By Nick Maylor
Charles Chaplin was a Master of Physical comedy. Countless hours of footage of him in character as “The Tramp” serve as testimony to the notion that he was perhaps the greatest slapstick performer in history. Chaplin was also a writer, director, producer and composer for much of his famous works. In his first “talkie”, Chaplin delivers one of the most famous film speeches of all time and along with the poignancy of the film’s themes, The Great Dictator (1940) features one of the funniest things I have ever witnessed; something that never fails to make me laugh out loud. While the majority of the film’s dialogue is in English, Chaplin’s caricature of Adolf Hitler, Adenoid Hynkel, speaks to the masses in Chaplin’s fictional language of Tomanian; essentially a gibberish, mock version of German. Digging into the harsh consonants, Chaplin delivers a performance of unrivaled comedic genius in these scenes; building to great crescendos that result in him emphasizing his words so much that he literally starts to choke on his own rhetoric. It’s a marvel to behold and an amazing testament to the talent of Chaplin’s vocal skill; something that was virtually unknown to the public prior to the release of the film.
Please take a moment to take in this masterful piece of comedy. Even without the “translations”, Chaplin’s intent is clear with each successive sound and movement:
Chaplin also stars as a Jewish barber, the film’s protagonist. This character is partly based on, and shares many characteristics of Chaplin’s ” Tramp” persona. Although it was Chaplin’s first “talkie”, The Great Dictator features no shortage of the silent charm and physical pantomime at which, Chaplin was (and is) unrivaled. Here is a scene of the barber in action, playing the objects in his tonsorial parlour like he is conducting an orchestra. Chaplin’s movements naturally cue up to the film’s music as he works his magic:
It’s important to remember that this movie was released in the fall of 1940, barely a year after the German invasion of Poland. While lampooning Nazism, fascism, anti-Semitism and various themes, the movie can be seen as essentially one giant middle-finger directed at Adolf Hitler. This was pretty ballsy for Chaplin but the man was fearless. Adolf Hitler reportedly stole his famous moustache from Chaplin. Perhaps this was the ultimate payback.
The film has become famous on the internet because of Chaplin’s final speech. An inspiring call for unity, it is the tip of that middle-finger directed at Hitler and his Ilk; spitting in the face of bigoted ideas and what Chaplin refers to as “machine hearts”. It also discusses the power of the media. In an age where Chaplin was only having his voice heard for the first time, he made sure not to waste the opportunity. While our technology has advanced significantly since Chaplin’s day, the themes and ideas behind this speech still ring very true.
It’s a pretty brilliantly written and executed piece of dialogue. It still seems applicable. The only part that doesn’t resonate with me so much is when he says, “We think too much and feel too little.” I’m inclined to think that in this day and age, the opposite is true. We don’t think enough these days, letting emotions override truth and facts.
Charlie Chaplin was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor but lost to James Stewart for The Philadelphia Story (1940)
In 1997 The Great Dictator (1940) was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is currently working on a book about the American Cinema Renaissance (1967-present) with John H. Foote. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor