Back at the dawn of the talkie era, Charlie Chaplin defended his decision not to start making sound films by saying "The moment the little tramp talks, he's dead". He was right of course. His comic persona was the creation of an era in cinema when words and voices were irrelevant. The little tramp's appeal lay entirely in how he did things, not in what he was supposed to be saying. And yet it was inevitable that if Chaplin wanted to continue in the business he would have to cave in eventually. Besides Chaplin's agenda was itself changing, and he had now reached a point in his life where he really wanted to speak to the world.
Many of the early scenes in The Great Dictator seem to prove Chaplin's fears about sound film. The slapstick has lost its flow, looking forced and awkward. And it appears Chaplin has no real idea how to write or direct dialogue. Sometimes characters make some banal little comment on the action as if simply to fill up the silence. Even worse things happen when Chaplin attempts verbal humour, resorting to feeble puns like the one about the gas keeping him awake all night (not that puns are necessarily bad, just that Chaplin isn't very good at them). Above all, the visual and verbal business is poorly integrated, with a badly-timed stop-start feel. It makes it particularly jarring after a dialogue scene to see this ageing version of the little tramp doing some of his old moves, such as teetering on one foot as he runs into a squad of stormtroopers. These scenes are unlikely to raise more than a titter, and are a sad testament to the fact that this familiar character was past his prime and out of time.
But this is a tale of two Charlies. For the first time in decades Chaplin creates a new character for himself in dictator Adenoid Hynkel. And the great thing about Hynkel is that he sidesteps Chaplin's inability with comedy in words but still makes use of comedy in sound. The dictator's cod-Germanic speech is part silly-voice, part linguistic nonsense and it is very, very funny. It actually adds to the humour that no-one else in the picture speaks it, and that Hynkel mostly lapses into it in moments of anger, as if it was some involuntary anxiety-driven affectation. The other great thing about Hynkel is that he is one of Chaplin's great works of satire. The nonsense language is of course a lampooning of Hitler's forceful speechmaking, but the parody continues through everything Hynkel does. Take for example when he has finished posing with the baby, and rather disgustedly wipes his hand clean. He does it with the same stiff-faced disdain that Hitler always displayed in public, but the character's puffed-up austerity is also being punctured by the fact that he's just got his hand covered in wee wee. The little tramp, a creation of and for the silent era, could not make the transition to sound. But Hynkel is a creation of and for the sound era, and he works fantastically.
As the picture unfolds, it begins to gain maturity and clarity, not to mention comic brilliance. Jack Oakie's Napoloni makes a perfect partner for Hynkel, and their antics together are like the Marx Brothers at their most riotous. Napoloni is also a work of satire equal to Hynkel, with Oakie working in many of Mussolini's less dignified mannerisms, such as curling his lip and bulging his eyes like he's trying to squeeze out a fart. While Chaplin's direction is at its most overt and showy, he also cleverly and subtly gears his compositions towards ridicule, making the most of those tall set designs to show off the dictator as some little twerp. And finally, the picture acquires the poignancy that made Chaplin's silent features stand out, this time with an extra bite in the seriousness of its message. It is then that you realise Chaplin knew his little tramp was finished, and yet that he needed him here to deliver his point. By subjecting him to sound, Chaplin sacrifices his alter-ego, making a means to speak his mind to the public who had loved him.
The Great Dictator
Action / Comedy / Drama / War
The Great Dictator
Action / Comedy / Drama / War
Loading video, please wait...
20 years after the end of WWI, in which the nation of Tomainia was on the losing side, Adenoid Hynkel has risen to power as the ruthless dictator of the country. He believes in a pure Aryan state and the decimation of the Jews. This situation is unknown to a simple Jewish Tomainian barber who has been hospitalized since a WWI battle. Upon his release the barber, who had been suffering from memory loss about the war, is shown the new persecuted life of the Jews by many living in the Jewish ghetto, including a washerwoman named Hannah with whom he begins a relationship. The barber is ultimately spared such persecution by Commander Schultz, whom he saved in that WWI battle. The lives of all Jews in Tomainia are eventually spared with a policy shift by Hynkel himself, who is doing so for ulterior motives. But those motives include a desire for world domination, starting with the invasion of neighboring Osterlich, which may be threatened by Benzino Napaloni, the dictator of neighboring Bacteria. Ultimately Schultz, who has turned traitor against Hynkel's regime, and the barber may be able to join forces to take control of the situation, using Schultz's inside knowledge of the regime's workings and the barber's uncanny resemblance to one of those in power.
Uploaded by: OTTO