The Great Dictator (1940)
Genre: Comedy Drama
Starring: Charlie Chaplin (City Lights; The Circus) Paulette Goddard (Modern Times; Reap The Wild Wind)
Directed By: Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush; The Kid)
Overview: Chaplin's first talkie is a satire on Nazi Germany. In The Great Dictator, a zealot hungering for power persecutes Jews and butts heads with the neighbouring dictator of Bacteria, while a similar-looking Jewish barber tries to get by in the ghetto.
Acting: You've got to hand it to Chaplin. He's got a good voice, he's a great director and he transitioned very well in this, his premiere talkie. To stick with Paulette Goddard, made famous from Chaplin's last film, Modern Times, however, might not have been the best choice. I'm surprised she stayed the talkies course, because that stabbing harpy voice of hers was certainly noticeably annoying. Luckily she didn't speak that often, yet there was still no redemption in her overzealous physical acting.
Cinematography: There's a couple of truly memorable scenes. Those with the Italian... I mean 'Bacterian' dictator are all gold, not to mention the dance number in the palatial office. After discussing the possibility of becoming Emperor of the world, our dictator is left alone fruitilly dancing with a globe. If you're looking for realism, know that the sets are obviously contrived, but clearly this is a big budget production, and there's some interestingly imitative shots of Nazi Germany's parades and settings.
Script: The scene where Hynkel the Dictator gives his first speech is a triumph. How someone could convey such perfect emotion and meaning in a dialogue made completely out of gibberish is astounding. Chaplin uses the Germanic tone and vigour that Hitler was renowned for, and turns it completely into a mockery of that man's orations. On the other hand, the final speech, going on about freedom and brotherhood, is so preachilly saccharine that it was just too much. As for everything in between, solid and entertaining.
Plot: Having read a synopsis here and there I was not looking forward to that old nut of the 'mistaken identity' plot, with the Jewish barber looking exactly like Hynkel the dictator. I was happy to learn that that aspect of the plot doesn't come into play until the very end of the film, and instead we focus on the exploration of these two characters, the two sides of the coin as it were. Aside from that, having a comedy as a piece of political satire is always a good foot to start on.
Mood: Yes, there are some hefty doses of German and Italian racism, but in context it's quite funny, since we're mocking individuals and not a people. There's these scenes where we have such moments as tearful violin music playing as a soft-focus zoom-in closes on the dirty face of the hurt and oppressed Hannah. There's a distinct element of the over-emphasized zeal of driving the point all too clearly, but that's more a comment about how Hollywood studios were making film in this day and age. Those moments aren't that ever-present however, and as stories go, this was quite pleasant.
Overall Rating: 80% (Not Bad For A Short Dude With A Napoleon Complex)
Aftertaste: Throughout my studies of the Second World War, it became clear that the international community knew the Jews were being persecuted, but I wasn't sure when that awareness truly began. Boycotts began to take place against Germany for the whole human rights aspect and it wasn't very popular to be a company with an office in Germany, unless you were IBM of course. All this I knew, but at the same time I also knew that 'America didn't really know the extent of the oppression'. Chaplin, in this film, mentions sending people to concentration camps, shows patrols smashing up shops and painting 'Jew' on storefronts, and all this in 1940, one year into the war. Just remember, if someone tells you "yeah well, people didn't really know, that's why they didn't do anything", just show them this movie, because Chaplin was showing the world early on.
Just saying that people knew more than they were letting on, that's all.