Friday, September 13, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)

We think of Charlie Chaplin as a silent comedian, but he also made a number of talkies in his later career, the best known of which is The Great Dictator (1940), which offers a direct response to the global catastrophe then brewing on the European front. In this picture, made before the United States actually entered the war against Hitler, Chaplin demonstrates the courage of his convictions as well as his ability to pull off a fully realized speaking role. Some critics, including David Thomson, find fault with the idealistic speech that Chaplin delivers at the film’s climax, but people around the world must have responded to it enthusiastically in 1940, with that feeling of being on a terrible precipice that Chaplin so passionately captures. Today, those who appreciate the bravery in Chaplin’s cinematic statement will still find The Great Dictator powerful stuff, and film fans will also enjoy the performances of Chaplin himself as well as Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, and Billy Gilbert.

Chaplin plays dual roles as a meek Jewish barber and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the ruler of a fictional country obviously meant to represent Nazi Germany. The barber, shell-shocked from his service in the previous war, emerges from a mental hospital to find his community under siege from Hynkel’s brutal stormtroopers and mounting violence. Hannah (Paulette Goddard), an orphaned Jewish girl, takes pity on the barber and even comes to love him, while a military officer (Reginald Gardiner) whose life the barber once saved draws him and his neighbors into a dangerous plan to end Hynkel’s tyranny. As the barber and his friends confront one hardship after another, Hynkel himself schemes against his fellow dictator, Napaloni (Jack Oakie), and aspires to world domination.

Of course the plot eventually involves the barber being mistaken for Hynkel, but that switch occurs very late in the picture. Until then, we move back and forth between Hynkel’s actions in his lavish palace and the barber’s sufferings in the Jewish ghetto. Both have their moments of comedy and drama, although Hynkel is played mostly as a buffoon, with Henry Daniell’s insidious Garbitsch as the evil mind behind the worst atrocities committed in Hynkel’s name. The barber, showing his affinity with Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, mostly runs from the troopers and engages in slapstick combat; he has no delusions of heroism but is pushed and buffeted by fate toward his climactic moment in the spotlight. Hynkel’s best scenes pit him against his rival, Napaloni, whose friendly manner of bullying the smaller dictator incenses Hynkel and drives him to increasingly extreme antics. The film’s most memorable moment, aside from the final speech, is Hynkel’s dance with a floating globe, a graceful and even beautiful metaphor for Hitler’s deadly pas de deux with the actual world.

Chaplin’s supporting players give him plenty to react to, especially Paulette Goddard as the feisty orphan, Hannah. Goddard and Chaplin were a real life couple at the time, but they would divorce in 1942, and the legality of their marriage has never been quite clear. Luckily their union lasted long enough for Goddard to play this role, which she performs with great energy and pluck, especially when Hannah repeatedly whacks stormtroopers on the head with a frying pan. Most of the other supporting characters are male, although Grace Hayle plays Mrs. Napaloni as a kind of Margaret Dumont character from the Marx Brothers canon, always unsure about what is going on around her and usually being tripped up by one of the more chaotic men. Maurice Moscovitch is sympathetic and wise as the Jewish community’s leader, Mr. Jaeckel, while Henry Daniell delivers a memorable villain in the sneeringly heartless Garbitsch, who constantly pours his poisonous ideas into Hynkel’s receptive ear. Schultz, the one good officer in Hynkel’s army, comes off as a sadly flat character, but Reginald Gardiner doesn’t get much opportunity to flesh him out. Jack Oakie, on the other hand, enjoys lots of screen time as the cartoonish Napaloni, whose size and bombastic talk irk little Hynkel so effectively.

The Great Dictator earned five Oscar nominations, including nods for Chaplin and Oakie, but it won nothing, thanks to a year of strong contenders that included The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Rebecca (1940). See Chaplin and Goddard together in the earlier film, Modern Times (1936), and look for Goddard on her own in The Women (1939), So Proudly We Hail! (1943), and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). For more of Chaplin’s sound films, try Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), or A King in New York (1957). Don’t miss career villain Henry Daniell in The Sea Hawk (1940), The Woman in Green (1945), and The Body Snatcher (1945). For another anti-Nazi comedy made during Hitler’s reign, see To Be or Not to Be (1942), which makes an excellent double bill with The Great Dictator.