in Criterion Month, Review

The Great Dictator (1940)

“Did Hitler See The Great Dictator?” This was the burning question I had when my peanut-shell brain made the connection that this film came out at the height of Hitler’s power. Well, not only did Hitler see Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 Hitler spoof comedy, Chaplin sent Hitler a copy himself.

The Great Dictator came out a year before America entered WWII, and still many Hollywood film executives were reluctant to go after him. Jewish film producers feared Hitler would see the film and subject Jews in Europe to even harsher treatment. While there were plenty of other shitty producers who sympathized with the Nazis and didn’t want to lose Germany as a market.

Chaplin himself questioned whether it was right to make light of the war that was tearing Europe apart. Then he got a letter. A letter that told him to “Make this film.” That letter was written by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So Chaplin did.

Not only did Chaplin write, produce, direct, and star in the film. He paid for it all himself. He carried this entire film on his back and when Hitler demanded a copy Chaplin sent it to him.

It’s debated whether Hitler liked or disliked the film. Though it is known that he requested the film be screened twice. Some say Hitler was heartbroken at his portrayal. Ever wonder why Hitler and Chaplin both had toothbrush mustaches? Though Hitler shaved his mustache to wear a gas mask, he only kept his toothbrush mustache because Charlie Chaplin had made it popular. Hitler was a big fan of Chaplin. Then he saw The Great Dictator and cried like a bitch. Just for that, this movie is a win.

Set in the fictional country of Tomainia, Chaplin first plays an unnamed Jewish Private (credited as “The Barber”) fighting on the Western Front in 1918. The sequence involves the bumbling private (who’s more or less Chaplin’s iconic tramp character) trying and failing at being an effective member of his fighting force. This includes the Barber fumbling with oversized cannons and marching into a haze of fog with his fellow soldiers only to find himself marching with the enemy.

Chaplin could have made a whole movie out of this war sequence. The idea of putting a clumsy nincompoop in the most dangerous scenario imaginable proves for some surprisingly effective physical comedy. The sequence comes to a close when the Barber crashes a plane and fails to deliver the documents that could have secured a Tomainian victory.

Twenty years later the Barber returns to his namesake occupation, despite some slight Amnesia, and goes about his life in a ghetto now controlled by Phooey Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). The Phooey is a play on ”Fuhrer”. Brilliant.

I can see why Hitler might have been upset with Chaplin’s performance as Hynkel. The Grand Phooey is a childish and self-centered egomaniac who screams gibberish like “Sauerkraut!” and “Wiener Schnitzel!” during speeches and bats around a globe balloon. Which is a weirdly beautiful scene despite its silliness.

Meanwhile, the Barber is a kindhearted soul, despite some carelessness, like shaving a man’s whole head bald to the tune of Hungarian Dance No. 5. Yet he finds himself and his fellow townsfolk on the run from the strong arm of Hynkel’s forces. The Barber is later captured and sent to a camp. I was surprised how even the screen time was for the Barber and Hynkel. The first half of the film is almost all Barber, while the second half is almost all Hynkel.

Hynkel is visited by the Dictator of Bacteria Benzini Napaloni (Jack Oakie), an obvious Mussolini spoof who shouts things like “What’s a matta?” and “Salami!” in stereotypical Italian-American fashion. The two are meeting to join forces yet find themselves in a proverbial dick-measuring contest. The two nonetheless sign a treaty for invasion and all hope seems lost.

But all is not lost as the Barber escapes from camp with the help of a soldier, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) who switches his allegiance. The Barber is dressed in a stolen uniform and arrives at a parade where he is mistaken for Hynkel and asked to give a speech. I won’t say too much about the speech it speaks for itself. Hynkel’s plea for goodwill rouses the crowd and turns the tide of the war. Meanwhile, the real Hynkel is mistaken for the Barber while duck hunting and sent to a prison camp.

For a film going on 80-years-old The Great Dictator feels as fresh as ever. Chaplin’s slapstick is timeless but so is his take on how power and greed corrupts. He may portray Hynkel like a petty child but isn’t that all a dictator is anyway? A person who believes they are a god and that the world is their sandbox? Well here’s some sand in your eyes Hitler.