Blog Directory CineVerse: Masterfully straddling the thin line between comedy and tragedy

Masterfully straddling the thin line between comedy and tragedy

Sunday, September 6, 2020

How great is The Great Dictator? Read on for a summary of our CineVerse group discussion points discussed last week about this masterwork by Charlie Chaplin, which celebrates an 80th anniversary this year (and click here to listen to a recording of that group discussion).

What was brave, innovative, or unique about The Great Dictator, especially for 1940 audiences?

  • This was Chaplin’s first all-talking motion picture and his last appearance as a Little Tramp-like character. Before The Great Dictator, audiences only knew Chaplin as maker of silent films.
  • This was a rare early example of an American movie that made fun of Adolph Hitler. This is important to keep in mind, as the United States had not yet entered into war with Germany or the Axis powers at the time of the film’s production and release.
    • There was also pressure on Hollywood studios not to anger or irritate foreign leaders, which could make matters politically uncomfortable and reduce box office receipts in foreign markets. In addition, many Americans throughout the 1930s regarded Hitler as an ally and were against entering what they regarded as a foreign European conflict.
  • The topic of anti-Semitism was rarely tackled in a Hollywood film before The Great Dictator.
  • Charlie Chaplin, who funded the film entirely on his dime and using the resources available to him at his studio, United Artists, took a major professional and personal risk in making this film, which was budgeted at around $2 million – his most expensive production to date. He knew he could not count on getting the movie distributed in many countries overseas, and he received death threats and pressure from many to abandon the project or tread lightly on the topic.
    • He had to be careful in how he chose to satirize Hitler, Mussolini, and their henchmen; they had to be the butt of jokes and never earn sympathy from the audience. And it was challenging trying to balance the tonality of the film and its comedic angle with the suggested violence and hatred toward the oppressed Jewish people and the suffering they endured.
    • This was arguably the most successful propaganda movie ever created. Not only was The Great cat dictator Chaplin’s biggest commercial success, but it increased awareness worldwide about Hitler’s mindset and evil ambitions and increased support among Americans for the plight of oppressed people in Europe more than a year prior to the United States’ entry into the war.
    • While many around the world sought appeasement with Germany and downplayed its unlawful actions, Chaplin wasn’t afraid to directly indict Hitler, fascism, and anti-Semitism. The film seemed prescient in its depiction of the suppression of and violence toward Jews – even though plenty thought Chaplin was going too far in his depictions of these events and figures.
    • This could be one of the boldest individual political gestures by an artist ever. Although he was encouraged to pursue the production by President Roosevelt, this became a passion project and personal goal of Chaplin’s: to thoroughly lampoon Hitler and fascism, making them objects of derision and cutting them down to size with comedy.
    • Note that Chaplin later admitted that, if he was aware of the hidden horrific details of the Nazi genocidal strategy and the concentration camps at the time, he never would’ve made The Great Dictator.
  • The speech Chaplin delivers in the guise of the barber masquerading as Hinkle, but intended as an impassioned soliloquy from Chaplin himself delivered directly to the audience, is particularly memorable and rare for a Hollywood movie. Chaplin here is pleading for hope and humanity in the face of encroaching evil, arguing that peace is possible if the world wants to embrace it. In this way, Chaplin breaks the fourth wall, jumps out of character, and risks spoiling the film and its comedic triumphs. But it’s this articulate plea that resonates with viewers across the ages.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Michael Wood wrote: “The greatness of the film lies in the bridge Chaplin builds between the little guy and the bully, so that in an amazing spiral, the thugs who pursue Chaplin as victim are under the orders of Chaplin the boss. He is his own persecutor, and at the end, he is the voice of resistance to his own mania. The effect is not to humanize Hitler but, in part—and this is an aspect of the film’s courage—to Hitlerize Chaplin. This strategy is wittily announced on a title card right at the beginning: “Any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.” This is true, in a way, since Chaplin plays both roles, which is not exactly a question of resemblance. The joke, though, if we linger over it, suggests very clearly what the film is after: its casting keeps connecting what its plot insistently separates… His antifascist argument pursues the fascist in all of us, and the implication of his equation of the victim with the dictator is not only that the comic could have been the madman but that even the good guys and the persecuted, represented by the world’s best-loved clown, are not to be trusted with absolute power. Chaplin’s finest further touch, having made his dictator ridiculous, is to remind us of how much harm even ridiculous people can do. Nothing in the film is quite as frightening as the sight and sound of the ludicrous Hynkel casually ordering the execution of three thousand striking workers. We should know better, but we easily forget how lethal the ludicrous can be.”

Other films that spring to mind after watching The Great Dictator

  • Duck Soup
  • You Nazti Spy!, In which the Three Stooges spoof Hitler, debatably the first Hollywood movie to satirize him
  • The Mortal Storm
  • To Be or Not to Be
  • The Producers
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • The Dictator
  • Jojo Rabbit

Other notable feature films by Charlie Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Gold Rush
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • Limelight

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP