The Great Dictator (1940) [1940 Week]

The Great Dictator is a true classic in theory, a movie many people know and that seems to be relevant even today after Charlie Hebdo and The Interview and any satire that focuses on dictators. But I wonder how many people actually know the movie and like it as a movie as opposed to a concept. The movie ranks very high on the IMDb user ranking and after seeing it, I am surprised by that. It is not a bad movie at all and some scenes are really good, but overall I found it to feel forced, uneven and, worst of all, not very funny. I know, sacrilege! hersey!, but I watched the movie with the most open mind and was constantly stunned how jokes fell flat and how little payoff there often was. Often the satire is not really sharp and rather relies on slapstick, but, I think, slapstick that is mediocre. The editing is off in many, many scenes, hurting the movie’s pace. The acting was great throughout, though. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed. Sure, if you account the time and circumstances, maybe you can’t really expect more, but the question is if the movie should be judged simply on its intentions or on its actual quality.

Despite many moments that didn’t work for me, there is one section that I really enjoyed (with some reservations). It’s the meeting of Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin as the dictator) and Napaloni (Jack Oakie as Mussolini). They both act like children and try to one-up each other and get the upper hand, which is fun to watch and ridicules them in a great way. I really like it because it works as satire by unmasking them petty and silly, as people who don’t really care about politics but only about themselves. You can debate whether both the fake Italian and German speeches are necessary, but I’ll try to ignore that (which is hard because Chaplin doesn’t know when to stop with Hynkel’s German outbursts). If the whole movie had achieved this level of parody, it would have been much better.

The other thing about the movie is its final moments. I know this has been debated already, but I still want to get at it again. After being a comedy for most of the time, the movie takes a sharp turn in the last ten minutes with the Barber (Chaplin again as the innocent Jew) giving a speech about democracy and freedom and other good things. It really doesn’t fit in the movie, it is too long and, as I said before with similar things, it does not benefit itself. The way it is presented is counter-productive and you catch yourself thinking “Alright, I get it already!” To be fair, again, maybe this was received differently in 1940 but even then it must have seemed strange to change the tone of the movie so significantly it its last act. Why not work those ideas in the movie throughout in more subtle ways, combining them with the actual satire? I applaud the effort, really, but I can’t call the movie a real success, unfortunately. I really wish I could.