The chapter entitled “Fighting Words” discusses Charlie Chaplin’s intentions for his film “The Great Dictator”. The film was Chaplin’s first sound film. Not wanting to alter his classic silent ‘tramp’ character, Charlie found the opportunity in this entry into sound to preserve his beloved character and talk to his audience for the first time. “As Hitler I could harangue the crowds in jargon and talk all I wanted to,” wrote Charlie in his autobiography. “A Hitler story was an opportunity for burlesque and pantomime.” Charlie exposed Hynkel (representing Hitler) in exactly this fashion. For most of the film, Hynkel’s words amount to nothing more than gibberish. When the dictator speaks intelligibly, the audience still senses malevolent babble.
The chapter supports the thesis as it illustrates Chaplin’s intentions to mock Hitler his film. It also demonstrates the striking contrast between the dictator and the barber. The dictator appears foolish as a result of Chaplin’s work while the barber remains relatively silent and pure (until the end). After developing these distinct characters for two hours, Charlie utilizes his first sound film to let out his own voice in the final speech, bashing hate and calling the soldiers to unite in the name of democracy and peace.
Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.
In the Chapter “Chaplin: Sound Films”, Gerald Mast analyses a few of the comedic moments in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and how this comedy effectively criticizes the Nazi regime. Mast compares Hynkel’s globe scene (see tag on World War II and the American Film) to the scene immediately following of the barber shaving a customer. Mast discusses the ridiculous slapstick nature of the globe scene and the fast yet precise nature of the shaving scene and illustrates the contrast between the dictators fixation on world domination to the barbers human work. Mast also refers to Hynkel’s ludicrous speeches in which the dictator flails his arms about wildly and barks so vehemently the microphone cracks and seems to melt in his hands. During these speeches, Hynkel pauses intermittently to pour water down his blazing throat and down his pants.
This chapter directly supports the thesis as it demonstrates how Chaplin utilizes slapstick comedy to attack the Nazi regime. The succession of the globe scene to the shaving scene demonstrates how the barber succeeds where the dictator fails. Additionally, the contrast is made more stiking as the barber succeeds in the shave using a sharp blade, while the dictator's dellusion of grandeur comes to a crashing halt as the globe of the world explodes in his face. Mast also conjectures the Hynkel’s “wet” speech scene reveals how Hynkel’s private parts are burning as much as his throat suggesting that the Nazi propaganda has more to do with sexual energy and gibberish than with meaningful ideas.
This chapter directly supports the thesis as it demonstrates how Chaplin effectively uses humor to criticize the Nazi regime. The reshaped statues are an exceptional example of Chaplin’s skill in demonstrating the pollution of the Third Reich on all aspects of German life. Chaplin masterfully deforms the Nazi swastika into a double cross. This use of a switched object indicates Hitler’s betrayal of Germany.
Silver’s article agrees with the thesis as it demonstrates how Chaplin effectively utilizes his classic comedy to seize the attention of his audience. Critics often attack Chaplin for the speech scene. Lewis Jacobs (see tag for World War II and the American Film) shows how these commentator believe that the scene spoils the continuity of the film. Silver discredits this notion of chaotic filmmaking and demonstrates how Chaplin precisely utilizes such pauses to communicate his antifascist message.
Mann’s article counters the thesis as it criticizes the effectiveness of Chaplin’s comedy to communicate its ultimate anti-Nazi message. The characterization of the film as unstructured and lacking continuity is his main blow to the “The Great Dictator”. As previously argued in this project, these abrupt shifts from comedy to seriousness do not lessen but rather significantly enhance the value of the film. By providing his audience with engaging comedic amusement, Chaplin is able to capitalize on a wholly attentive audience by quickly infusing his anti-fascist message. Further, Mann’s criticism of Chaplin’s failure to exhibit the extent of Hitler’s evil is correct when the film is viewed from a postwar point of view. However, it is important to note that during the film’s production in the 1930’s, the most appalling crimes have yet to take place, accounting for Chaplin’s perhaps too lenient depiction of the dictator.
Jacobs, Lewis. “World War II and the American Film.” Cinema Journal 7 (Winter, 1967-1968): 1-21.
This essay agrees with the thesis as it demonstrates how Chaplin’s depiction of the dictator Hynkel demonstrates Hitler’s madness and vulnerability. The globe scene is perhaps the most memorable of such scenes ridiculing Hitler. The scene begins with Hynkel hanging in the air from window curtains like a paranoid squirrel in a tree. He then clears the room and a love scene ensues between the dictator and a globe of the world. Hynkel caresses the globe, laughing wildly, and roaring unintelligibly about ruling the world. The lunacy continues as Hynkel slow dances with the globe in hand delicately tossing it in the air. As the scene comes to a close, the air filled globe explodes in Hynkel’s face and the dictator breaks out into tears. This scene demonstrates Chaplin’s effective use of visual comedy to mock the Nazi leader and to exhibit his inevitable demise.
Krämer, Peter. “ The (Un)Timeliness of Satire: The Reception of the The Great Dictator in West Germany”. The British Film Institute online. 2006. <http://chaplin.bfi.org.uk/programme/conference/pdf/peter-kramer.pdf>
This article discusses the rerelease of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to German audiences in 1958. Krämer talks about German attitudes in 1950’s postwar Germany. The widespread rerelease of the film across Germany was unpopular, selling poorly at the box office: “The Great Dictator was left far behind by many American films and much of the German competition.” Krämer illustrates why German audiences did not welcome Chaplin’s antifascist film. While anti-Semitism and fascism saw a gradual decline after the war, they were still widespread. In a poll asking about Hitler’s statesmanship, 41% of people responded positively in 1959. A 1958 poll revealed that 22% of respondents did not welcome Jews living in Germany. Krämer also suggests that the Nazi regime just a decade earlier was still too much of a horrific reality for cinema satire. One reviewer commented that Chaplin’s satirical comedy demonstrated how “apparently the Nazi terror has already been forgotten”.
Throughout the film, Chaplin switches between slapstick comedy and serious drama. Krämer’s article is relevant to the thesis as it sheds light on the question of whether satire was an appropriate medium for a grim topic like Nazi Germany. The lousy box office result in 1950’s Germany is an indication that “The Great Dictator” that the satire was inappropriate and ineffective in communicating its message. From a contemporary viewpoint, I would argue that this is correct. Knowing the extent of Hitler’s Holocaust today, Chaplin’s comedic medium appears to trivialize one of the most horrendous offenses against mankind. However, it is important to understand Chaplin’s general ignorance of the stark situation in Germany during the production of “The Great Dictator” in the 1930’s. I would argue that the satire was effective and appropriate upon its original release as previously demonstrated; however, its ignorance of the true extent of Nazi Germany would make this a highly controversial film if it were (originally) released today.