“Strange, and I thought you were an Aryan,” says Commander Schultz to the Jewish barber. The barber responds, “No. I’m a vegetarian.”
The 1930s saw the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe, led by Adolf Hitler, a man who bore a certain look that was familiar to moviegoers in the United States and around the world. The look that I’m referring to is that of Charlie Chaplin, or more specifically Chaplin’s most famous creation (the Tramp). This must have clearly upset Chaplin, especially with all the horrible things that Hitler and the Nazis were doing. Chaplin’s frustration with Hitler would manifest itself with his 1940 masterpiece The Great Dictator (he later admitted in his autobiography that he wouldn’t have made the film if he had known what actually happened at the concentration camps). With 2014 marking the centennial of Chaplin’s most famous character, New York City’s Film Forum put together a wonderful retrospective called “The Tramp 100.” Among the Chaplin films screened was The Great Dictator, which I was thankful to see on New Year’s Day in a 35mm film print courtesy of Janus Films.
The Great Dictator begins at the end of World War I. We are introduced to Chaplin’s Jewish barber, who is fighting (ineptly to some degree) for the Tomainian army. He helps a Tomainian dispatcher named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) fly his plane to headquarters so that Schultz can deliver some secret documents. When they arrive, they discover that the war is over. Roughly 20 years later, Tomainia has come under the rule of a ruthless dictator names Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin, making him the Jewish barber’s doppelganger). The Jewish barber tries to live a simple life in the Jewish ghetto, even attempting to romance his neighbor Hannah (Paulette Goddard) while “Der Phooey” (Hynkel’s nickname) makes plans for world domination. Hynkel’s actions set the Jewish barber on a path that will lead him to a most unexpected destiny.
Chaplin shines in his dual role as the barber and the dictator, giving one of his best performances ever (earning his only competitive Best Actor Oscar nomination). At one point, the barber is dressed like the Tramp as he goes on a date with Hannah, which ends disastrously thanks to a message given by Hynkel over public loud speakers. Of all the humorous moments, my favorite is probably when Hynkel looks at his globe, lifts it up, and gently tosses it in the air (revealing that it’s a giant balloon). Then there’s the Tomainian language, which is really the most obviously fake (yet hilarious) German gibberish ever (look for an early typewriter gag involving the Tomainian language). Goddard shines as Hannah, a woman who’s filled with a lot of spunk, continuously hitting Tomainian stormtroopers on the head with hard objects (flower pots, frying pans, etc.). Goddard is as terrific in this film as she was in Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times.
For me, there are two famous sequences that rank among Chaplin’s best. The first is the sequence where Benzino Napaloni (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Jack Oakie), the dictator of the nation of Bacteria, comes to Tomainia to discuss a peace agreement. Napaloni is a spoof of real-life Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, as he speaks with the kind of stereotypical Italian accent that’s been parodied throughout the years (Family Guy fans may recall the episode where Peter grew a moustache and believed that, as a result, he could speak Italian). This sequence (which includes a hilarious train arrival gag) culminates in a food fight between Hynkel and Napaloni that cannot be missed. The second sequence is the dramatic finale in which the Jewish barber is mistaken for Hynkel and brought before his troops and high command to deliver a speech. What transpires (without giving anything away) is one of the greatest cinematic speeches ever delivered, cementing Chaplin as one of the greatest filmmakers of his era (and perhaps of all time). The Great Dictator is a great Chaplin film that I cannot highly recommend enough!