Jeff's Reviews

Thoughts on every movie I've ever seen.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Starring Charles Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell


My immediate reaction to The Great Dictator was that it is horribly offensive to Jews. They were victimized and ultimately exterminated by the German regime in the 40’s, and here we have a popular actor making light of the whole situation in a comedy with off-the-cuff remarks about concentration camps and a playful impersonation of Hitler. What Chaplin really that much of a dick?

I had to do my research. Curious about when the US became truly aware of Germany’s Final Solution, I found this:

“The first report which spoke of a plan for the mass murder of Jews was smuggled out of Poland by the Bund (a Jewish socialist political organization) and reached England in the spring of 1942.”

Shooting for this movie began in September 1939, a few years before the world knew what Hitler was really up to. And Chaplin later said that, had he known the true extent of Nazi atrocities, he “could not have made fun of their homicidal insanity”. So maybe Chaplin gets a pass.

Now, the movie…

The pyrotechnics in the opening battle scene are impressive, but most of the rest is quite slow. A few dramatic scenes and comedy bits build towards the speech at the end, which is quite inspirational. We should heed much of Chaplin’s advice, even today.

Chaplin seems to take to “talkies” quite naturally, though I think his comedy works best when powered by expression and physicality. Indeed, the funniest moments in this film are the silent segments with the frame rate slightly sped up. It’s a shame that this was his final appearance as the Tramp.

But I keep coming back to the movie’s real subject matter and the date of the movie’s release. Given what we now know about history, the timeliness of The Great Dictator, or perhaps its lack of timeliness, makes watching it awkward and borderline uncomfortable.

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