Thursday, October 6, 2016

All Hail Tomainia

Film: The Great Dictator
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Everyone has gaps in his or her viewing. In fact, one of the main reasons I created this site seven(!) years ago is because there were so many gaps in my viewing history. Try as I might, I’m never going to fill them all. There are just too many movies and too many good movies to see to have seen everything. I’ve seen a shit-ton of movies in my life and a shit-ton since I started this site, but I know that there are many people who have seen far more than I have. Even if I watched two or three movies per day, I’d never catch up to everything worth watching. Still, you fill the gaps where and when you can, and for me, the biggest gap I know of has been The Great Dictator. Well, no more.

The Great Dictator is Chaplin’s first all-sound, all-talkie film, and it comes years after Modern Times, his list pseudo-silent. Part of that comes from the fact that Chaplin worked on The Great Dictator actively for nearly two years. When he first came up with the idea of doing the film, a number of people felt that he was taking on Hitler for no good reason. By the time the film was released, there was a shooting war in Europe, the Holocaust had started, and the U.S. was a year away from entering the war.

Basically, The Great Dictator is a version of “The Prince and the Pauper” moved into the modern world and with a much more political slant. A Jewish barber (Chaplin) fights in the First World War for the country of Tomainia, which is standing in for Germany here. Tomainia loses the war, and while the barber manages to rescue a pilot named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) from being killed, the barber is afflicted with amnesia and is put into a hospital for 20 years. During those 20 years, Tomainia undergoes radical changes including the rise of a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin). Hynkel’s policies are a complete destruction of individual freedom and persecution of Jews. Our Jewish barber manages to escape from the hospital, and, unaware of the changes that have happened, returns to his home town and his abandoned barber shop to rebuild his life.

Unfortunately for him, he runs into trouble almost immediately, fighting back against Hynkel’s Stormtroopers because he doesn’t understand the political reality of the world he now lives in. He is initially rescued by Hannah (Paulette Goddard), but is eventually captured and nearly lynched, except that his near-lynching is witnessed by Schultz, who is a leading member of Hynkel’s new order. When Schultz falls into disfavor because he disagrees with the attacks on the Jews, the barber’s neighborhood falls under attack and he is dragged off to a concentration camp along with Schultz.

Meanwhile, Hynkel, with advice from Herring (Billy Gilbert) and Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) believes he can become the dictator of the world. His first step would be in attacking the bordering country of Osterlich. Unfortunately, a rival dictator named Benzino Napaloni (Jack Okie) from the nearby country of Bacteria has already placed his troops on the Osterlich border.

Eventually, we’ll get a situation where the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and Hynkel is mistaken for the barber, but this really doesn’t happen until the concluding couple of scenes of the film. Much of the film is essentially leading up to this moment, but a great deal of what we see is episodic and dealing with the situations of the barber and his neighborhood and Hynkel dealing with his advisors and his policies.

That’s really the weakness here—while there is a specific plot, a great deal of the film is completely tangential to that plot. Much of the film instead centers around Chaplin doing what he did best—physical comedy that works in a sound context but would have generally worked just as well in a silent film. There is some tremendous physical comedy here throughout the film. It’s evidence that one of the best ways to deal with terrible problems and horrible evil is to find a way to laugh at it.

Jack Okie was nominated in a supporting role, and he’s not on screen that much. He doesn’t even show up until close to the end of the film. Okie is incredibly memorable, though, doing an almost perfect physical impersonation of Mussolini. There is a wonderful set of competitions between Napaloni and Hynkel throughout, with Hynkel trying desperately to be more physically imposing or impressive than his dictatorial rival. This culminates with a battle of barber chairs and eventually ends in a food fight.

Really, though, The Great Dictator is memorable for three scenes--Okie is incredibly memorable, though, doing an almost perfect physical impersonation of Mussolini. There is a wonderful set of competitions between Napaloni and Hynkel throughout, with Hynkel trying desperately to be more physically imposing or impressive than his dictatorial rival. This culminates with a battle of barber chairs and eventually ends in a food fight.

Really, though, The Great Dictator is memorable for three scenes—Hynkel’s dance with the globe, the speech at the end, and anything involving Jack Okie. It is in many ways a great film, but it suffers from many of the same issues that Chaplin’s longer works do. The middle feels mushy, like it’s there for schtick and Chaplin being Chaplin, and not really in service to the plot. It’s absolutely worth seeing and a critically important film for many reasons. But it’s not a perfect film for as good as it is. Fortunately, allowing Chaplin to be Chaplin covers up a lot of holes, and it’s only in retrospect that the film feels episodic.

Why to watch The Great Dictator: It’s rightly considered one of Chaplin’s great films.
Why not to watch: Chaplin’s work is more episodic than it is a solid narrative.


  1. I pretty much agree. Certain scenes really click, but others just sort of sit there. It was all over the map for me, but the high points were really strong. It doesn't rank as my top Chaplin film, though it's more personal preference. I just saw The Great Dictator earlier this year, but it hasn't stuck with me as much as City Lights, Modern Times, and others.

    1. It's how episodic it is--Modern Times is as well--that doesn't work for me. If you look at, say, Keaton's The General, you get a film that has a consistent plot from start to finish and still has all of the gags and bits. Chaplin never quite got there, almost as if he built the gags, and then tried to hang a plot on that skeleton.

      It doesn't detract from this film's status as being required viewing, though.

    2. Definitely. It's worth seeing for the final speech alone! I do see what you're saying about the episodic side of it. Even City Lights is even a series of comic sequences locked together by a bigger story. It's my favorite Chaplin, but it's not as tight as The General.

    3. Modern Times is the same way--it's a series of connected events that are each more or less self-contained within the film. It's kind of four short films in one package.

  2. I love Chaplin - especially The Gold Rush and City Lights - but I long considered The Great Dictator to be a lesser work. I saw it last year after not seeing it for 20 years and I liked it quite a bit more than previously. I guess it means more to me now that I have a better understanding of the time in which it was made, and I think I've probably gathered a much deeper appreciation of the films of the late '30s and early '40s.

    It's awesome that Jack Okie has this film so that somewhat casual film buffs will have a chance to see how danged funny he was. I watch enough 1930s films that I see him every once in a while. He's in Million Dollar Legs, an absolutely insane W.C. Fields movie where Fields is the leader of a tiny European country getting ready to go to Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics. He's in The Eagle and the Hawk, an almost unknown World War I movie with Cary Grant and Frederic March. Not to mention his bizarre scene in Alice in Wonderland.

    1. I think it's important to view this one in the context of the time, or perhaps in the context of 5-10 years after it was made. It has the narrative red herrings that a lot of Chaplin seems to have, but there's just so much good here that it's impossible to discount.

      I agree with your second point. Okie is pretty much unknown to me, but I'm going to look for more of his films.

  3. I was surprised to see this review today - i figured that you must have covered this one by now. As I'm nearing the end of my 1001 list, I'm looking forward to filling in the gaps!

    As for the Great Dictator, it's not my favorite Chaplin film, but I agree, still pretty interesting in historical context.

    1. Yeah, it's one I kept thinking I should get to and just never have.

      Feel free to mine the various lists I have here for some things worth watching. Even then, there's a ton of films that are worth seeing that never earned a nomination for one of my Oscar categories.