Director: Charles Chaplin
Production: United Artists; black and white, 35mm; running time: 127 minutes. Released 1940.
Producer: Charles Chaplin; screenplay: Charles Chaplin; photography: Karl Struss and Rollie Totheroh; editor: Willard Nico; art director: J. Russell Spencer; music: Meredith Wilson.
Charles Chaplin (
Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Ptomania/A Jewish Barber
); Paulette Goddard (
); Jack Oakie (
Benzini Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria
); Reginald Gardiner (
); Henry Daniell (
); Billy Gilbert (
Tyler, Parker, Chaplin, Last of the Clowns , New York, 1947.
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Mitry, Jean, Tout Chaplin: Tous les films, par le texte, par le gag, et par l'image , Paris, 1972.
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* * *
The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first dialogue film, the first film for which he wrote a script in advance, and the first film in two decades in which he does not star as the Tramp. Instead Chaplin plays a double role—a little Jewish barber, who closely resembles the Tramp, and the great dictator of Ptomania, Adenoid Hynkel, an obvious parody of Adolf Hitler, whom Chaplin ironically resembled.
The funniest sequences of the film are Chaplin's burlesques of Hitler's rhetoric, mannerisms, and delusions of grandeur. In one of those comic sequences, Hynkel delivers a political speech that is so scorching that the microphones melt and bend. Hynkel is so inflamed by his rhetorical passion that he not only has to cool his throat with water but also splashes water down the front of his pants—a brilliantly subtle Freudian suggestion that much of the fire of Hitler's political persuasion derives from the urgings of his genitals. In perhaps the most memorable sequence of the film, Hynkel converts the globe of the earth into his balloon-like plaything, performing a languid, romantic, dreamlike ballet with the floating globe, revealing his aspirations to possess the earth in almost sexual terms. This comic sexuality is reinforced by both the suggestions of masturbation in Hynkel's solo dance with the globe, and in the fact that the sort of actions he performs precisely mirror the twirls and gyrations of a bubble dancer, teasingly playing with the circular globe that hides her most mysterious parts from her leering audience.
In contrast to the delusions of the dictator is the earthy, pragmatic activity of the barber, a German soldier injured in World War I, suffering from amnesia, who awakens and returns to "Ptomanian" society only to find himself in an unfamiliar world where Jews are outcasts. In immediate response to the dictator's dance with the globe is the Jewish barber's snappy shaving of a customer to the precise rhythms of a Brahms Hungarian dance. The barber's snappy, vital, human-oriented actions contrast deliberately with the dictator's masturbatory solo. The barber also contrasts with the dictator in his relationship to language. As opposed to flaming rhetoric, the barber talks very little—another clear parallel to the Tramp. But at the end of the film, the barber, because of his physical resemblance, is mistaken for the dictator and asked to deliver the victorious speech to celebrate the invasion of "Austerlich." The barber becomes very talkative, summoning his courage and feelings to deliver a direct appeal to all his viewers for hope, peace, and humanity. Although the lengthy, explicit political speech is deliberately woven into the film's action— which has contrasted the barber and the dictator in their relationship to human speech—the monologue struck many critics as overly explicit and impassioned, inadequately translated into Chaplin's tools of comedy, irony, and physical action.
Chaplin claims that he was unaware of the horrors of the Nazi death camps when he made the film. The outrageous sense of burlesque in the film implies the general American belief that Hitler was more of a clown to be laughed at than a menace to be feared. The reduction of Hitler's associates and allies to buffoons reveals the same pattern—Goering becomes Herring, Goebbels becomes Barbitsch, Mussolini becomes Benzino Napaloni, impersonated by a pastaslinging Jack Oakie. Chaplin later stated that if he had known about the seriousness and murderousness of the Nazi threat he would have never made the film.