When it comes to Charlie Chaplin I am far from an expert. In fact, I know very little about him and his work (I spent a bit too much time obsessing over Buster Keaton to give Chaplin his just deserved attention). I’ve seen the odd Little Tramp short in some of my film classes, but I never had any substantial exposure to him in school. I think from here on I may indulge myself in his work a little more than I have in the past.
I am thrilled with The Great Dictator. The clearly heavy handed satire of Hitler, Goebbles, Göring and Mussolini left me snickering and sometimes outright guffawing boisterously (I couldn’t help myself). Every action is deliberate, every dig blatantly over the top: I, like Chaplin, would have traded anything to find out Hitler’s reaction to the film (supposedly he had a copy imported and watched it not once, but twice).
From the beginning of the film it is clear that Chaplin’s stance on war in general, and the purpose of the war of the day, was a bitter one. His relentless attack of the antagonists of the Second World War posits them as pedantic children, his caricature of Hitler laughably similar to ones of Napoleon: a whiny, self-important little man, who thinks of the world as his playground. Chaplin doesn’t mince words in his first fully talking picture, seriously commenting on how one man’s greed to rule the world will ultimately lead to its destruction (the Globe Dance scene), and forcing the world to see these dictators for what they really are, stripped bare of their fear mongering ways, exposed and stripped down to their fundamental parts.
While addressing such serious issues throughout the film, he does so in a surprisingly light manner, one that makes it very easy for the public to laugh at such heinous monsters. However, as the film nears its conclusion, quite literally within the final ten minutes (maybe even less) it takes a surprisingly somber turn. When the Great Phooey (Führer) finally wreaks havoc on the Ghettos, and raids the countryside to imprison the Jews, through until the end of Chaplin’s iconic speech, the film seems to grow dim.
In the bits and pieces I’ve read on the film over the past couple of days I’ve noticed that production had started in about 1937, before much of Hitler’s atrocities had taken place, and before some of the, shall we say, subtler crimes had been exposed. Chaplin was, supposedly, heavily criticized for making the film and releasing it when he had, having fingers pointed at him, saying he should have known better than to make such an antagonizing film in such troubling times. His defense, in the snippets I’ve read, is that he did not yet know of the atrocities, and had he known he never would have made the film. Seemingly the reason the conclusion of the film takes such a drastic change in tone is because of what he had become aware of before the film was finished.
It’s a brave man who pokes and wags his tongue at a raging beast, and I commend Chaplin’s work here. From a purely entertaining standpoint I was laughing almost the whole way through, I found the slapstick moments to be classy and smart, not too schlocky, and the dialogue was ever so witty. To compare (not that I should, but when has that ever stopped me?) The Great Dictator to Duck Soup, this has relevance and substance. Duck Soup was seemingly nothing more than the Marx Brother’s blindly instigating potentially dangerous men. Supposedly Mussolini was enraged by their film, thinking it was about him (which it seemingly was not at all). This felt substantial, and pointed, as if its instigating properties served a purpose. Chaplin wasn’t doing this just to be a shit disturber, he had a goal in mind. While he did intend to poke fun, he did it with direction and purpose, and as such he did not do so foolishly, but rather he cleverly crafted his “attack”.
To compare, yet again (though I know I shouldn’t), I always said I preferred Keaton to Chaplin, that I thought he was a far superior performer. I still think that’s true. However, I do see more value in Chaplin than I had before. His work is not limited to his physical performances (of which Keaton’s really are better, you can’t really compete with the offspring of circus performers), and in fact I would argue (as I’m sure most people do) that the brilliance of his performances lie in their conception. He’s more than just a tumbling Tramp. He offers a dialogue, a discourse on relevant issues, and he shoves them in your face with a subtle flick of his wrist, instead of a showy cream pie.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on December 17, 2011.