Introducing “Frames Of Reference”, a blog series showcasing occasionally overlooked gems in the Patchogue-Medford Library’s video collections.
It is, of course, a gross understatement to say that volumes upon volumes of analysis and history have been written on the complex subject of Charles Spencer Chaplin and his cinematic genius and legacy. At one time the most famous entertainer in the world, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character was an archetypal character for the ages who touched on something basic and universal in humanity, and who had a worldwide appeal that crossed the barriers of language and class in a way unmatched before or since. Naturally, the question of which film in Chaplin’s oeuvre is his greatest has long been the subject of much heated debate and discussion. Each one of his films brings to the fore one particular characteristic of his filmmaking. For romance and lyricism, look to City Lights (1931); for physical and slapstick comedy with a touch of pathos, look to The Gold Rush (1925/1942); but for historical importance and deflating satire, look to The Great Dictator (1940).
For this film, his second film to incorporate political themes, Chaplin bravely and presciently chose Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime as the satirical target of his comic arsenal. And the film began shooting in September of 1939, mere weeks after Hitler invaded Poland and first attempted to extend his power beyond the borders of his native land. The film was also Chaplin’s first to completely utilize the medium of sound, and Chaplin unleashes his proven facility with wordplay in his satirical names and in his mocking mimicry of Hitler’s mannerisms, gestures, language, and oratory style.
The film concludes with an impassioned plea delivered by Chaplin’s Jewish barber character in the accidental guise of the dictator of the fictitious nation of Tomania. Although the character that Chaplin portrays in the film is arguably a shadow or variation of the Little Tramp, Chaplin feared that endowing the Little Tramp with speech would destroy his worldwide appeal and limit his popularity to the English-speaking areas of the world. One imagines Chaplin torn, knowing that speech would be the death of the Little Tramp, but also knowing that in the coming new world of sound films it was inevitable. And the Little Tramp finally did speak in this film, walking into the sunset of cinematic history and immortality in a blaze of glory saying something in which his creator fervently believed.
All of this speaks for The Great Dictator as a cinematically and historically important and compelling film to watch and study, a shining testament to the power of art as a weapon against even the most politically powerful, horrible, and monstrous.