Wednesday, February 10, 2010

review: The Great Dictator

Nobody does it like Chaplin.
This movie is brilliant! I thought I was sitting down to a typical comedy, but I got that and so much more. Chaplin loves Parody and Satire -and his skills in these areas are masterfully shown in this movie. But there is also a side to the film which is a rather disturbing reminder, and a look ahead at the terrible things to come in Europe before and during WWII.
The movie is about a fictional nation: Tomania, and a Jewish barber (Chaplin) during the end of the Great War and through the regime of a mad Dictator (also Chaplin). It obviously is a parody of Hitler and Nazis. Which is pretty damn gutsy, considering it was made in the late 1930s and released in 1940 in America - before we were involved in WWII. It began filming even before England was in the war, so the news of this parody film was met with a lot of hesitation by statesmen, so eager not to anger Hitler towards them.
Also - Hitler, one of the most dangerous leaders, was alive. He saw this movie. This is an artist taking on a political leader of a country. Almost directly. The only way it could have been worse was if Chaplin actually used his name. Not only did he take him on, he made Hitler ridiculous. Now, this is nothing new to our time, when Hitler has become a borderline joke, like in the Producers. This was as it was happening. He was making people laugh at him - which, to a person in power, is the worst thing you could do - being hated and being feared is just about the same as being loved and revered, because it still shows power. But to be laughed at is a lack of respect, a denial of power, and a diminishment of importance in a sense. Chaplin painted Hitler a bafoon to millions of people.
There is something else too. America was not the shining beacon for all people. Partly because of the spill of jewish immigrants that left europe in the 1930s, and because of our Depression, many americans were antisemitic. Mostly, at the time, you just kept your mouth shut about jews - it could have been dangerous to be a jewish activist in those days. And here is Chaplin making a movie which centers around the plight of the jewish people.
Also consider this historic little bit. This was the first time Chaplin spoke in a film. He was a silent picture star, and while he did use some sound in at least one of his earlier pictures, this was the first time HE actually said something. The romantic in me likes to think that this is because he had something to say. But the reality is that Chaplin always had a point, or a message, in all his comedies. Still, this was the perfect film for him to speak in - mostly because of the ending speech. It has been argued that it is not the character, but rather Chaplin himself that is saying these words. I don't think that really matters, because it works either way - and it is so powerful. Look it up, seriously, it is amazing. He also has several wonderful talking bits as the Dictator - mostly speaking in germanlike giberish. You catch certain words in there, and you know he's making fun of Hitler's oratory style, which is what was most captivating about him. This bit with the german gibberish was a brilliant idea with a former silent film star because he used his talents so perfectly - you didn't need to know exactly what he was saying because he could tell you with his gesture and body as he had done in all of his previous films.
His knowledge of silent films also lends this movie a great quality that talking pictures don't have that much: simplicity. Chaplin's one to two word answers are utterly simplistic - and riotously funny. He combines the abilities of sound with his previous silent charm. No one grins the way Chaplin does - in his utterly sweet way - and no one struts like he can. Chaplin doesn't need to have words pouring out of him to be effective - and he doesn't let a storm of words cloud the scene. He saves it for more important scenes. Also, because of his knowledge of silents, is his admiration and skill in the use of music. There are at least 2 classic scenes where there is not a single word needed - just music and a brilliant comedian.
Needless to say, the acting is amazing. Chaplin is inspiring. Paulette Goodard, who plays his love interest, is okay. Most of the acting pales in comparison to Chaplin. He outshines everything. The accuracy of some of his shots, like those of the parade and the design of some of the sets are brilliantly matched to the real thing.
What can I say? This film is something I think everyone should experience at least once in their life.
5 out of 5 stars

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