Friday, September 10, 2010

1940 - The Great Dictator

My time here in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania is coming to a close - only three more days left. It has been an incredibly illuminating summer for me. Regional theatre in Australia does not operate the same way that it does in this country (mostly due to the smaller population) and hence, this was my first regional theatre experience. While I missed my home and, more importantly, my wife in New York City, it was definitely nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life for a few months. And, believe me, there is very little hustle and almost no bustle in Boiling Springs. Quiet living, for certain. The two shows in which I have performed have been a lot of fun. There's no denying that I love the stage. It's also been a welcome challenge to perform in musicals, a genre I rarely participated in until recently. Of course, it is the people with whom I have worked alongside that I will miss the most. It is those new friendships that have made my time here so pleasurable. Although, most of them are also based in New York, so there's really no need for this sentimental crap. Anyway, I will be glad to get back to the Big Apple next week and I eagerly await my next adventure.

It's been a long journey but I finally reached the end of the 1940 Best Picture competition by watching...

The Great Dictator
Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moskovitch
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

Charlie Chaplin's parody of the Nazi regime, The Great Dictator follows the inner machinations of the Tomanian dictatorship, led by Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin). Aided by his ministers Garbitsch (Daniell) and Herring (Gilbert), Hynkel aims to reduce the Jewish population of his country to second-class citizens, restricting them to a ghetto. Hynkel also seeks the support of Benzino Napaloni (Oakie), the dictator of neighbouring Bacteria, in his planned invasion of Osterlich. Concurrently, a Jewish barber (Chaplin again), once a soldier in the Tomanian army, now copes with persecution, along with love interest Hannah (Goddard). Strangely, the barber happens to look exactly like Hynkel, a coincidence that later proves to be incredibly convenient.

The Great Dictator is a fascinating study for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is Chaplin's first genuine talking picture, despite the new technology being available for more than a decade. However, he didn't completely let go of his beloved silent comedy techniques with several sequences in The Great Dictator devoid of dialogue. Indeed, the film speed is increased during some physical comedy scenes, reminiscent of silent era technology. Plus, Chaplin's familiar Tramp character is clearly represented in his portrayal of the Jewish barber, oversized clothing and all.

The most intriguing aspect of this seminal picture is its seamless blending of comedy and tragedy, and you don't get much more tragic than the Jewish Holocaust. Even though the worst atrocities had yet to be committed at the time of the film's release (in fact, production began only a week after war was declared), there are several very sobering scenes of human persecution to which Chaplin very cleverly introduces humour without making light of the situation. A key example is the scene in which the barber is forced by a couple of Hynkel's men to paint the word 'Jew' on his shop window. In lieu of a spoken refusal, the barber throws paint on the men and a slapstick routine ensues. The conflicting emotions felt as one watches this scene create quite a confounding sensation. And if this tragicomic mix weren't enough to sate your emotional appetite, there's a sweet love story thrown in. Roberto Benigni has a lot to thank Chaplin for.

Then, there is the fearlessness with which the Nazis are ridiculed. (Although, years later, Chaplin commented that, had he known the true extent of Hitler's atrocities, he could not have made the film.) Chaplin was defiantly critical of the Nazis at a time when the notorious party was at its most powerful. The U.S. had not yet declared Nazi Germany an enemy, yet Chaplin was clearly not afraid to speak out. While the names of the leaders are all changed for satirical purposes, as are the names of the countries, interestingly the term 'Jew' is retained, so there's no mistaking what this film is really about. To make the message even more abundantly clear, the powerful final speech lays it all out in no uncertain terms, almost as if Chaplin himself is speaking directly to his audience (pictured).

The film showcases Chaplin's brilliance superbly. He is impeccably silly during the hilarious faux German speech. His comic timing is on display during a delicately choreographed shave of a customer to the tune of a Brahms composition. And, of course, there is the well-known ballet dance with a balloon globe, a hypnotic and moving, yet cleverly metaphorical routine. He is well supported by the rest of the cast, in particular Jack Oakie, sporting an equally amusing silly accent as the faux Italian dictator. Billy Gilbert, a charmingly comical performer who enchanted me as the garage owner in One Hundred Men and a Girl, delivers a highly entertaining array of facial expressions as Hynkel's mostly incompetent Minister of War.

The actual narrative of the film remains somewhat unresolved, but perhaps this was an attempt to encourage the viewer to be active in changing the outcome of world affairs. If only...


  1. Excellent review, Matt. Chaplin created a very brave and noble film. I can understand his statement that he wouldn't have made the picture had Hitler's atrocities been more well known. Comic tragedies are a hard enough sell, and in light of our knowing the extent of the Holocaust, it makes it especially difficult to reconcile the shifts in tone. I think Roberto Benigni actually was more successful with Life is Beautiful, but he had the benefit of hindsight. And yes, he owes much to Chaplin, who was the master of physical comedy and pathos.

    I also felt as you did, that Chaplin's heartfelt speech at the end came from him and neither of his characters. So, as a film, I felt it was somewhat erratic, but its message easily overshadows any missteps. It may not reach the heights of some of his silent films, but it is easily one of the top films of 1940.

  2. Gday Matt

    I've yet to see The Great Dictator - but we studied the dance sequence with the floating globe at animation school as a brilliant example of physical theater and storytelling.

    It's truly mesmerizing, and yet deep with layers of meaning and subtext.

    Might be time for me to head to the video store and grab a copy.