Thursday, April 18, 2013

Film Review: The Great Dictator

"The Great Dictator" 
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Watching Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940) again I'm reminded of the sentiment, the best way to combat evil in the world, is to make fun of it. To laugh at it and show evil people to be the clowns they really are. Whether it was Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, we often tried to belittle these people by making fun of them.

I'm writing about the "Great Dictator" at a curious time. Initially I wanted to review it two days ago for Chaplin's birthday on April 16th. Of course we are also dealing with a terrible, alleged terrorist attack which happened at the Boston marathon. And again the question is asked. How do we as a society deal with tragedy? In Chaplin's film of course he was taking aim at Hitler and the Nazis. In today's world we are dealing with terrorism.

Then again there are those who say we should not laugh at people like Hitler or Bin Laden. They were evil people. The crimes they committed are not funny. There was nothing to laugh about. To take what they did and turn it into comedy is disrespectful. But, satire is usually the weapon of choice for the oppressed. "The Great Dictator" is an example but also look at cinema from Eastern Europe during  the Communist era. Many films were an attack on the system and party leaders. It's not so much laughing at the crimes as it is laughing at the individuals. Thus showing the world, do not fear these people. They are human and ignorant.

These are quite serious thoughts to have when discussing Charlie Chaplin. You wouldn't normally equate such a conversation with Chaplin. Yet, these are the kind of ideas "The Great Dictator" inspires. This is what the movie does.

The film was Chaplin's first full talking picture. Both "City Lights" (1932) and "Modern Times" (1936), I have reviewed both, did have sound effects. And in "Modern Times" there are moments of dialogue, just not from Chaplin's Tramp character. Here though, we hear the comedy genius speak. He plays dual roles; Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania and a Jewish barber, who is a dead ringer for the dictator.

The movie begins with a credit which tells us our story takes place during a time when "Insanity cut loose. Liberty took a nose dive, and Humanity was kicked around somewhat." The opening sequence is set during a battle scene at World War 1. Chaplin, as the Jewish barber, is fighting on the side of Tomania with Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), who has been badly injured and requires the barber's help to fly a plane and deliver special letters which will lead Tomania to win the war.

In this sequence Chaplin gets in some laughs as we see a "super gun", which resembles a tank, as a missile is about to be fired. It has a defective shell which simply drips out of the gun. The barber also has difficulty operating some military machinery. This feels like a left over theme of Chaplin's previous film, "Modern Times" and the limitation of technology. Technology is just big, complicated machines which are faulty.

The barber and Schultz are not able to deliver the papers in time, thus causing Tomania to lose the war. The two men however are brought to a military hospital, where the barber has lost consciousness. Years have past but for him it is only a few days. When released from the hospital he is unaware for all the changes which have occurred.

Tomania is now ruled by a dictator, Hynkel (Chaplin). When we first meet Hynkel he is giving a radio address. Here Chaplin has some fun speaking with a gibberish German accent. It almost reminds me of Sid Caesar's "double talk" back in the "Your Show of Shows" days. While you won't be able to understand everything Hynkel says, you'll notice a few words stand out in his speeches like "sauerkraut" and "wiener schnitzel", though they take on different meanings then we are used to. There is also some fun with the names are characters. Hynkel's head of propaganda is Garbitsch (pronounce garbage) played by Henry Daniell and another associate is Herring (Billy Gilbert).

Chaplin splits "The Great Dictator" in half. One half deals with Hynkel wanting to invade another country before another dictator does, Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria (Jack Oakie, in an Oscar nominated performance). And the story of the persecution of the Jewish people in a Tomanian ghetto. Here we meet Hannah (Paulette Goddard) and her caretaker, Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch).

The movie is filled with several memorable moments such as Hynkel's "globe dance", where Hynkel plays with a balloon globe throwing it in the air. All of the world is a toy for Hynkel. Another moment showcases a brilliant example of Chaplin's great pantomime gifts where he gives a man a shave to the rhythm of Braham's "Hungarian Dance No. 5". Other sequences deal with Napaloni and Hynkel in a power struggle.

 But perhaps the most famous moment is the ending speech the barber character gives. It is a call for peace. By this time in the film the barber has been mistaken for Hynkel. Hynkel is to address the world on their latest conquest. But, as the barber, Chaplin gives a crying call for peace uttering lines like "we think too much and feel too little". We live in a world in which "Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want". He uses the term "universal brotherhood". He states all men are equal and should band together in the name of peace declaring "More than machinery we need humanity".

Many people feel this speech is out of character and an editorial. You're damn right it is an editorial. It is the very message of the film. The speech is the film's conscience. Society's conscience. A country's conscience. Chaplin is no longer playing a character. He breaks free. He looks directly into the camera, staring the audience in the eye, making his case for a more united world. It is probably the reason he made the movie. He wanted that message heard loud and clear. He wanted the world to know his thoughts. To persuade people.

Could the movie have worked without this speech? Yes, probably. The film visually shows what the speech verbally implies but the words have a sting to them. It is a final rallying call.

I've written about Chaplin on here several times. I reviewed "The Kid" (1921), "The Circus" (1928), "City Lights", "Modern Times" and "A King In New York" (1957). Chaplin is my favorite comedy filmmaker. In my opinion his work is the foundation of screen comedy. He established the standard. In "The Great Dictator" Chaplin gives us the combined pathos and humor we expect from him. It doesn't quite hit me as hard on an emotional level as "The Kid" or "Modern Times" does but the movie is still powerful.

With Chaplin's birthday past, my hope is his comedy will never go out of style. His work will never be forgotten. That younger generations will continue to discover his genius. That he will inspired countless filmmakers. I'm not too concerned this won't happen but I fear with the passing years that number will shrink a little year after year. Chaplin's movies will always be around and in circulation but only for those who seek him out. How many people do you think currently seek him out?

"The Great Dictator" was nominated for five Academy Awards including "best picture", "best screenplay" (Chaplin), "best actor" (Chaplin) and "best supporting actor" (Oakie). It lost in every category but it is still a great film. It doesn't need an award to prove its worth.