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GREAT DICTATOR, THE (director/writer: Charles Chaplin; cinematographers: Karl Struss/Roland Totheroh; editor: Willard Nico; music: Meredith Willson; cast: Charles Chaplin (Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania/Jewish Barber), Paulette Goddard (Hannah), Jack Oakie (Benzini Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria), Reginald Gardiner (Commander Schultz), Henry Daniell (Garbitsch), Billy Gilbert (Field Marshal Herring), Maurice Moscovich (Mr. Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Jaeckel); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Charles Chaplin; United Artists; 1940)
“Charlie Chaplin’s first all-talking feature is a controversial one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charlie Chaplin’s first all-talking feature is a controversial one. It’s a sharp but heavy going political satire where he acts the role of Hitler, loosely disguised with the alias of Adenoid Hynkel, and also plays an impoverished kind-hearted Jewish barber who returns to his homeland of Tomania after some twenty years removed from WW1 as an amnesiac to find his ghetto people are oppressed by Aryan storm troopers. It was made in 1940, just before Hitler attacked Poland and the full disclosure of the Holocaust. If made with that knowledge, it would have been more difficult if not impossible to make such a lightweight lampooning of the Nazis as merely brutes, racists, thugs and bullies.

In 1918 the Jewish barber is a field soldier who flies a plane for the wounded high-ranking officer Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) and crash lands it, whereby the officer walks out unscathed while the Jewish barber is treated in the hospital for amnesia. When he returns to his cobwebbed barbershop in 1938, after running away from the hospital, he’s unaware that Adenoid Hynkel, who looks just like him, is the ruthless dictator of his country and has a campaign of persecuting the Jews. Also Hynkel’s henchmen, Field Marshal Herring (Billy Gilbert) and Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), the Minister of War and the Minister of Propaganda, advise him on questions of war and oppressing the Jews. The barber immediately gets into a scrape with two storm troopers who paint Jew on his boarded up barbershop window, but he receives help in thwarting them by feisty next door neighbor, cleaning woman, Hannah (Paulette Goddard). But the storm troopers return in force and are about to hang him from a lamppost when he’s saved by a still grateful old friend Commander Schultz, now a member of Hynkel’s inner circle. With Schultz’s protection, the ghetto persecution briefly stops.

But the repressions begin anew when Hynkel plans to attack nearby Osterlich, as Schultz falls out of favor for opposing the war effort and ends up in a concentration camp along with his Jewish barber pal. Meanwhile, in the film’s funniest scenes, the animated and aggressiveBenzini Napaloni (Jack Oakie), in an obvious parody of Mussolini, is the Dictator of Bacteria, a neighboring country, who arrives to meet with Hynkel to sign a treaty of alliance. The dictators are reduced to comic figures, with a lot of the Little Tramp in Chaplain’s dictator impersonation. They go through vaudeville routines to see who can get an edge in looking like the stronger leader, such as vying to see who sits higher in a barber’s chair by pumping up their seats.

While Hynkel is rowing, on the day of his planned invasion of his neighboring country, he falls in the water and is mistaken for the escaped Jewish barber and taken by the soldiers back to the concentration camp. While the Jewish barber escapes with Schultz, he steals Hynkel’s uniform and is mistaken for the dictator. In the film’s center piece, Chaplain is called upon by the military to give a war speech. Instead he delivers an impassioned humanistic speech to end tyranny, to bring about an end to hatred and for world peace. The speech is delivered in the regular conversational manner of the comedian, but it can be criticized for being pedantic, mawkish and falling on deaf ears. Though it, nevertheless, came from Chaplain’s heart and was a sincere though futile plea to reach the fascists. But it was plodding and put a crimp on the film’s comedy and made the pic take a nosedive. It should be noted that Chaplain while playing Hitler displays an uncanny knack for imitating the similar gestures and style of speaking that the Nazi madman used when he delivered his public speeches at rallies.

It was one of only a few films at the time that dared attack the Nazis in such an outrageous comical fashion, but it can’t come close to the madcap comical way Groucho Marx in the 1933 “Duck Soup” took an irreverent swipe at the possible horrors of dictatorships and nationalism. The buffoonery in The Great Dictator aimed at Hitler seemed much too soft to fit the crime, but it had its moments and was certainly better than silence.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”