Friday, July 9, 2010

The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator is one of my Grandmother's favorite movies.  It is also one of mine.  She loves the scene where Charlie Chaplin, as Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, dances with a globe.  I like the scene where he gets into a foood fight with Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, to whom he refers as  "de grosse peanut, de cheesy ravioli."  The whole film is really superb, and if you have not yet seen it, you should run, not walk, to nearest copy.  For some reason it is monstrously expensive on Amazon (unless you want it used) so I won't recommend that here, but you should be able to find it at your local library.  

The Background:
There was something in Chaplin's character that allowed him to see, before most other people, that Adolf Hitler really was evil and had all the worst intentions for the world.  It was before the United States had even entered the war that he undertook to make a very funny film - also very poignant - exposing and humiliating the Fuhrer.  Chaplin worked so meticulously (his perfectionism still holds the record for most takes of one scene, 324) that the film was not released until the world had begun to catch on to Hitler's act.  It notably features scenes depicting concentration camps and conversations between characters making a little light of them.  Chaplin expressed regret for them later, when the true horrors of the camps were revealed.  

The Basics:
Released in 1941, starring Charles Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, and Paulette Goddard. Directed by Chaplin, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, though it won none of them.  Tagged as "The Comedy Masterpiece," the film runs 125 excellent minutes.  

The Plot:
World War I rages on, and a timid Jewish barber (Chaplin) does his bumbling best to fight the good fight for Tomania.  He's not very good at that, but he is good at helping people in need, so he ends up saving the life of a downed pilot (Gardiner).  In the process he suffers an injury which robs him of his short term memory and keeps him believing that he has only been away from his barber shop for a few weeks. He is ignorant of the changes that have occurred in the intervening time at home: the ghetto, the persecution, the camps.  When he escapes from the military hospital he returns to a cobwebbed shop that he can't understand, a lovely neighbor he doesn't recognize (Goddard), and a gang of storm troopers he doesn't know he should fear.  

His experiences in the ghetto are contrasted with the life, personality, and experiences of the Phooey (rather than Fuhrer), a sniveling little man who barks out orations in gibberish (he is also played by Chaplin). The Phooey is flanked by the flat-toned Garbitsch (played by Daniell, who always reminds me of the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride) and the buffoonish Herring (Glibert): delightfully incapable henchmen.  

The barber quickly runs into trouble with the storm troopers, and they have him hanging from a lamp post when Commander Schultz, the airman he saved during the war, recognizes him and grants him immunity.  When Schultz is condemned by the Phooey and sent to a camp, however, all bets are off.  

The riotous comedy of the proceedings will have you roaring, and the poignant, serious moments will stop you in your tracks.  

There are many, many, so I'll have to give you the highest of the highs.  

  • Chaplin's performance of gibberish that sounds amazingly like German.  
  • The Phooey's ballet with the balloon globe is classic. Watch below.
  • The interaction between Hynkel and Napaloni, the Dictator of Bacteria.
  • Chaplin's touching, sensitive, and entertaining portrayal of the barber.
  • The performances of the supporting cast, particularly Oakie.
There really aren't any lows in this film, other than what I mentioned before - that the portrayals of Jewish suffering were so far understated as to be insulting.  Of course, this is due the vast superiority of hindsight rather than the spirit in which the film was made.  If you are going to watch this with children, and I don't see why not, use it as an opportunity to talk with them about the Holocaust and the ignorance of the rest of the world to the true horrors that were occurring at the time.

Fun Facts:
  • This is the first film in which Chaplin spoke - having made his stardom in the silent era.
  • Paulette Goddard spoke in this film as well, though I think she should have stuck to silent films.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend this film. The genius of Charlie Chaplin shines through in many ways in this classic film.

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