My friends and I hold a movie night once a week, and my picks have consisted of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Rope, Do the Right Thing and Rebecca. I reached the point where I couldn’t put off introducing my friends to Charlie Chaplin any longer, and The Great Dictator was my obvious pick. Back when I was just a Cinema Beansprout, I wrote one of my earliest reviews on Charlie Chaplin’s cinematic masterpiece. It may have been too large of a task at the time; perhaps I should have started with Billy Madison or 2009’s summer blockbuster catalog. Minus being riddled with spelling errors and poor transitions, I didn’t really capture the importance of the film and what it represented. But I’m glad the review exists. Certainly its a treasure for myself to capture snippets in time during my progression as a writer, but it also displays the greatest power of cinema: movies are visual art, and its images and sounds can completely break us down and challenge everything we believe in. More so, you can have conflicting reactions to a film at different points in your life.
At the time of my original review, I was just discovering film, and above all, Charlie Chaplin signified my first look into a pure genius. I understand that Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were geniuses in their own right, but Chaplin was the first one I shared a connection with. I don’t care for the Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin debate, as they both made amazing advancements in cinema, but Chaplin displayed an untouched sense of pure joy in his outings. As stingy and difficult of a director he was, his sole purpose was making people laugh, yet he never compromised his duties as an artist; laughter was an art in and of itself for Chaplin.
So back in 2009, I recognized the film for all of its entertainment value. The ever-challenging task of the double role speaks volumes about Chaplin’s abilities as an actor and a writer, especially in his first transition to spoken dialogue, which many predicted (and still believe) would lead to his downfall. But he pulls it off wonderfully, along with countless one-liners to boot: “We’ve just discovered the most wonderful, the most marvelous poisonous gas! It will kill everybody!”
But Chaplin’s use of sound is hidden beneath layers of silence and unobtrusiveness, which makes it both masterful and critical of a system that embraced sound for all the wrong reasons. Instead of using it as a tool, Hollywood viewed sound as an enhancer that would send films’ entertainment value through the roof. The typewriter scene of The Great Dictator comes to mind, where Hynkel, one of Chaplin’s two characters and a re-imaging of Hitler, strings out a long transgression he wishes his secretary to transcribe. When he’s finished, she promptly beats out a few keys, to which Hynkel gives a confusing look, but then surprisingly gives an approving nod once he reads it. He then says a single line, and the typist goes off on a long rant and continues to type for several lines before pulling out the paper and handing it to Hynkel. A similar, almost ignorable instance is found at the end of the film, when the barber (also Chaplin) sits down and his chair collapses. Somebody shows up with a new chair a little too quickly, and soon he and his colleagues are exchanging chairs. The sequence absurdly drags on, with each man grabbing a new chair and pushing others away, and the only source of comedy we receive is the clanking of wood and grunts of the men. Not only is an acute use of sound and its abilities outside of dialogue, but its changing of the pace in the film is disruptively ingenious, as the barber is presented with the daunting and life-threatening task of mimicking Hynkel.
Here in 2011, I experienced some strange revelations I didn’t on my first viewing. The most Chaplinesque scene has to be the globe scene, where Hynkel grabs a balloon globe and continues play with it like a child. I laugh during this scene, and Chaplin shows off the fact that he doesn’t need any sound to make something funny. But watching it once again, I found the scene strangely unsettling. Here we have Hynkel, who was not only a reincarnation of the world’s most vile figures at the time, but presently remains the embodiment of evil. Global domination was certainly on Hitler’s mind, and the fact that Chaplin presents this idea so playfully reads uncomfortably. But why can’t we laugh at something so diabolical? Chaplin himself wrote, “There is a healthy thing in laughter, laughter at the grimmest things in life, laughter at death, even.” Did I realize this in 2009? Subconsciously? I have no idea if our natural reaction to the globe scene should be horror or laughter, but I think that very distinction defines the power of comedy more than anything else.
And while I love just about everything Chaplin does in this film, from the ballroom dancing to shaving in sync with Brahm’s Hungarian Dance no. 5, I started noticing why many found The Great Dictator to be the first step in his decline. As far as technicalities go, the script wasn’t technically perfect. His transitions between the tramp and Hynkel were spaciously separated, causing the audience to practically forget there were even two characters in the story. Hynkel isn’t any sort of attempt to humanize Hitler (which is taboo, and fine by me), but certainly some sort of character growth would be appreciated. Hynkel is presented as is: a fumbling dictator without any real powers of persuasion or intimidation, yet has visions of a pure-blonde Aryan race and is relentless in his pursuit. Also, certain comical scenes are dragged out and feel overdone, such as Hynkel’s first speech, which is funny because of his plays on the words schnitzel and sauerkraut and his use of the interpreter, but overstays its welcome by several minutes.
For all of these reasons, I understand why many consider City Lights to be Chaplin’s true masterpiece. It’s flow is impeccable; its characters are unforgettable; his use of physical comedy remains untouched by any other film; and the final scene may be one of the happiest moments in cinematic history. But The Great Dictator completely transcends how we traditionally judge movies. It exists as a film that does have the amazing power to make us laugh and cry, but it also exists as a snapshot in time of cinema’s most treasured artist: Charlie Chaplin. The Great Dictator is audacious in its portrayal of a feared leader and the horrors of war, but Chaplin’s call to humanity for a better world is so bluntly stated and unabashed that it seems all-too-surreal Chaplin would expose himself in front of the entire world so shamelessly.
This all comes to full light in the film’s final speech, which isn’t delivered by Hynkel or the barber, but by Chaplin himself. He addresses a number of issues, including the evils of man and the disengaging results of technological advancement. The most notable point of this speech is the fact that Chaplin made it in the year 1940, when Germany had raided several European countries and the United States had not entered the war. His call to arms at such a pivotal point in world history wasn’t a call for hate or violence, but a call for love and understanding. He claims that knowledge makes us cynical, making us forget that we are all people who know how to live, laugh and love.
“More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
What’s even more remarkable about this bare-skinned statement is the volumes it speaks today. Look at the world and its problems. Are we so different than 70 years ago? There’s genocide. Gay people are denied the right to marry. Racism plagues several European countries like it once did in the United States. Technology continues to develop, almost all but eliminating personal connections we once took for granted. Books are disappearing. We text instead of talking. Much like Chaplin said, humanity is disappearing as our abilities to communicate grow, and along with it people are losing the ability to express kindness and gentleness. It’s not so much that people are losing these abilities, but our irresponsible leaders and technologies cloud our judgments and force us to forget how important it is to love one another.
Chaplin looks right into the camera, right at you, and says this. And it’s no less relevant today than it was 70 years ago. Its importance is still unarguable. And more than Chaplin is addressing the world, he’s addressing himself. Charlie Chaplin Jr. recalls his father addressing Hitler, saying, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.” In the finest example of a meta performance I can think of, Chaplin does indeed become a madman in front of our very eyes. He starts out weak and feeble, but a couple minutes into the speech he become fiery, his eyes widen and his mouth slightly snarls.
“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts!”
His earlier mention of the power of technology and communication comes back here in full force. Chaplin himself indeed becomes a dictator of sorts, as his voice has the ability to reach millions of people at once. He has the ability to persuade or dissuade somebody’s way of thinking. He has the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people at once, calling for a change. Choosing to cast himself as Hynkel in the first place shows he was prepared for such a daunting task, but Chaplin immerses himself in the role so wholeheartedly that he completely exposes himself to the world and transcends the very idea of a “dictator.” Charlie Chaplin wasn’t a selfish man, be he was a conceited man. He undoubtedly realized his own power as an entertainer, but also as a messenger that can rally a nation through a single speech. When he originally submitted the script, it was called “The Dictator.” At some point, he must have realized he had made something truly Great.
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