The Great Dictator (1940)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner
The comparison was all because of the toothbrush mustache. That little flourish is what linked Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler at the time. Chaplin was disgusted by Hitler, and the way the American and British governments tried to keep him happy or ignore what he was doing at the time. It was also noted that Hitler was jealous of Chaplin’s popularity during a Berlin visit the actor made. To further rub it in, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced The Great Dictator, a send up of the Nazi actions in the build up to World War II.
The Little Tramp is now a Jew living in the fictional nation of Tomainia, fighting against the Americans in World War I. He’s clunked on the head and ends up in a military hospital unaware that on the outside dictator Adenoid Hynkel has come to power and is blaming the Jews of his nation for the post-War depression. The Tramp is eventually released from the hospital and is disheartend by the world he discovers on the outside. He eventually falls in love with fellow resident of the ghetto, Hannah and is spared execution by a Tomainian whose life he saved in the War. All along the way the film bounces back and forth with the Hitler parody of Hynkel, leading up to a Prince and the Pauper-esque role reversal.
This was probably the least funny of all Chaplin’s films I have seen, and most definitely the longest, hitting the two hour mark. I can see the challenge Chaplin would have making this picture, because he wants to make a comedy but he also wants to skewer Hitler and convey some sense of the pain being inflicted on the Jewish people. Later Chaplin admitted if he had known the extent of the treatment of the Jews and in particular the Holocaust he would have never made this film. Interestingly, the Jewish community was very welcoming to the film and its portrayal of their people despite Chaplin’s injection of comedy into the proceedings. The jokes in the film never create the sense of hilarity of early works because they typically involve the Little Tramp being brutalized by Tomainan storm troopers.
The film has a lot of heart and that hurts its comedy in comparison to the earlier films. The chief redeeming moment is one where Chaplin is playing the Tramp and completely drops the persona and it is Chaplin speaking. He conveys his concerns with the direction of humanity and reaffirms his belief that we are capable of so much more. While definitely harmful to the picture as a film, it is a very strong and well thought out political statement.