Wednesday, May 11, 2016
The Great Dictator
So, here we are at the first Chaplin film I'm going to review. According to the little bonus commentary that played after the feature on Hulu, he really wanted to make a film about Napoleon, but felt that he really, really needed to lampoon Hitler. Which isn't surprising, given that he was Jewish. The rumors of the "Final Solution" were only starting to percolate out to the US by 1940, but most people just couldn't bring themselves to believe them. After all, Germany was a civilized country. A little jerky, but only 30 years before, German had been the second most common language in the United States. This is what started an odd little trend of comedians urging the US to enter the war by making Hitler and Mussolini both look like evil dopes who wanted to conquer the world. Which is fairly accurate, but it's still an interesting insight into propaganda history. Usually, propaganda efforts start when the government wants to get people on board with an idea, but as far as I've been able to tell, the pre-US-involvement films were a sort of grassroots effort by both Jews and anti-fascists in Hollywood. Carole Lombard's last film (another National Film Registry movie, To Be Or Not To Be) is another of these movies, and her USO tour plane crash made her one of the only American civilian casualties on American soil, since Hawaii wasn't a state at the time of Pearl Harbor. Maybe these movies are part of the reason Hollywood went to war, with almost every physically capable leading man signing up, and the physically incapable and the women doing USO tours and cranking out propaganda films by the hundreds. It's a fascinating bit of cinematic history.
But back to The Great Dictator. This was Charlie Chaplin's first complete talkie, and got kind of mixed reviews upon release. It wasn't that the critics didn't love his trademark slapstick anymore - on the contrary, they thought it was great. So great, in fact, that a bunch of scenes became iconic enough to be "paid homage" in various Bugs Bunny shorts (memorably the shaving scene to classical music and the bit with the barber's chairs, both used in "The Rabbit of Seville"). The image of "Adenoid Hinkel" doing a delicate balloon dance with a globe has become one of the most famous images of Hitler-mocking that didn't come from the mind of Mel Brooks. It was just that ending that critics had a problem with. Why would a former soldier/barber, escaped from a prison camp and mistaken for the man persecuting his people, make a five minute impassioned plea for peace and justice and for the liberty of soldiers? Well... because any brave person given the platform would. Sure, he'd likely be shot at the end of his speech, but he gave it, and that's what's important. It's not inconsistent with anything we had been shown about the character, who had really kicked off the slapstick by slapping a stormtrooper in the face with a paintbrush. It's just no one at the time was familiar with the idea of mixing comedy and a social message. This one may have been on the heavy-handed side, but it was still a new idea. There are definitely a lot of people who don't know how to do this at all, so "kind of heavy-handed" vs. "Anvillicious", and I'll go with the originator of the idea being a little heavy on the pathos.
Overall, this really is a great movie. Long, which I wish I had remembered before agreeing to watch it for a second time after taking cold medicine. I suggest anyone interested in film history or in WWII history give it a watch. Just make sure you're awake.