Monday, October 19, 2020

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" at 80: Dreamers and Doers

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Politics in Film Blogathon. For more examples of how this red hot topic is handled on the silver screen, click here.

Spoiler alert: this is going to get political. Typically, I try (sometimes not always successfully) to keep politics off this site, but since politics is the topic, I'm going all in.

Did Hitler steal Chaplin's mustache?

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" is 80 years old this month. All these years later, after all of our history that came after, it still stands as a work of passion, of vision, of courage and humanity. And as a lesson that, in so many ways, we have learned so very little while hoping for so much.

For Chaplin's first true and total sound film he made the courageous choice of skewering Hitler, the Nazis, Mussolini and fascism with his 2 greatest tools, humor and humanity. When filming began in September 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and Great Britain had declared war. Upon the film's release in October 1940, the United States was still at peace with Nazi Germany. Then, as now, the public was sharply divided over America's position on the world stage. Chaplin came firmly down on the side of global humanity, leaving an audience whose country was on the brink of war to view the choice through a moral lens.

Trouble in the ghetto of Tomania

Have you seen this great film? You should. Really. Briefly, Chaplin plays 2 parts: that of a WWI veteran Jewish barber who, as a result of a war explosion, lost his memory, and his exact double, dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the dear Phooey of Tomania, who looks so very much like Adolph Hitler, the dear Fuhrer of Germany. (Chaplin's hilarity with Hitler would be repeated - brilliantly - decades later by Mel Brooks in "The Producers." )

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel. The infamous swastika
is now the sign of the double cross in Tomania.

Chaplin has a lot of fun mangling and ridiculing Hynkel's henchmen. The Goebbels character, the Secretary of Propaganda, is called Garbitsch. Goring becomes Herring, and most memorable of all, Mussolini becomes Benzino Napoloni, Dictator of Bacteria, brilliantly played by Jack Oakie.

Jack Oakie as Napolini. Remind you of anyone?

The power-mad Hynkel has only one dream: to rule the world.

Conversely, the little Barber is a kind and gentle soul. Despite the persecution he and his fellow Jews suffer in the ghetto, he does get to enjoy a love affair with Hannah, his beautiful and spirited comrade in arms played by Chaplin's then-wife, Paulette Goddard.

Hannah and the Barber on the run from persecution

As the Barber, Chaplin even gets to update an old barber shop joke (deleted from the final version of his 1919 short film, "Sunnyside") with one-time Keystone co-star, Chester Conklin. Chaplin, like so many great comedians, was always ready to recycle a good joke.

The Barber is not exactly The Little Tramp, but he retains so much of him that the character becomes a gentle farewell to an iconic character. The Tramp could not really live in a world of sound, nor should he have had to live in a world of fear and hatred.

While there are many moments of humor, the actual story is quite terrifying and sadly prescient. The barber is saved from hanging and death in a concentration camp by the disgraced Commander Schultz, who, in gratitude to the Barber for saving his life so many years ago, refuses to kill him and defies Hynkel's orders. A series of events lead to the Barber having to stand in for Hynkel, who was mistaken for the Jewish Barber and hauled off to a concentration camp by the authorities (karma!). The Barber must speak to the people of Tomania, and, through he has never spoken to so many in such a public way, he finds his voice:

Chaplin added this speech* after Hitler had invaded France.

Today, we are hearing this speech more and more. It has been part of a Lavazza Coffee commercial called "Good Morning Humanity," and it has been popping up all over the internet. 

For those who always insist on getting in the pointless Keaton vs. Chaplin debate, or give the knee-jerk reaction to Chaplin of "he liked young girls," I say this to you: Chaplin was a human being, a man of flaws and foibles. But he had a gift, and, at a terrible time in human history, he chose to go all in on a message of hope and humanity and to firmly and bravely come down on the side of right. Like most artists, he was a dreamer. But, by using his voice in such a powerful way, he was also a doer.

Be a dreamer. Be a doer. Vote.

* Here is the full text of Chaplin's speech at the end of "The Great Dictator."

We all want to help one another, human beings are like that.

We want to live by each other's happiness.

Not by each other's misery.

We don't want to hate and despise one another.


And this world has room for everyone,

and the good Earth is rich can provide for everyone.

You have the love of humanity in your hearts.

You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful,

to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work -

that will give youth a future and old age a security.

Let us fight to free the world - to do away with national barriers -

to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.

Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.


Let us all unite!


Caftan Woman said...

Beautifully done. Obviously, this was a very heartfelt choice for the blogathon and Charlie, I believe would be proud of your accomplishment at bringing his movie to us.

My viewings of The Great Dictator had been solo in the past. However, last year the family, my husband, my daughter, and I watched it as a family. We laughed. We cried. We discussed it afterward. It was an experience.

PS: After the barbershop routine, we each shouted "Next!" like Bugs Bunny at the end of The Rabbit of Seville. The family who watches classics together is crazy.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, CW - your comments always lift my spirits. How wonderful that your family had a chance to view this film together and discuss it afterwards. I love that.

John/24Frames said...

A great Chaplin classic and you do it justice! Thanks for including it. said...

A wonderful tribute to a brave, moving, entertaining film. I found it downright eerie to watch this. How silly our dictators seem in the beginning--and powerless. This mocking film reminds us that if we catch on to their dangers earlier, we'll all be better off. I don't see how anyone can watch this film without admiring Chaplin's contributions--even if this was all he ever did.


Great post, Marsha. I loved your reflection about the need to be a dreamer and a doer, like Chaplin was. Unfortunately, his speech is so timely - I hoped humanity would have evolved in 80 years, but history is repeating itself. But at least we have art to keep us going.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, John, and thanks for hosting. It's a red hot topic, for sure!

FlickChick said...

Thanks for the comment, Leah. Lucky for us, Charlie did so much more - but for him to make this film at this time was really a wonder. Makes me love him even more.

FlickChick said...

Le - I know - so sad that we just never seem to learn.

Silver Screen Classics said...

A beautiful review of undoubtedly a masterpiece of film let alone a brilliant political satire. The beauty of Chaplin's work is that it doesn't date and his work remains art for all eras.

Jocelyn said...

Insightful and timely analysis of a true classic. The first time I went to watch this, I was a bit nervous about how I would react to a comedy about Nazi Germany. I needn't have - in the skilled hands of Chaplin, it's about perfect. I have to say my favorite parts of the movie involve Chaplin and Oakie playing off one another - brilliant! I need to watch this again soon.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Silver Screen Classics. Chaplin is timeless, but, sadly, so is this topic.

FlickChick said...

Hi Jocelyn. Yes! Chaplin and Oakie together are wonderful.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A great choice for this blogathon. Chaplin was gutsy to do it, and I love his speech at the end. Thanks for including that. Well done!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. It was a gutsy move on his part, but so grateful he made it.

The Lady Eve said...

Wonderful choice and a moving tribute to The Great Dictator. Reading Chaplin's speech at the end today brought the lyrics of an old folk to mind, "When will we ever learn..."

Silver Screenings said...

I've only seen this film once, several years ago, and your analysis made it seem fresh again. Brilliant satire and a good story, too. That scene where Chaplin kicks the earth balloon, toying with it, made me gasp out loud. It's a scene you never forget.

Angel charls said...

The Goebbels character, the Secretary of Propaganda, is called Garbitsch.
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