The Great Dictator (1940) – Charlie Chaplin


The Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book continues to provide me with films I hadn’t seen before, as I continue my quick tour of recommendations following my viewing of The Gold Rush.

This film, is probably my least favorite of the bunch so far, and despite its strong message, given by Chaplin himself at the end of the film, directly to camera, it doesn’t quite work so well as some of his other features.

This time, not only does Chaplin serve as the writer and director, but also has a dual role. He plays the dictator of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel, a very recognizable satire of Hitler, and a lowly Jewish barber. The barber has served in the first world war, serving in the Tomainia forces as a member of Big Bertha’s gun crew, until he rescues a downed pilot, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). They crash-land with information for the Tomainians, but arrive too late, the war has been lost. The barber is hospitalized, suffering from his wounds and amnesia.


Tomainia in the time after the war’s end, falls under the aggressive leadership of Hynkel, who is set on making the Aryan race the rulers of the world, with himself as Emperor, despite the fact that he is neither blond-haired nor blue-eyed. He keeps Jews in a ghetto, where they continue to eke out their existence.

It is into this world that the Barber finds himself, returning to his shop and opening it up, before confronting a couple of stormtroopers marking his building as belonging to a Jew. A scuffle ensues, and Hanna (Paulette Goddard) helps out with the well-placed delivery of a frying pan to the head.

There are some funny moments, but are overshadowed by hints of what we as viewers know were going on while the film was made. The barber is almost lynched before Schultz comes along, freeing him, their friendship delivers them both into a prison camp…


Meanwhile, Hynkel has his advisers promoting new devices for warfare – like the near-perfected bullet-proof uniform, the parachute hat. He’s also scheming to take over Osterlich, but his sometimes ally Napaloni (Jack Oakie) has designs on it as well, and they start maneuvering and scheming around each other.

There are some very funny moments in the film, some even whimsical, Hykel’s playing with the balloon of the world is a nice sequence, the strawberries and mustard sequence as fun. There are tiny moments littered throughout the film that are very entertaining, but overall, with the hindsight of history, and despite the positive message the Barber delivers at the film’s end, this one is a little off-putting as it shows stormtroopers chasing down Jews, burning their homes, almost lynching them, and of course there’s his dead-on turn as Hynkel, a true ringer for the insanity that was Hitler.

Still, I’m enjoying this look at a collection of films that I hadn’t seen before. There is one more title in the recommendations surrounding Gold Rush, and then it’s off to the next title and suggestions.

What did you think of this one?


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