The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Achingly funny, The Great Dictator finds Charles Chaplin belatedly letting into a film of his more than just a trickle of sound—and now, not to skewer a pompous politician (as in City Lights, 1930) or to ridicule the intrusiveness of sound in cinema (as with the nonsense song in Modern Times, 1936), but to excoriate Adenoid Hynkel’s—Adolf Hitler’s—messianic rants. At least on film Hitler doesn’t stand a chance.
Chaplin directs from his own script, and his double role here—as Tomania’s anti-Semitic dictator who rules under the sign of the Double Cross, and, in the Ghetto, a polite, humane Jewish barber, a tad shell-shocked from his First World War experience (more or less, the Charlie who is familiar to us)—results in a split performance of sheer brilliance. There are any number of high points: the hilarious discrepancy between Hynkel’s angry, vicious speeches in gibberish-“German” and their official translations into mild, conciliatory English; exposing megalomania, Hynkel’s private ballet with a balloon globe of the world that he hopes to conquer, the ball bouncing off his head, arms, hip and buttocks; mistaken for Hynkel, the barber giving a speech that discloses his own loving heart rather than Hynkel’s foul hatred. The last yields to an image of the barber’s beloved Hannah (Paulette Goddard, irresistible), now in a concentration camp, perhaps telepathically hearing his words and looking up at the sky: a deeply moving finale.
Chaplin, the conscience of American cinema, could not fully imagine Nazi Germany’s brutality or evil; the concentration camp here is a detention camp, not a death camp. But who knows what it cost the world that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wedded to a policy of neutrality, kept Chaplin’s film from being made for two years?
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.