Great Movie Journey: The Great Dictator – Chaplin

Chaplin’s first talkie – and his biggest grossing film – made quite an impression at the time. Not only was Chaplin ahead of the curve in terms of sizing up Hitler and Mussolini, but he left The Tramp behind forever in a film that audiences loved. I wonder how many people thought “What? Charlie Chaplin has a British accent?!”

The film was a brave political statement, and it had an important effect on how the public thought about Hitler and the treatment of the Jews. In the U.S. it acted as a counter-weight to those who had sympathy for Hitler’s views. Seems sad and strange that people were openly supporting the persecution of Jews – even here in America.

Purely as a film, I don’t like this movie very much. I don’t think it is funny. Chaplin’s trademark gags fall flat for me. In my mind, it is just not that funny seeing storm-troopers being hit in the face with a wet paintbrush or hit on the head with a skillet. I’ve seen a lot of Chaplin’s films, and the comic action here seems perfunctory – just recycling old material without adding anything new. And even these brief funny bits are embedded in long and not very interesting story-telling. There can’t be serious drama in a Chaplin flick – he doesn’t do that, and there can’t be mad-cap story-telling about the abuse of Jews. It just doesn’t work for me. The famous scene with the globe/balloon doesn’t impress me much either: It is clever, and I think Chaplin should be thought of as a comic dancer primarily, but I wonder what Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly would have done there – it just isn’t enormously artistic or clever or funny.

As a movie, I don’t think this is a great movie. It was a risky political statement by a hugely popular entertainer that clicked with audiences of that time and changed the way people thought. That is admirable, and I applaud that.

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