Ernst Lubitsch knew it, and so did Charles Chaplin: comedy is the best weapon against hate. Like Lubitsch’s brilliant To Be or Not to Be, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) satirizes Adolph Hitler, Fascism, and the Third Reich with his own stock in trade: vaudeville burlesque.
Chaplin leaves the Tramp behind and takes on his first speaking roles (or rather, roles) to play both 20th century Napoleon “Adenoid Hynkel” and a look-a-like amnesiac Jewish barber, and Jack Oakie is dead ringer for a certain Italian dictator as Napaloni of Bacteria. The films confronts the hatred and anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Germany in the days before America’s entry into World War II while lampooning the despots responsible.
It soars when Chaplin plays to his strengths (a balletic pantomime with Hynkel bouncing a globe like he owns the world), and Chaplin brings it back to earth with a climactic speech, a plea for peace, understanding and tolerance. Chaplin always had a weakness for pathos and he plays this so straight-faced you keep waiting for the punchline. The seriousness and passion of the delivery, however, is genuine.
Chaplin once said that if he had known the true extent of Hitler’s horrors, he would have never made the film, but there’s nothing belittling in the film or in Chaplin’s portrayal of the victims of the despot. It’s one of Chaplin’s masterpieces and a classic of American cinema. And while it was banned all over Europe and even parts of South America, it became the biggest hit of Chaplin’s career.
It earned five Academy Award nominations, including best picture, screenplay, and acting nods for both Chaplin and supporting actor Jack Oakie, and was added to the National Film Registry in 1997.
Paulette Goddard costars with Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, and Chester Conklin.
For more on this classic film, follow the link to an essay at Turner Classic Movies by James Steffen.
Black and white
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The Great Dictator (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Great Dictator (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Great Dictator: Two-Disc Special Edition [DVD]
The Criterion Collection special edition Blu-ray and DVD releases include commentary by Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran and the excellent hour-long documentary The Tramp and the Dictator, directed by Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, plus 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes color film footage shot by Chaplin’s brother Sydney (clips of which are featured in the documentary), two visual essays, a clip from Sydney Chaplin’s 1921 film “King, Queen, Joker” feature a barbershop scene, and an accompanying booklet.
The previous DVD release from Warner Bros. includes the documentary and behind-the-scenes footage plus a deleted scene from the 1917 short “Sunnyside” featuring Charlie as a barber, the “Hitler/Mussolini” scene from Monsieur Verdoux, and a poster gallery.