A Review by Jason L. King
Starring: Charles Chaplin
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Movie Released: 1941
One of my all time favorite silent comedians was Charlie Chaplin. The first film I saw of his was the Gold Rush years ago which is probably still my favorite Chaplin film. Chaplin’s penguin like swagger, bowler hat and mustache have become iconic symbols of Hollywood. Having enjoyed all of the Chaplin cinema I have seen so far, I was very excited to finally getting around to watching The Great Dictator.
It was during the time that the Great Dictator was made that Hollywood was at a cross roads. The birth of “talkies” had arrived and became a constant in Hollywood and many silent film stars had made the jump from silent films. Chaplin also made the jump by starring in his first “talkie”, The Great Dictator. Written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin, the film is a satire on World War 2 propaganda and the Nazi regime. Chaplin plays The Dictator Heynkl as well as a Jewish barber who falls in love with a beautiful Jewish girl.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this film, I didn’t feel that The Great Dictator holds up over the years. While the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Song in 1941, the academy did not grace the film with the Oscar. Personally, I have no trouble seeing why, but then again I would not have expected it to be in the Oscar running anyway. The film tries to mix a satiric drama with Chaplin’s slapstick comedy. Unfortunately this does not work. When Chaplin plays up his slapstick, physical humor it is reminiscent of the golden age of comedy. However, Chaplin feels the need to try and mix that with a heavy handed satire about World War 2 and Hitler’s rise to power. While at the time this may have been Chaplin’s great satire masterpiece, it now feels bloated, over-blown and far to heavy handed.
Chaplin is really the only reason to watch the film, his dual role as the Jewish Barber (his typical silent character now with voice) and Heynkl The Dictator are two fun roles by Chaplin. Watching Chaplin as Heynkl made me realize how much comedy actors such as Mike Meyers have mimicked Chaplin over the years. Oddly enough in this film, I even felt like I was watching Mike Meyers from time to time. (I either just praised Meyers or insulted Chaplin in that sentence. Not sure which one) On the flip side, the Jewish Barber role made me long for the silent Chaplin. Unfortunately, try as he may I don’t think that Chaplin made a strong leap into “talkies.” Chaplin just doesn’t have the voice to go with the characters. As weird as it sounds, Chaplin was actually one hundred times better when he was silent. They say FM killed AM radio and video killed the radio star, well unfortunately “talkies” killed Chaplin.
Aside from the Chaplin dual role, there are a few other scenes worth watching in the film, such as the classic globe dance scene, but I am sure that clip can be found on line if one is interested. The other is the end speech by Chaplin as the Jewish Barber in guise as Heynkl himself.
However, in the end I can’t suggest The Great Dictator as a film you must watch on your next movie night. I wanted to like it, but I just could not get into the film. It just is a film that has gotten stale over the years, at least in the eyes of my generation. The elements of slapstick I loved were there, the great Chaplin was there, but something felt off. I’ll stick to my Chaplin films like the Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Circus. If you’re looking for some classic Chaplin comedy, go check out one of those instead.