The Great Dictator (1940)

It's ironic that such an iconic silent movie star would be well known for one of his only speaking roles. "The Great Dictator" places Charlie Chaplin in the highest golden strata of cinema for a moving propaganda piece (for it really is) that remains curiously serious amidst all of its slapstick jokes.
The movie begins with a statement that any resemblance the two lead characters bear to any real person is completely coincidental which, of course, is bullshit. "The Great Dictator" could possibly be mocking any foreign dictator of great power, but it's not. This one is aimed right at Hitler. The titular character's name is Hynkel and whenever his subjects salute him it's with the stiff armed Nazi salute accompanied by "Heil Hynkel". Plus, the made up language that Hynkel speaks in sounds a great deal like German. Probably not so coincidental.
That's not really important though.
The movie begins with the country of Tomania laying siege to the surrounding countries. The leader, this Hynkel character, is kind of attracted to the idea of world dictators generally are. One of his soldiers, a barber also played by Chaplin, rescues a man in a plane and gets knocked on the head, waking up later with amnesia.
He returns back to his barber shop in the ghetto where he shop is right up to a rebel pretty girl named Hannah (Paulette Goddard). She's trying to fight the occupation of the military single handedly and, because this is a comedy, she hasn't gotten shot yet.
What "The Great Dictator" fails to do is present Chaplin at his finest. An often quoted axiom of his was to note the separation of tragedy and comedy as quite small. In 'The Great Dictator", it's only pure satire and low on emotions at all. We feel for Hannah and the unnamed protagonist, but much of the movie is split in half, watching the dictator flounder around, making an ass of himself to foreign dignitaries. This is unusual because both comedy and tragedy were usually embodied in Chaplin's tramp characters. Does this make the movie less successful? Well, as an empathetic, emotional, satisfying experience I think yes. But as propaganda, no. It's incredibly successful.
There's nothing terribly twisted about the plot. Nothing jumps out and scares you. I can understand how, in 1940, this would have been much more influential and motivating; but in 2016, there is no current war so its call to arms, to reboot democracy, sort of just seems out of place.
In its historical context, I understand why this is a great movie. On its own, it's not Chaplin's best.

Score: ★★★

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