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The Great Dictator Movie Review

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Maurice Moscovich, Emma Dunn, Bernard Gorcey, Paul Weigel, Chester Conklin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Grace Hayle, Carter DeHaven

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Charlie Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie), Best Original Musical Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture

Nowadays, making fun of the Fuhrer isn’t anything new. The Three Stooges did it, The Marx Brothers did it, even Family Guy and The Simpsons have thrown shade at the Nazi party. But before Mel Brooks wrote about “…the kraut who’s out to change our history” and before Taika Waititi had him frolicking through the German countryside in Jojo Rabbit, Charlie Chaplin brought Hitler to the big screen in his first-ever talking picture, The Great Dictator.

With years of hard work and dedication, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in what would become the highest-grossing film of his career. Acting as both a Jewish barber and a Hitler-like dictator named Anenoid Hynkel, Chaplin devised a hilarious satire that was so powerful in its message that it indirectly led to his exile from the United States in the 1950s.

This pinnacle film begins during World War I, where the Jewish barber, modeled after Chaplin’s Tramp character, is an aloof soldier. During a battle, he saves the life of a German pilot named Schultz in a comical airplane scene straight out of The Three Stooges. After flying Schultz to safety, the plane makes a crash landing, resulting in the barber having amnesia for 20 years.

After he recovers and returns home, the barber comes to learn that a dictator named Hynkel has come to power. The German ‘storm troopers’ march through the Jewish ghetto where the barber lives, smashing windows and painting “JEW” on buildings. However, the barber’s shop is spared by the intervention of Schultz, now a German officer, who recognizes the man who saved his life.

As the farce continues, an instance of mistaken identity has the barber being mistaken for the dictator as the real Hynkel sits imprisoned in one of his own concentration camps. Disguised as Hynkel, the barber (or Chaplin himself, depending on how you interpret it) ends the film with an empowering speech that left audiences torn, but more on that later.

Naturally, the most powerful weapon one has against an insecure man like Adolf Hitler is laughter – to ridicule him like a clown – and Chaplin succeeded in turning the Nazi party into a laughingstock. Distinct characteristics became punchlines, like the swastika being replaced with two crosses (doubled-crossed!) and Goebbels portrayed by a man named Garbitsch (pronounced ‘garbage’). Even the fact that Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and a ruthless dictator calls out the rumors that Hitler himself came from Jewish decent.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. In classic Chaplin style, The Great Dictator is rich in its gags and comic pantomime, including a shave set to Braham’s Hungarian Dance and a beautiful ballet Hynkel performs with a globe-shaped balloon – essentially making the world his plaything.

Audiences reacted strongly to the film’s humor…but viewers at the time, and ever since, have felt that the film comes to an abrupt dead end when the barber, impersonating Hynkel, delivers a monologue which represents Chaplin’s own political views.

In a passionate speech, nay, plea, for peace, tolerance and humanity, Chaplin breaks the 4th wall and addresses the camera directly, speaking in his own voice, with no comic touches. Granted what he says is true enough, but it so abruptly changes the tone of the film that it almost deflates it. Perhaps Chaplin should have taken a lesson from the silent film culture he helped define and shown us there’s more in what you don’t say than what you do.

Still, audiences were charmed. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Chaplin) and Best Writing; however, it would not win any.

At the time of the film’s release, the US was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Hitler was not yet recognized in all quarters of the globe as the embodiment of evil and not much, if anything, was known about what really happened in the concentration camps. Later in his life, Chaplin said that if he had known the full extent of the Nazi horrors, he wouldn’t have even made the film.

Though Chaplin portrays Hitler as a bumbling, coughing hot-tempered buffoon, he still hit the man where it hurts – his pride. Not only does The Great Dictator bear its teeth to smile, but also to bite.


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