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The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin Takes On Hitler

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The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator

United Artists
The Great Dictator is about the violence of war, the corrupting influence of power, decency struggling against madness, and the persecution of Jews during World War II. It’s also one of the funniest movies ever made, and such a pleasure to watch that you’ll barely notice that it’s deeply political and deadly serious.

Charles Chaplin made the movie while the U.S. was still technically at peace with Nazi Germany, and many were still pushing to keep Americans out of the “European war.” The full horrors of the Holocaust hadn’t yet come to light, but Chaplin’s film was a prescient assault on Hitler and National Socialism.

The Plot

In World War One, a nameless Jewish barber (Charles Chaplin) is injured fighting for the fictional nation of Tomania, and spends years in a veterans’ hospital. He eventually wanders home, unaware that the Hitler-like Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) has seized absolute power and turned Tomania into an anti-semitic war machine.

While defending his shop from storm troopers, the barber meets the beautiful Hannah (Paulette Goddard -- near the end of her long romantic relationship with Chaplin,) and becomes an unwitting hero to the nascent resistance movement developing in the ghetto.

Meanwhile, Hynkle plots to conquer the neighboring nation of Osterlich and become Emperor of the World (a scheme commemorated in Chaplin’s delicate, fiendish dance with an inflatable globe.)

In a classic mistaken identity ruse, the poor Jewish barber is taken for merciless Hynkle, leading to a heartfelt plea from Chaplin himself for humanity and justice -- surely one of the greatest speeches ever captured on film.

The Cast of 'The Great Dictator'

Paulette Goddard is radiant as the spirited, fiercely moral Hannah. As Hynkle’s ministers, Billy Gilbert (Herr Herring, a send-up of Goering) bumbles along wonderfully, and Henry Daniell (the evil Herr Garbitsch, obviously Goebbels) radiates all the warmth of a dead fish. Jack Oakie, playing the dictator of Bacteria, displays about as much respect for Mussolini as Chaplin does for Hitler, and pushes his role to the limits of buffoonery.

But The Great Dictator absolutely belongs to Chaplin. He wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and even helped to score the film. But perhaps most surprising -- he speaks! Anyone used to seeing Chaplin in silent roles will be thrilled by the way he matches his famous physicality with a deft touch for the spoken word (check out his hilarious glottal mockery of Hitler’s German.)

The Backstory

According to some sources, Hitler actually saw the film. When he heard, Chaplin remarked, “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.” Wouldn’t we all?

As for Chaplin himself, he said in later years that had he known the full extent of the Nazi atrocities, he could not have made a comedy about it, a thought which makes the film's prescience all the more remarkable.

'The Great Dictator' - The Bottom Line

Almost every scene in The Great Dictator is perfect: the iconic globe dance, Hynkle’s poorly-translated address to the Tomanian people, the musical shaving scene, an upside-down airplane, all capped by Chaplin’s heartrending final soliloquy.

But the film is still more that the sum of its parts (no matter how glorious those parts may be.) See it when you want to believe that there’s still good in the world -- and watch Charlie Chaplin get hit with a frying pan while you’re at it.

Recommended for You

If you liked The Great Dictator, you may like other Chaplin films, such as The Gold Rush, Modern Times or City Lights. You may also like such anti-war satires as Dr. Strangelove or MASH.

Just the Facts:

Year: 1940, Black and white
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Running Time: 124 minutes
Studio: United Artists
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