Funny and Frightening
Criterion is known for stellar releases and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is no exception. Besides the usual high-definition restoration with new commentary, there’s a second disc crammed with choice extras: the Kevin Brownlow/Michael Kloft documentary The Tramp and the Dictator (2001), tracking the twin lives and careers of Chaplin and Hitler, critical/biographical visual essays, behind-the-scenes footage, and a booklet featuring writings by Michael Wood, Jean Narboni, and Chaplin himself.
The Great Dictator is a brave and sometimes brutal film. Originally released in 1940, at the height of Nazism, it pokes relentless fun not only at Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich, here transformed into Adenoid Hynkel and the Double Cross, but hilariously inculpates Hitler’s henchman (Goebbels becomes Garbitsch, Goerring is Herring), SS storm troopers, Mussolini (Napaloni of Bacteria), and the whole holocaustic nightmare.
The Great Dictator
Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Daneill, Jack Oakie, Billy Gilbert
(US DVD: 24 May 2011)
Chaplin’s playing of dual roles allowed him to explore his own personal Jekyll-and-Hydeism: while the Jewish barber embodies the comedian’s sense of humanistic pathos, Hynkel lends him lunatic license to indulge in unforgiving nastiness and personal dictatorism (film directing being, at heart, dictatorial). Thankfully, Chaplin avoided any split-screen chicanery, instead emphasizing the characters’ similarities and differences solely through gesture, physical bearing—the Jewish barber borrows the Tramp’s shuffling, while Hynkel takes over his posturing—and, of course, voice.
Though Modern Times was technically Chaplin’s first sound film, The Great Dictator was the first in which audiences got to see him speak on screen. His voice is thin and tinny, yet even with Hynkel’s nonsense Mother Tongue, one is aware of a linguistic felicitousness. It’s no accident that Chaplin chose to make his first screen words gibberish. Hesitant to enter sound at all, if he was going to do it, he would do it funny.
In fact, this language is not only the film’s funniest bit, but one of its most frightening as well: coughing, choking, snorting, vaguely Germanic nonsense sounds mixed with actual German words, most especially “Juden”. Fierce and ridiculous, this language vocalizes the spiteful impotence at the heart of Hynkel, and thus Hitler. It’s Chaplin’s boldest move: hitting Hitler where it hurts most, right in that celebrated asset of his notorious oratory.
Chaplin hits other target-areas as well, from Hitler’s preening self-importance (Hynkel stands for a sculpture and portrait simultaneously in increments of allotted seconds), and almost childish self-pleasure, as when the dictator, unable to contain himself with the intoxication of all the power at hand, clambers up a curtain like an over-excited kitten. This unsettling move is prelude to the justly celebrated “globe dance”, perhaps the film’s most visually charming and implicitly terrifying sequence. Thank God, it blows up in his face.
Of course, there are funny moments, too: Hynkel pulling off Herring’s medals, then lapel buttons, then suspender buttons; the Jewish barber’s dazed dance down the ghetto street after being brained with a frying pan; or Hynkel’s hammy Hamlet-in-Gethsemane moment during a duck hunt.
Chaplin assembled a perfect cast, among them the insinuating and officious Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, vaudeville stalwarts Jack Oakie and Billy Gilbert as Napaloni and Herring respectively, and, most especially, Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s then-wife, as the ghetto’s spitfire Daughter, Hannah (“We should all fight’em!”). The film’s expression of human hope, Goddard is fiery, sweet and luminous at once. After receiving a makeover from the barber, she gazes into the mirror/camera in close-up and says, “Gee, ain’t I cute.” I imagine an entire world of viewers responding rapturously, “You sure are.”
The film has many self-reflexive moments, most having to do with speech and sound. Before Chaplin’s famous final speech, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), the barely sympathetic Nazi officer, pressures the barber, “You must speak.” “I can’t,” the barber replies. “You must, it’s our only hope.”
That last word sets something off in the barber/Chaplin, rallying him to the film’s heartfelt cry (“We think too much and feel too little.”). Yes, the final speech is just as ideological as any of Hynkel-Hitler’s, but it’s an ideology of love rather than hate, which makes all the difference. Naïve? Maybe. Moving and true? Hell yes.
It’s Hannah, though, who speaks the film’s final word, urging Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich), to just “Listen.” So we end where both Chaplin and Keaton began: in silence.
Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection and The Great Dictator are essential, both in that they are required viewing, and contain each comedian’s essence. Where Keaton is an Inventor, Chaplin is a Conjurer; the former’s routines are brainier, the latter’s more spiritual. Chaplin is a better writer-director, though not necessarily a better filmmaker. His feature-length stories are more solid, subtle and emotionally nuanced, and they follow a more sophisticated narrative arc, but the character, the humor and the mechanical execution of gags are no more successful than Keaton’s. In the end, their films share a fraternal vitality and invention.
So, Chaplin or Keaton? Chaplin and Keaton, of course.