Fresh Eyes: The Great Dictator
In his Fresh Eyes column, Harrison watches undisputed classics for the first time and gives his honest impressions. Today he takes a look at one of Charlie Chaplin's masterpieces.
Almost a century after his cinematic debut, Charlie Chaplin remains an icon of the film industry, and one of the most highly regarded filmmakers of all time. His films are still taught in film classes, and his iconic Tramp character is still widely identifiable. Chaplin's first film where he openly embraced sync sound, The Great Dictator, is upheld as a masterpiece of comedy and a cinematic marvel. For all those who are unaware, The Great Dictator is about a satirical version of Adolf Hitler, Adenoid Hynkel (portrayed by Chaplin), and a Jewish barber (also Chaplin) and his female counterpart (played by Chaplin's then wife Paulette Goddard) attempting to overthrow and replace him, due to physical similarities.
I knew all of this when I sat down to watch The Great Dictator. I personally love Chaplin and Modern Times is a personal all-timer. I wanted to love The Great Dictator, but about halfway through the film I came to an upsetting realization; I did not like this film all that much.
Let me be clear, I am in no way saying that The Great Dictator is a bad movie. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Chaplin nailed every aspect of the production. The cinematography is great and the set design is stellar, specifically in Hynkel's office. Everything involving Hynkel is riotously funny. The slapstick elements of the film are some of Chaplin's strongest physical comedy, and the running gag of Paulette Goddard hitting pseudo-Nazis on the head with a frying pan is wonderful.
Chaplin's performances as the barber and the Dictator Hynkel are incredible. For his first role with full sync sound, Chaplin does well delivering lines in a believable fashion, and his performance of the barber is very reminiscent of The Tramp, even though they are not the same character. Goddard does a great job at being a general foil for the Stormtroopers, and delivers a satisfactory performance.
My problems with The Great Dictator probably stem mostly from the pacing. I found the parts with Hynkel and the more important fake Nazis great, but the parts with the barber and all his friends slow thing down towards the end. The dictator half of the film remain fresh and creative throughout, but the situations the barber finds himself in never engaged me in the same way. So by the time the last third of the film began, I found myself groaning when the film switched back to the barber. I feel like I would have enjoyed it more if it ran closer to 90 minutes, like Modern Times, instead of the 124 minutes, which I felt every second of.
The other major problem I had with the film was the script and over reliance on dialogue. As previously mentioned, Chaplin managed the delivery of his lines well enough, but the writing felt stiff and, in places, overly expository. Since The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first non-silent film, it stands to reason that the script would be a little stiff, but the final speech is so potent and well delivered (and especially relevant in the current political environment), that it highlights the flaws that are in the rest of the script. The best parts, in my opinion, are the sections where the characters are speaking in the German-esque language, made up mostly of gibberish and coughing. This caricature of a language is one of the film's strongest aspects, and calls back to the dinner theater scene in Modern Times, which is my favorite section of that film.
It saddens me that I did not love The Great Dictator. Having heard so much good about it, I went in expecting to be floored, much like when I saw Citizen Kane. However, while I did like it well enough, the fact that I was not as entertained as I was watching Modern Times or even Kid Auto Races in Venice disappoints me to such a high degree. Again, I acknowledge that The Great Dictator is an objectively well-made, high-quality film. But I just was not engaged and found a good chunk of the film boring. Even still, I would not have a problem recommending this to anyone who can appreciate older films. It is a very well made piece of cinematic history, and for anyone who is interested in the topic, The Great Dictator is a crucial part of that canon.