaken identity has the tramp giving the Fooey’s speech at the film’s conclusion.

     That final oration from Chaplin was a  great message of hope to the people of all Allied nations that was less comedic and more profound. I can only imagine how uplifting this movie was to audiences in 1941. The Great Dictator, like the previously reviewed Duck Soup, is a great mockery of a force wholly feared by the viewers who saw it. Laughter often being the best medicine, I can see how Chaplin’s antics cured, if only temporarily, the fear Americans faced at the time.

  • The Great Dictator is set for 11:45 p.m. ET today, 3 a.m. ET Jan. 31 and 3 p.m. ET Feb. 1 on TCM. 

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One Response

  1. Actually, I think The Great Dictator is a great movie for people who haven’t seen a Chaplin movie before. Maybe I’m a little biased since The Great Dictator was also my first Chaplin movie and, like you, it’s what made me want to see more of his silents. Nothing wrong with starting out with one of his talkies!

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