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10 Great Bits from ‘The Great Dictator’ – Chaplin’s unique satire turns 75

10 Great Bits from ‘The Great Dictator’ – Chaplin’s unique satire turns 75


Last December, a little movie called The Interview caused a political firestorm. Yanked out of theaters, the subject of rallies for free speech and all of it based on the film’s mockery of real life North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Oddly enough, one of the arguments that came out of this was a group of people who said that movie just shouldn’t poke that bear. Movies shouldn’t wade into foreign policy, make fun of living political leaders, even despots and dictators. The Interview was conceptually daring, but nothing groundbreaking. And mocking real life villains was nothing new. Making its New York premiere 75 years ago this week, in front of the entire world, Charlie Chaplin threw a comic spear in the eye of the biggest villain of them all, Adolf Hitler. That comic spear was The Great Dictator and it would become Chaplin’s magnum opus, a swan song for his beloved Tramp character. It would itself cause a political firestorm that would eventually lead to the filmmaker’s exile. A movie that has outlived everyone involved in decrying it.


Anyone born in the last 50 years will look at The Great Dictator in reverse chronological order: through the prism of World War II and its carnage first, and to the film second. Which makes it seem all the more surreal, ambitious and classic. Chaplin has said that had he known the true extent of the Holocaust he never would have made the film. Once the world new the extent of Hitler’s oppression of the Jews in the Holocaust, World War II would forever be cemented as a somber, even sacred, subject to films and filmgoers. Now, the idea of satirizing the Holocaust is an unthinkable one. But in the run up to the war, Hollywood’s blessed ignorance uniquely positions The Great Dictator in film history. It represents a time of innocence before the fall and the last time Hitler could be mocked and his regime satirized without carrying the weight of the Holocaust around its neck.  Timing is everything and timing is what makes this such an essential satire.

Indeed, Chaplin’s dictator isn’t named Hitler, but Hynkel, and he doesn’t rule over Germany but Tomania, he doesn’t align with Mussolini but Napaloni, his political aid isn’t Goebbels, but Garbage, and he doesn’t seek to invade Austria, but Osterlich. And yet it couldn’t possibly be more transparent. Hynkel very obviously looks and acts exactly like Hitler, mimicking Hitler’s famously passionate speech with gibberish. At the time Hitler was already being mocked in political cartoons and music for his Charlie Chaplin mustache and in Dictator Chaplin capitalizes on their similar appearance and takes his mustache back. Sadly, history would give it back to Hitler and “The Hitler ‘Stache” would forever replace Chaplin’s trademark facial hair.


But The Interview and The Great Dictator take the same path to mocking their subject. Kim Jong Un and Hynkel are both depicted as a clueless man-child, in over his head, infantile and allowed to run amok in his own isolated world of sycophants. Both have a fair amount of scatological humor, with Great Dictator’s indigestion sound effects and peeing children cleverly disguised to fly under the radar of the Hayes code. The Interview never shifts out of sophomoric mode, but what makes The Great Dictator such a great comic buffet is how rich and varied its comic styles are. There is something here for everybody. Moments of goofy slapstick and comedy more sophomoric than historians would likely remember are mixed with beautiful ballet or clever wordplay.

Which brings us to the film’s most memorable scene. Instead of a fiery rhetoric filled  exposition where Hynkel declares his intent to conquer the world, Chaplin sets aside a 2 1/2 minute sequence where the dictator dances with an inflatable globe. He stalks it, twirls it, bounces it and then it pops in his arms like a new toy broken. Chaplin has his finger on the tone of the film and this sequence both matches and elevates the film’s graceful approach, keeping things from getting too grim too soon.

Frankly, many o f the gags do not age well. A modern audience isn’t going to bust up over Hynkel getting butt bumped down a flight of stairs, the Jewish Barber skimming out of the register, Hynkel shooting a stooge in a faulty bullet-proof vest to death, Napolani and Hynkel watching planes crash offscreen or writhing in agony over an ingestion of hot mustard. Those are vaudeville gags from a more cartoonish silent era that Chaplin dominated and brought into his first sound picture. Many of the film’s best jokes are its larger conceptual ones, such as Hynkel’s generally childish behavior and the physical similarity between Hitler and Chaplin. The Great Dictator was “meta” before being meta was fashionable, making the movie a fun watch, great fun to talk about afterward, but not a laugh riot.

For a 75 year old film, this is to be expected. What is remarkable is how many of the gags do cut across time and still work. But they aren’t the obvious ones. Often when talking about The Great Dictator people summarize the film using the events of its final few minutes, defining it by the mistaken identity that occurs in its last act and the resulting plea for democracy that triumphantly ends the film. But its story is so much richer than that. At over two hours, the film is full, taking time to characterize the daily life of The Jewish Barber (a character name that would never fly today), the residents inside the world of the Jewish ghetto, Hynkel’s palace henchmen and the battle of political egos between Hynkel and Napaloni (a running gag that becomes funny by the sheer amount of times the movie takes it to the well and back).


Many of its best stuff is in the smaller moments. So without further historical adieu, let’s take a deep dive into some of The Great Dictator’s best bits:

  • Chaplin does a bit of world building with the creation of Tomania. Not only does he mimic Hitler’s Nazi salute, but Tomania is lined with statues that have been retro-fitted with the salute. Including Rodin’s The Thinker pontificating, head in his fist in one hand, and giving the salute with the other and the Venus De Milo built with an arm just for the purpose of giving the salute.
  • The Barber and Commander Pilot Shultz (Reginald Gardiner) flying upside down is a classic set piece, but the extra layer here is Gardiner’s oblivious drunken delivery (reaching his mouth for the water as it floats upward from the canteen) that makes him the unsung MVP of the film.
  • When Hynkel and Garbage notice that the striking workers are all brunettes, they plot to replace them with blondes to be ruled by a brunette and Dictator points out the simple and obvious hypocrisy that Adolf Hitler’s obsession with the Arian race didn’t extend to himself.
  • The barber, captured and put in a work camp goose steps his way back to his bunk. Chaplin seamlessly uses the walk to toss off his shoes for the night. It’s a gag reminiscent of The Tramp stepping off the assembly line and repeating his working actions from Modern Times.
  • In an extended set piece, Hynkel is ushered from room to room, reviewing new inventions of war, running through strategy meetings, romancing women and posing for portraits, darting his head back and forth between the painter and the sculpture. Not all of these gags work, but they all work together brilliantly to paint a hectic vision of Hynkel’s average day, which appears to be absolutely chaotic.
  • Marshall Herring gets highly emotional while being awarded a chest-full of medals for his planned invasion of Osterlich, but moments later things take a turn and Hynkel rips them all off one by one in his own Hitler-esque rage, tearing into the shirt buttons once he’s finished off the medals.
  • The coins in the soufflé sequence is classic and naturally everyone passes on their coin to the barber unable to sacrifice themselves, but the real punch-line is the solemn way that true believer Mr. Jaeckel announces his discovery of the coin and his appalled reaction when the barber starts coughing up the rest of the coins.
  • “He’ll deal with a medieval maniac more than he thinks!” barks Hynkel as he cluelessly responds to Napolani’s initial refusal to meet with him. Before The Tramp spoke, it was well known how brilliant Chaplin was with physical comedy, but Dictator shows a natural cleverness with dialog too.
  • Paulette Goddard leans out a window and knocks a few Storm Troppers on the head with a frying pan two or three times before the movie gives a quick, unexpected twist. With the same swiftness, she appears, uses a broom to knock off their helmet and then uses the frying pan on him.
  • Hynkel’s secretary takes dictation of his lengthy rants with a few clicks of the typewriter and his briefest utterances take several worlds to put on paper.


Obviously, Chaplin plays duel role in the film, but leaves the Jewish Barber a fairly reserved character with the more Trampish antics reserved for Hynkel. And while Tramps and Dictators aren’t common today, guys like Commander Shultz are. In 2015, Reginald Gardiner steals this film. Whether he’s the injured commander being carried off the battlefield or the leader of the resistance requiring a sacrifice he wouldn’t make, or forcing the barber to escape the ghetto with all of this things like a pack mule, more concerned about the state of his golf clubs than freedom, Gardiner plays the aristocrat to perfection. He’s a bit the clueless boss, a bit the arrogant politician.

The Great Dictator is a landmark film, more than the sum of its parts. A decade after sound took over and Chaplin was forced to change with the times, he retired the Tramp character with his magnum opus. The Tramp spoke, and boy did he, unleashing one of cinema’s best speeches. It was a speech that at a time of tense nationalism was once seen as pro-Communist, was booed in the theaters, and is now simply seen as a simple statement of universal kindness. It’s one that manages to be anti-war, but pro-troop, and one that cautions against losing our humanity with the advancements of machines that couldn’t be more timely. It is a classic sequence in a movie that is already full of them.

You could probably reconstruct World War II in its entirety given the sheer volume of movies on every angle of the subject, but The Great Dictator has an unmatched perspective from any of the other films.  It is a bold, brash work the result of a serendipitous series of events put a schmaltzy lovable silent comedian on a collision course to become the best person to speak out against a fanatical dictator. There is nothing out there like it.