Two years ago I watched City Lights, my very first Charlie Chaplin film. There’s something about firsts that stay with us. No matter what we’re always seeking to replicate that feeling while at the same time always remembering the joy it brought us. It’s an impossible feat for anything to accomplish on it’s second or third attempts at hitting that very same experience again. So why is it I feel so bitter sweet about this one?
If I had to begin with the negative it would be what I view as the weird duality of The Great Dictator that set me off. The film opens with this scene of Chaplin, playing a poor Jewish soldier, at war manning some artillery. We watch as he, with little thought it seems, pulls the trigger and shells are fired off. He stumbles and fumbles and even has as shell chase him around as he checks if it’s a dud. The film feels like Chaplin running quickly into his famed silent film physical comedy antics. Shortly after we see Hynkel — played by Chaplin — give this emotion filled speech (in German) to his army and nation of the Double Cross (aka. Nazis) about how his world needs to be with less Jews and all of the things that we know was happening at the time with Hitler in Germany. A lot of the scene is played for comedy, as we hear Hynkel call for his country to tighten their belts and we see one of high ranking officers, who happens to be quite large already, do this and sit down to have his belt and pants open widely to his body rejecting the new regime policy. As we switch between the poor Jewish barber/soldier and his physical slapstic antics to the much more animated and verbose Hynkel who’s made to look more effeminate and unlike his real world counterpart in more private settings the film hop, skips and jumps between these comedy styles and I’m unsure as to whether it worked for me.
The duality didn’t just exist in the switch from barber to Hynkel but also in the medium. Chaplin, up until this point, had worked only in silent films. This marked Chaplin’s first foray into “talking pictures” and it feels like it. It feels like a filmmaker who has a strong grasp of storytelling but is nervous about this new element as at times the “talking” would feel an after thought and thrown in just because it had to justify the medium. Just as some films today handle 3D. When Chaplin puts together some of the more remarkable moments in this film: the opening sequence of the tramp vs. the dud shell, the barber shaving a customer to music and Hynkel dancing with the world;they all feel like silent film gags and for the most part and ended with a talking one liner to close it off, almost as if someone at the studio (which he ran) had to remind him at the last moment that he was making a talking film. While most of the time the comedy works regardless it still felt off and I wonder how much better it would’ve been tonally if this was done entirely as a silent film from end to end or someone else took Chaplin’s ideas and made a more current styled talking comedy, whether it be fast paced like Bringing Up Baby or something that you would imagine as a 2000 comedy where people are just making gags regardless of the story.
Let me not deter you any further though, as with all these warts that exist about this movie for me I still like it a lot more than many others. The style and bashfulness of Chaplin’s comedy comes through in a way that I admire. More to the point noting that this is one of the less than five films that were made during the actually ongoing nature of WWII that directly discussed a personal opinion about the war and of the elements involved in cinema it stands as an interesting think piece that you can imagine accosted audience members who had still yet to come to terms with the realities happening overseas.
What do you think about The Great Dictator?