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blu-ray series #12: the great dictator (charles chaplin, 1940)

Obscure classics delight new viewers not only because they are great, but because they introduce the newcomers to so many things they have never seen before. The Great Dictator is not obscure. You never know what people are watching in 2014, but at least two scenes in The Great Dictator have gone beyond film lore to cultural touchstones, such that even a newcomer to the film will recognize them.

Adenoid Hynkel dancing with a globe is one of them:

There is some disagreement about basic facts surrounding the making of the film. I’m not sure if they matter. One question is how much Chaplin knew about the true ugly details of Nazism. He later said if he had known the extent of Hitler’s ignominy, he wouldn’t have been able to make fun of the man. I’d say the film would have been made regardless, and scenes like the globe dance demonstrate why. Chaplin manages to display the dictator’s megalomania while acting gracefully to music by Wagner, a combination of artistry with moral outrage, a joy to behold even as its message is clear.

Chaplin offers a far more explicit, less “artistic” message at the film’s conclusion, in another scene that still lives, even for those who have not seen the movie:

Chaplin begins the scene as a Jewish barber impersonating a dictator. As he speaks, the dictator falls away, leaving the barber. Gradually, even the barber disappears, and Chaplin stands alone, the master of silent film speaking with his true voice. This transformation makes no literal sense, and there are many who think the speech has a tacked-on feel, that it doesn’t belong. But it is here that Chaplin comes to terms with his art. You could say he loses confidence in his audience … maybe they didn’t get the subtleties of the globe dance. He speaks directly to the camera, to the crowd in the theater, and perhaps because of the subject matter, he largely avoids the sentimentalism that has always been my least favorite part of his work.  If his words seem a bit naïve, well, Hollywood wasn’t exactly beating the drums against the Nazis in 1940. (The Three Stooges made the first explicit anti-Nazi film, a short titled You Nazty Spy!, a few months earlier.) On the screen, Chaplin’s speech inspires the soldiers, and we see a shot of thousands of them cheering. It looks like stock footage of a Nazi rally, and again I think Chaplin is commenting on his position as a popular artist: the words here might be close to Chaplin’s heart, the earlier speech by Hynkel might be largely gibberish, but the result of Chaplin’s call to action isn’t markedly different from the speech of any effective dictator. The soldiers aren’t cheering for ideas; they are cheering for the speaker.

#163 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. One of the best things about the film is the presence of Paulette Goddard. She is even better in Chaplin’s Modern Times. For an out-of-left-field companion film, try On Deadly Ground, directed by and starring Steven Seagal. It concludes with arguably the closest thing to Chaplin’s speech in film history, as Big Steve ignores all of the action scenes that made his movie barely tolerable to deliver an endless speech about saving the environment. Understand, On Deadly Ground stinks, so your mileage may vary.